Ellen Wayland-Smith

 

On her book The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling Of America

Cover Interview of October 28, 2020

Lastly

One thing that surprised me when I was writing the book was the way that race was an unspoken undercurrent in all that the advertising industry did—something that perhaps should have been obvious, but that I wasn’t expecting in undertaking a biography of a woman advertiser. When I first started the project, I thought the “scoop” would be teasing out how Rindlaub balanced the contradictions implicit in preaching domesticity while being a powerful public presence, or how she was a vital link in the ad industry’s efforts to weaponize women’s sentiment, divert their moral feeling into the private realm of consumption so as to stop it from spilling over into more public, political venues of social critique. What I found was what Kyla Schuler has persuasively argued: that gender is a raced concept, and the ideal of American “femininity” was developed and honed over the course of the nineteenth century partially in order to shore up the structures of white supremacy.

The racialized underpinnings of the make-up industry were obvious: Jean Rindlaub’s ads for Marvelous Make-up in the 1930s took place against the backdrop of nativism, eugenics, and an expanding Hollywood film industry where racial codes for whiteness were part and parcel of the larger image-making system. Her make-up ads used whiteness and cleanliness—a quality always associated with whiteness—as their main “emotional” selling point. But even where the question of skin complexion was seemingly less obvious, race was an unspoken driver of her work. In her testing and polling to make sure she had her finger on the pulse of the “average American” housewife, whiteness was assumed. National opinion polls and the expanding media of radio and film sought to construct the average American as white and middle-class.

And perhaps most importantly, all her work in favor of privatized, consumer-driven responses to social reform—her belief that an untrammeled free market mechanism alone was the best way to guarantee America’s pledge of equality and freedom—helped shore up white economic dominance. Rindlaub helped create a narrative by which support for broad state-sponsored social programs, in the tradition of nineteenth-century women’s reform movements among poor and immigrant communities, was coded “unfeminine.” True (white) femininity could only function as moral voice within the home and through private purchasing power. This was all, of course, built on the racist premise that government social programs disproportionately helped low-income, immigrant, and Black communities.

If there is anything, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests, that I think is important about this history I have written, it is this: it shines a light on how an ideal of white middle-class femininity has for over a century been continuously exploited—increasingly and ever-more tightly allied with Christian “family values,” free-market faith, and small-government ideology—in order to buttress the structures of American white supremacy. Remarkably, after she retired, Jean Wade Rindlaub herself came to recognize the racism and classism that was embedded in her previous free-market faith, and she tried to make amends for it. She’s a cautionary tale for us today.