Juliann Sivulka


On her book Ad Women: How They Impact What We Need, Want, and Buy

Cover Interview of February 17, 2009

The wide angle

Although books on advertising history examine representations of gender, advertising history is a gendered narrative reflecting mostly men’s rather than women’s experience in advertising.  To retell the history of advertising, Ad Women emphasizes that women took their place alongside men and played an important role in the development of the American economy as both consumers and ad women.

The book is the culmination of some ten years of research.  My interest in the topic began as an examination of how advertising grew in America, how products and brands were produced and promoted, and how manufacturers used advertising in ever more sophisticated ways to convince Americans, especially women, that buying their products would improve their lives.  I continually returned to a 1903 issue of Profitable Advertising, which published a feature called “Women Workers in Publicity.”  This appeared at a time when women increasingly claimed a public role once reserved for men.  From there, I began to question how, in the space of the twentieth century, the advertising business went from a handful of women in a man’s world to one in which women work in virtually every mass-consumer goods industry in America.

By the 1890s, advertisers and manufacturers had begun to recognize that women not only bought beauty products but also most of the mass-produced household’s food, clothing, and other goods for the home.  As most of the goods sold at retail were marketed to women, it followed that if women followed their instincts, they should come close to knowing what to say to other women in advertisements.  And what the woman did not buy, she influenced through her father and brothers, her husband and sons.

A small group of professional and managerial women positioned themselves as offering the women’s viewpoint in the new mass-market consumer industries and services.  This was true in a myriad of commercial practices – the fashion trade, advertising, merchandising, magazine and newspaper publishing, broadcasting, home economics, as well as consumers and consumer activists.  Women wrote reams of persuasive copy for department stores, coordinated fashion shows, and managed mail-order operations.  Others worked as “outside” consultants and publicists.  Still, other women worked on the corporate side as advertising managers, product designers, and home economists.  By the 1930s, women gained both a presence and a degree of power in consumer advertising, which complicates the notion that advertising was a man’s world.

Secondly, women’s entry into the advertising world should also be seen as a larger part of the professionalization that occurred between the late nineteenth-century and the early twentieth century.  Similar to the entry of women in law, medicine, and architecture, the entry of early women in the advertising profession needs to be understood in terms of identity.  Women redefined women’s work for their own purpose.  But, at the start of the twentieth century, when men took firmer control over advertising as the profession matured, women also found themselves increasingly excluded by contrivances of professionalization such as professional schools, licensing procedures, and trade organizations.

Finally, the ad women’s entry into business happened in waves.  Their numbers did not build steadily and slowly, as women struggled with a predictable amount of discrimination.  The study begins in the 1880s, when an entirely new business in America, the advertising agency, began to take form and opened up professional opportunities for women, a process which continues to the present day.  I distinguish three key periods in the history of advertising that are deeply entwined with economics, politics, and women’s history in modern America.  First, 1880-1920 marks the key period in which the modern consumer economy emerged parallel with the rise of the advertising industry and the suffrage movement.  Then, both the 1920s and 1970s represent eras of major social change for women.  Women contended with male prejudice and male power in the advertising profession.  But with each wave of the feminist movement, women took up reform, overcame barriers, and carved out a niche in advertising agencies and the new mass-market industries.