A Look at Advertising’s Backlash Against Feminism

It seems impossible to see myself in the media.  As a woman, my identities as portrayed in the media twist around and contradict one another.  If I believe what many advertisements say, I cannot be sexy and be a good mother, nor can I be a feminist and a good wife.  But I am- I am all of those things and more.  A whole person; unique, complex, and not flat.  The same is true of my mother, my daughters, and every woman who ever lived.  However, my own reflection as portrayed by many advertisers does not portray my strong, feminist self.  Often, what I see in the advertiser’s mirror is a forcing me to believe that I am not capable of true equality.  In fact, advertisers have been telling women for years that they don’t really want equality.  As a woman, I should be happy to be at home, taking care of matters there.

You see, often women’s portrayal in media has been limited to strict boundaries, boundaries set in response to surges in feminism and interest in women’s rights, I believe.  Looking through advertisements for various products and services spanning more than 100 years, there was a theme that persisted: women belong at home.  This is a discouraging and dangerous message.  We are all susceptible to subtle messages and whether we know it or not, these messages help shape our lives.  Do we really want our young women to feel that they should not have dreams outside of domestic life?  Being more mindful of the persistence of this message, we can try to eliminate it from the media through replacing it with more positive, encouraging messages for all young people.

Feminism has been an idea that has intimidated many since its birth.  But Feminism is not scary or exclusive; Feminism can be simply defined as the belief that men and women should have equal opportunities.  Though this sounds like a fair and harmless assumption, feminism has shaken some traditionally held beliefs about gender roles in American society.  The birth of the Women’s Rights Movement and Women’s Suffrage Movement made waves in society and those waves rippled into advertising.  Advertising’s response to the Women’s Rights Movement and feminism has varied by company and time period, but from the beginning there have been advertisements that have broadcasted a backlash against feminism.  Looking at ads from the early 20th century through the present, we see increasingly hysterical message from some advertisements that women belong at home, subservient to men.

Political Cartoon - 1st wave

I’d like to take you on a tour of such magazine advertisements.  Let’s start at the beginning of the 20th century.  This illustrated print was published in 1908 during the women’s suffrage movement.  The illustration originally appeared in Puck, an early American magazine (http://shop.theappendix.net/products/poster-of-1908-anti-suffrage-cartoon-why-not-go-the-limit). The audience was meant to let the hysterical prediction make them vote no for women’s suffrage.

This illustration shows a bar full of women, but void of men.  The “Gentlemen’s Club” sign tells that the women have taken over the bar and forced out the men.  At the time, men and women did not interact in society like today.  Men and women were kept separate much of the time, and it was difficult for many people to imagine what life would be like once women were politically equal to men.  It was difficult for them to imagine sharing public space, so many worried that men would be forced to stay home and take on the traditional roles being left behind by feminists.  In addition, the scene in which the mother scowls at the children plays on fear that women will not be interested in their children once they are given political rights.  The ad seems to ask how women could possibly care for their children if they are busy politicking, drinking, and smoking in public.  The ad predicts that when women are free to leave their homes, the normal structure of society is destroyed; men will ejected from their place in traditional society and women will lose their tenderness and nurture instinct.

The assumption of the illustration is that once women have rights equal to men society will be turned upside down; women won’t love their families and children and women will take over the public sphere, leaving men responsible for all of the domestic responsibilities. This assumption is what inspires fear of feminism.  Because this was a centerfold illustration on Puck magazine, the purpose seems to have been to sell more magazines.  This resistance against feminism must have been a popular stance for the readers of the magazine at that time (1908).

So what about other ads that show women outside of the home?  Well, looking at the early 20th century, we can focus on The Ladies Home Journal, because it had in incredible influence in the United States.  It was the “first women’s periodical to reach and exceed one million readers and by 1918, 43 percent of all dollars spent on national advertising in the United States went to Curtis Publishing, the publisher of the Ladies’ Home Journal (Ramsey, 95).”

The magazine has been studied by academics and consistently the magazine is described as defining women as “naturally interested in the home and housekeeping.”  This is true even when the ads depict women in public areas (Ramsey, 96-97).  The fact that the advertisements made up a huge portion of the media consumed by women and girls in the early part of the century, we can have no doubt that it affected their beliefs about their own abilities.  For seeing few depictions of women engaged in non-domestic activities tells one that women belong at home, taking care of domestic duties.

Ad - Necktie (1951)

The image above is an ad for Van Heusen ties from 1951.  The ad boldly suggested a woman’s place was in the home and that the masculine design of their ties would make women want to stay home.

The belief projected by the ad is that men are dominant to women, and that women do not belong in the “man’s world,” otherwise known as the public sphere.  I think the contrast in the attire of the two subjects projects the anti-feminist message.  The ad says men don’t want women in their “man’s world” and that the purpose of a woman should be to happily serve her man.  Part of the longer text at the bottom of the ad indicates that a woman should be happy it’s a man’s world.  The ad expects women to be beautiful, happy, submissive, and to serve her man.

In the ad the woman is serving and completely focusing on the man in a submissive manner and the man does not acknowledge her, but looks above her with a satisfied expression.  Both the man and the woman are smiling.  They both appear to be happy in their traditional roles.  The bold text at the top of the ad reads, “Show her it’s a man’s world…”  The advertiser wants the audience to believe that buying their masculine ties will ensure their wives will suddenly be happy to be submissive housewives, showing devotion to their husbands.  The ad tries to claim that the “man-talking” ties will squash any feminist ideas.

This ad, like the others, seems to be playing off a fear of feminism.  It claims that it’s necessary to demonstrate that “it’s a man’s world.”  The ad suggests that a man has to dominate a woman and keep her from feminist ideas.   The text subtly says that women might be unhappy in this role of submissive housewife, but promises that their manly ties will change that.  It definitely seems to be a response to more women stepping out of that role, and becoming more independent.

Ad - Shoe (1972)

This shoe ad was created by Weyenberg Massagic Footwear in 1972 and was published in the December issue of Playboy magazine in 1974 (Twenten).  Its purpose was to sell their product, using an anti-feminist message that would appeal to men who liked submissive women.

The statement at the top of the ad tells indicates a struggle to keep women “in their place.”  There is a fear women are escaping their traditional roles and so a man must work to “keep her where she belongs.”  In addition, the woman in the ad is physically beautiful and happily submissive.  Content to lie on the floor admiring a shoe, she has no desire to travel into the man’s domain (the public sphere).  Because this ad is out of context and without a brand, I had to research who made the ad.  This is an interesting choice to leave out the brand, and I am curious about why that was done.

This shoe ad uses the resistance against the popular Women’s Rights Movement to sell the product.  The phrase “Keep her where she belongs” suggests a struggle to pull women back from feminism and to keep them at home.  It’s bold white against a monochrome contrasting background.  Seeing how it’s not possible to buy a certain shoe to keep a woman “where she belongs” it’s apparent that the company wanted to capitalize on the backlash against feminism in the early 1970’s.

The woman portrays the ideal woman of the message; she’s vulnerable, nude, beautiful, and happily submissive.  She’s content simply lying on the floor gazing upon a shoe.  This is not a woman who is involved in politics or women’s rights.

Maybe the most interesting aspect of the ad is the lack of branding.  The message is not veiled at all and confidently shows its stance on feminism.  However, the ad lacks a brand name which seems to be less than courageous.  Why leave off identifying information?  To create stir and interest in product?  There was some protest against the ad when it was released in 1972 (http://guerillawomentn.blogspot.com/2011/04/bad-old-days-of-womens-liberation.html). Sometimes companies use controversy to bring attention to a product.  Feminism was a hot topic at that time and Weyensen Massagic Footwear capitalized on the backlash against the movement.

In the 1970’s two social scientists conducted one of the first major studies on “women in magazine advertising.” What they found is no surprise.  “The perspective presented in the ads were that (a) a woman’s place was in the home, (b) women did not make important decisions or do important things, (c) women were dependent upon men and needed men’s protection, and (d) men regarded women primarily as sexual objects and were not interested in women as people (Mager, 239).”  Though we’ve talked about ads for a variety of products spanning almost a century, the message has been the same- some people in society were fearful about women having more autonomy outside of the home.  The traditional societal roles were shifting and so there was resistance to keep things as they were.  The fear was that women would abandon their roles entirely and that society would be turned upside down.  What would happen to man’s role in society?  And as women’s role in American society has changed over the last century, the fear about this change has remained.  Fear of change has led to this backlash against feminism in advertising.  Advertisements that show women in only one role- the submissive housewife- shape how girls and young women see their own futures.  These limiting images have real impact and let girls have limited ideas about their capabilities and worth.  As a feminist, I wish to see more diverse and rich portrayals of women in advertising.

Luckily, there is a recent trend in advertising that shows strong, independent girls and women and try to connect their products with an empowering message for young women and girls.  The pro-feminist messages of advertisements are addressing misguided ways of thinking about girls’ abilities and they are doing it in a big, loud way.  This year, during the most expensive advertising time slot on television, the Super Bowl, a company ran a three minute ad that tore apart the phrase “like a girl.”  This ad and others like it are replacing the ads that tell women they are not equal to men.


The advertisements demonstrating that a woman’s place is in the home have been geared toward a male audience, but have also sent harmful messages to girls and women.  This message has told them that they are only good enough to live their lives in a happy servant’s role… that their uniqueness, minds, and personalities are flaws.  It’s disturbing to consider the impact that such messages have had in our society.  The recent trend that promotes a more feminist ideology gives me hope that my daughters won’t have to fight off the limiting messages I have received from the media.  I don’t want them to think the best they can accomplish in life is to please a man.  Let’s wipe away these harmful messages and encourage everyone to follow their dreams and desires without pressure to fit any rigid gender role expectations.







Clark, Rosemary. #NotBuyingIt: Hashtag Feminists Expand the CommercialMedia Conversation, Feminist Media Studies, 14:6, 1108-1110.

Mager, John and James Helgeson J. Fifty Years of Advertising Images: Some Changing Perspectives on Role Portrayals: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed May 12, 2015.

Ramsey, Michelle E. Driven from the Public Sphere: The Conflation of Women’s Liberation and Driving in Advertising from 1910 to 1920. Women’s Studies In Communication [serial online]. Spring 2006;29(1):88-112. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed May 12, 2015.

Tweten, Alexandra.  From the Stacks: Keep Her Where She Belongs.  Ms. Magazine Blog. April 14, 2010. http://msmagazine.com/blog/2010/04/14/from-the-stacks-keep-her-where-she-belongs/.





2 thoughts on “A Look at Advertising’s Backlash Against Feminism

  1. Thank you for making a post about feminism. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard coworkers, customers, family members, and even my friends completely misunderstand what the term “feminist” means. Whenever the term “feminist” comes up, the first thing that usually comes to people’s minds is “man-hating”, ” misandrist”, or “femi-nazi” and it drives me nuts. A lot of this stems from the same reason why racism consistently perpetuates; many people fail to acknowledge the being a white heterosexual male is to live a life of privilege and advantage. Those ignorant of the fact that socially imposed gender roles create a sincere dissonance between genders usually can’t discern the difference between discussing male culture, male behavior, or male privilege as a systemic whole, and a prejudiced hate-filled absolutist complaint.
    Indeed, it can be very infuriating how the media tends to portray those within the feminist movement and spread an overall negative outlook on what is, in actuality, a positive movement designed to allow both men and women to experience the full spectrum of emotions, interests, colors, flavors, characteristics, and fashions without having to worry about whether or not it is commonly attributed to one gender or another.

  2. Renee,
    I’m so grateful to read your essay! I very rarely see work from classmates who are also interested in analyzing how Feminism and advertising contradict one another. It was also nice to read the background and history you included about Feminism in your essay; I left a lot of that out of my own, but I definitely think it helps back up your argument and explain your identity as a Feminist. I’ve actually rarely seen advertisements as old as the first one you address, but it’s strange how the masculine-feminine binary (and fear surrounding its absence) is pretty consistent in advertising today.If you get the chance, I definitely recommend reading Deadly Persuasions; Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising by Jean Kilbourne. I read it earlier this year while studying this relationship between Feminism and advertising, and I found it very insightful on the same topics you’re exploring!

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