Portrayals of Women 2
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Women, not just men, often viewed overly educated, intellectual women with
suspicion. In this article the editors of Vogue denigrate those women working to make
the world more just as “Donna Quixotes.”
Although the editors emphasize the flaws of earnestness and intellectualism, one
suspects Vogue's chief problem with the Donna Quixotes lay with their low heels,
unpressed tweeds, and aerodynamically challenged bras.
In the following exhibits, difficult to imagine in mainstream publications today, one can
see why many considered education a waste of time for women. Their interests were
narrow and frankly they weren’t too bright.
A perusal of these plays makes clear that as schoolgirls, female students
learned about clothes, rearing children “scientifically,” clothes, and also
clothes. The experience of Nazi “science” no longer makes it appealing to
bring up children “scientifically.” Which leaves clothes I guess.
Today I would expect the sexes in this drawing to be reversed. But in 1940
it’s the man who expresses an interest in fine art while the woman rolls her
eyes at the thought of having to look at “the pictures.”
Can you explain the meaning of the caption? Me, neither. It’s an example
of crazy feminine logic. In any case, given the casual bedroom setting, I
doubt these two scantily clad beauties are studying Hegel’s
transcendental logic. The books are probably romance novels.
At times men simply could not put up with women's feminine silliness.
I appreciate that the above is a rather mean-spirited cartoon, but I must confess I love
the utterly placid look on the girl's face, as though her elderly lover said this sort of
thing regularly and she couldn't care less.
In any case, portrayals of the stupidity of 1940s women often included a note of
Notice in the caption for the cartoon on the right, her husband? does not ask
Corcoran to give the children a chance, only the smaller children. Notice also how
many of the husbands/boyfriends are much older men.
This childishness led to one popular theme of romance between men and women in
1940 that is not much seen today: the spanking.
Text reads: “Harvey had attended all of Isabelle’s weddings, but never
before had he been the groom.” Unfortunately the fold in the spine of
the magazine prevented my photo from capturing Isabelle’s
prominent bottom, but we can infer from the caption that Harvey will
be the husband who finally tames the oft-married Isabelle.
This story illustration shows a buckskin-clad, spanking cowboy
teaching his squirming wife (I assume the ghostly outlines indicate
movement) how they tamed a woman in the Old West.
So women were too childish and too dense for education. What about a career?
Please. This is 1940. Women usually worked only if economic necessity forced them
to, or so they could marry the boss . While in the business world, they traded on their
looks. The moment they could land a husband, their careers were history.
Of course once the war began, American women entered the workforce in paid
employment in numbers never seen before. As this pre-war cartoon illustrates, the
trend would give men concern.
The workplace was no place for a woman interested in living a good life.
Where then did women belong? In a marriage, raising a family, and boosting their
(Even with extra magnification, the white text is impossible
to read. The entries are, from top to bottom, Social charm;
Domestic charm in three acts; Incandescent public
charm; Busy-as-a-beaver charm.)
I really wish I could here opine on how different things are for candidate’s wives today.
For wives of less important males, husband-boosting took on more mundane forms,
such as feeding him Pep cereal so he could "go for it."
In addition to the need for support, husbands also required shaping up. We see this
role for wives on display in the Drano ad, where husband Tom will do anything,
including rushing to the store, to avoid the humiliation of washing dishes. Of course
dealing with such wives would later complicate life as a soldier.
Yet another role was protector of children. Ads for Fletcher’s Castoria, a sugary
laxative for children—which tasted fantastic by the way; I remember it—told mini-tales
of brutish fathers trying to force their sons (never their daughters) into drinking the
wretched competitor’s product.
Castoria moms notwithstanding, the messages about husbands' spanking children
were decidedly mixed.
Another role for some women, very seldom seen in advertisements today, was that of
Mrs. Gail Borden was presumably married to a descendant of the Gail Borden who
made a fortune in condensed milk in the early 19th century. The maid in the
background seems somewhat less enthusiastic about Camels than her employer.
For my purposes, telling the story of Tokyo Rose, the following role for women, widely
seen in 1940-41, is paramount. The first sentence of this Revlon ad reads, “Every time
you listen to war news on the radio, you think 'How can I do more to help?'” Every
time Tokyo Rose broadcast war news of the radio, she tried to harm American fighting
men’s morale. In magazine after magazine this same ad featuring different models
asked women everywhere, “Have you forgotten that morale is a woman’s business,
now, more than ever?” (See 2014 Revised TR/AP, p. 21.) A jury would convict Iva
Toguri for treason because she harmed morale.
Pre-war American society did not anticipate women would serve in the war effort,
either directly in the military or indirectly as workers. In fact women did both, but the
prevailing opinion before the war was that the female sex was simply too fragile
physically and emotionally to participate. Below we see a wife in need of drugs from
Parke Davis (now part of Pfizer); while her hunband looks on anxiously, her son gives
her an angry look of "what is wrong with you?" We see another felled by the common
cold (and on the day of her husband's hunt cup race!). A silly modesty victimizes
another; hard to imagine such women undergoing mass Army physicals.
Unfit to fight or do heavy labor, what exactly could women do in the event of war?
Well-heeled enough to drive convertibles, these ladies being saluted on the
mountaintop give the impression that their defense of the ski resort at Mt. Wachusett
in upstate Massachusetts may have taken secondary importance to the presence of
honey buns and the Vogue photographer.
Still, one role always available to women in time of war is that of faithful wife or
girlfriend. The wartime fear by servicemen that their women back home were playing
around on them appears pre-war, as in these two cartoons from late 1941. This fear
fueled the Tokyo Rose mythology.
Tokyo Rose /
A Dual Biography