Imagining Feminism in the Marketplace:
Linda Scott (University of Illinois) Interviews Gloria Steinem
Abstract

Linda Scott interviewed Gloria Steinem during a break from the “How is Advertising Changing the Shape of Women?” symposium. Most of the focus of the interview is on advertising in Ms. during the 1970s. Two articles are mentioned during the course of the interview (the citations are at the end). One is an article by Lucy Komisar, “The Image of Women in Advertising,” which appeared in an anthology of feminist essays early in the Second Wave. The second is an article that appeared in Social Policy in 1978, in which Elizabeth Cagan argues that women in market-based professions are actually antifeminists because their work is part of the capitalist system.

LS:

The first thing I want to talk to you about is trying to construct or imagine a feminist in a market vocation of some sort. What would that person be like and what kinds of actions would you imagine for that person? The second issue is this apparent turning point in the mid-1970s where professional and academic women go separate ways. The last is to talk about some ads from Ms. in the early 1970s.

The first thing I want to ask you about is whether there are any role models in your memory for this imagined feminist that we might be trying to construct today?

GS:

The role models that would come to mind when you say that are the secretaries. There really weren’t very many women in decision-making positions in advertising agencies. Our greatest secret weapon when we went to present Ms. magazine—as a place that was otherwise seen as far too controversial to want to have an ad in it of any kind—was that when we went to do the presentation, the secretaries would come. They said that the decision-making men would be fascinated by that because it would have often been the first time that had ever happened. The men could see that there was an interest and therefore a consumer they weren’t aware of. So it was instant market research right there in their own offices.

Aside from that, there really were very few women. There was a woman who was on the Oil of Olay account and she did those ads. There was Linda Wachner who was even then in a powerful position at Max Factor. The important thing was that, first of all, you couldn’t get ads for personal-appearance kind of products unless you had articles about beauty, which we didn’t have. And she did those ads anyway. But the second thing was that Max Factor had made ads for Essence and other magazines, and a great problem for us was that the ads looked different from our readership. Our readership was not diverse enough, yet it was much more diverse than the ads were. Yet if you looked at the ads, you would have thought that there were no women of color reading the magazine, and it just wasn’t true. She gave us Max Factor ads that were designed for Essence. So there was that kind of example.

And then there were Volkswagen and Honda. Because they were not Detroit cars, they were not subject to Detroit’s mythology about how women might pick vehicles—they assumed that women might pick the upholstery color but they didn’t purchase the car. Or decide which cars to purchase. They were also among the few ads then that didn’t have beautiful blond women draped over the hood because they assumed the person purchasing the car was a man. They were just straightforward ads about the car. Volkswagen, I think, had the very first car ads that ever came into Ms.

But mostly, we were in the position of arguing, begging—they hated us. There were some incredible examples. I remember speaking in an advertising agency where they had asked me to speak about the women’s movement. Addressing the women’s market for detergent. So I was trying to do that. A man got up from this small audience and took the microphone away from me—he was so angry at the idea. I don’t know specifically to what he was responding, but he was angry. Oh, I know what it was. He said, “Women could never make it in business, including advertising, because they don’t have any stamina. It’s really rough here and tough here, and we put in a lot of effort and we work hard, and women don’t have stamina.” Then a great thing happened, which was that his secretary—an older woman, who had been his secretary all her life, who had clearly never spoken in public before, she was very nervous—got up with her voice shaking and said, “You get in at ten o’clock. You sit there and read the paper. You go out to lunch with your friends, you drink, you come back. I write your reports, I do all this work, I go home, I cook for my family, I take care of my kids, and you tell me I have no stamina?” It was a landmark! I was so concerned about her losing her job. It was so public that they couldn’t fire her, in fact, but they moved her to another job because, obviously, she couldn’t keep working for that guy.

So the advertising agencies themselves were—and, I would say, are—part of the movement. In a way, to ask how a feminist can operate in that atmosphere is no different than asking how feminists can operate in academia or in any other part of what is not yet an equal or hospitable or supportive atmosphere.

Frequently, after we had given a presentation in an advertising agency, some of the women who were there would meet with us afterwards and say, “How can I get my salary equalized?” or “There are no women on the board.” So some of the first problems that we were addressing and that women are still addressing were internal to the companies themselves.

LS:

I was recently invited by Leo Burnett to come in and give a talk on the history of feminism for a Procter & Gamble brand group because they just felt like they needed to know about it.

GS:

Well, that’s a big change.

LS:

That’s just it. As you are talking about this, I’m thinking this is really quite a change and I guess an awful a lot of women, somewhere along the line, had to work and speak up to make that happen.

GS:

I think that there is clearly an understanding that the women’s market is an important market. It’s still often perceived as separate when it’s not. P&G has practically done nothing but sell to women, so you would think [laughs]. It would be interesting to know how the multiracial women’s movement would compare with their request for someone to talk about the Hispanic movement, the African-American movement, etc. I don’t know.

LS:

Any other examples you can think of where women that you’ve seen in an advertising context were able to push the ball forward?

GS:

There were often women inside agencies also inside the four A’s, or the big advertising umbrella groups who strived very hard to have women speakers coming as authorities and various fairs. To come to the Greenbrier conferences. And they really had to lobby and argue and build bridges and were very courageous about doing that. There were also women who used their skills to create ads pointing out sexism itself. There was an ad that had a headline that had a drawing of a man with his pants pulled up and it said, “Hire him. He has great legs.” So there were ad women creating that. And I’ve never felt that we were in different places. We were all just trying to do the best we could wherever we were. In or out of advertising. In or out of some establishment job.

LS:

Being a feminist was a matter of what was in front of you.

GS:

Yes. Wherever you were. And the difference now is not so much that there was a turning point about advertising and suddenly people became critical; they were always critical. Even in specific fields, say, in the health field, where ads in the medical journals would show a woman standing beside a pile of dirty dishes and it is advertising a brand of tranquilizers: “Is your patient depressed?” That was from the very beginning. People in and out of advertising were doing critiques of the imagery and the message and the stereotypes and all those things. The turning point for me and for some others within the industry, or within the media in general, was that it suddenly dawned on us that the imagery in the ads was not the worst thing. The influence of the ads on the surroundings, the supposedly editorial material, was the worst thing. At least no matter how bad the ad was, as an advertisement up there, it was like “Reader Beware.” But the fact that its tentacles went out, especially in women’s magazines, and affected the editorial with no such label—that’s more sinister.

LS:

The second question was, I’ve been trying to, in my own work, trace through what seems to be the moment where there was a parting with academics going off in one way and the professional women in marketing or in traditional areas such as banking going in another. Of course, there were a lot of things going on in the national/political scene too that probably contributed to this. There were some publications in the really early women’s movement, dealing with how you make feminist ads, for example. In Lucy Komisar’s article,1 she actually worked with some women at one of the big agencies. And she wrote about, “Well, we could do ads that did this,” and it was the “Superwoman” image that she describes where a couple comes in, but she has the briefcase, and uses this wonderful dishwashing soap that was quick so that they could do something else besides work, or something like that. It was almost a parody of what later happened—

GS:

But she put the man in there. That’s the world of difference. Because the problem with Superwoman is that she has to do it all, inside the home and outside the home. If there is a man there doing half of it, that’s a different world.

LS:

All right. As you know, there became this whole Superwoman thing, and then that became an issue.

GS:

But Superwoman was always the enemy of the women’s movement. The women’s movement did not create Superwoman. But they railed against [that image] from beginning to end because it was clear that having everything meant doing everything. I think that advertising inadvertently lead to the creation of the Superwoman image in a particular, practical way. The whole culture did, of course. It was basically people saying, “You can’t be a professor or lawyer or mechanic or whatever.” And then we did it anyway, and then they said, “Okay, but only if you do everything you did before. Only if you don’t disrupt society and you continue to raise children, cook dinner.” That resistance to change is what put people in that Superwoman role.

LS:

That makes sense. I had not thought of it like that before.

GS:

In the case of women’s magazines, traditional women’s magazines, it was especially true because the magazine editors, who were often very good women, were struggling to put in some other article in there besides cooking and beauty and fashion and children, and they would get something else in there. But they had to have the other articles in order to attract the traditional ads, so the message the reader got from the magazine was that you had to do everything. I think that’s part of what killed Working Woman, that killed New Dawn, and I don’t know. . . There was a whole raft of women’s magazines that tried to have one foot in both worlds, to have both traditional and non-traditional articles and ads, and ended up making women tired, I think, basically. It wasn’t the only reason, but it was part of the reason.

LS:

What I do want to push though is that this article by Elizabeth Cagan2 foreshadows the environment that I found myself in 10 or 15 years later on college campuses. There really is this very strong feeling that you can’t be an advertising person and be a feminist because being part of capitalism is fundamentally anti-feminist and therefore contradictory to feminist values. The Kagan article is the first that I have seen in doing historical research that articulates that position. It’s from 1978 and is in Social Policy, which seems to be a journal somewhere between popular media and academic. At least at that time.

GS:

There was that kind of assumption earlier coming into the movement because so many of us had been part of the New Left or new Old Left, that had an inside-the-system/outside-the-system analysis. The women’s movement acquired that in the beginning. But gradually we realized that there was no such thing as “outside the system.” We figured out that a lot of the guys who had been telling us to have babies in the Redwoods of California were not having the babies themselves with no hospital. The analysis of the Left wasn’t, at that time, including women, either. But we continued to talk about “inside” and “outside” the system. And I’ll be talking about it today, but the purpose of talking about it is to figure out how you can be in partnership so those of us “outside” the system, in the sense that we are not dependent on salaries there for whatever reason, can serve to both support the women “inside” and make them look reasonable by comparison. So the women inside can say, “If you don’t deal with me, you will have to deal with crazy people.” [Laughter]

LS:

Exactly. So that kind of partnership makes that possible.

GS:

But am I a capitalist? No. Why would I be a capitalist? I have no capital. Most people have no capital. But to punish the individual for the sins of the system makes no sense. We’re responsible for changing it, yes. But we can’t actually invent another universe, so we have to start where we are.

LS:

Which gets back to this whole idea that a feminist takes what’s in front of her. That’s good. I like that. So onto the ads. Is there any one of these that particularly sparks your interest? Or where you immediately have something to say about it?

GS:

The [International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union] one still appeals to me the most of the four because it’s a mostly female profession that struggled to be unionized at that time, and is still struggling to honor female leadership, even through their rank and file were mostly women. But it feels the most comprehensive. It’s including class, it’s including economics. These women are all white in this 19th century photograph, but actually, they were always diverse. It feels the most comfortable.

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The one for Intellectual Digest is interesting to me because it is a reminder of how well-educated the average reader was. Now we had everything, a huge range, from PhDs to eighth-grade little girls.

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LS:

But you can look at the demographics from Ms. from that year, and it is a very educated audience, on average. It is very upscale.

GS:

Yes. What was interesting was that although our readers were as well or better educated than the readers of Fortune, their income compared to those readers was less.

LS:

One of the reasons I pulled this was because in a lot of the academic writing in the last 20 years or so, there seems to be a habit of equating “intellectual” with “feminist.” And I don’t think that it was the intention at this point for that to happen.

GS:

No. On the contrary. What made it more true of Ms. was that it was an all or mostly text magazine, which has a more educated audience.

LS:

Right. But we talk about all these issues over here about race and gender as well as class. But over here, there’s an issue, isn’t there, of an educational exclusivity. Does that tell a reader who doesn’t have a college degree that they are not welcome here?

GS:

Hopefully, it divorces education from intelligence.

LS:

Hopefully it does. But as a practical matter, we know that as far as whoever placed this ad, it was because they were looking at what you knew about readers of Ms.

GS:

It is true that reading text skews the readership towards a higher education level. But our assumption was not. . . I mean, it took 20 years to get over my college education. It was a fucking brain-washing! [Laughter]

But in any case, I’m sure we were glad to get this ad, because it didn’t try to influence the surrounding editorial. First of all, there was the fact that we could get it at all. We were begging on our knees for ads. Begging. People thought we were sitting around a table full of ads saying, “Well, we’ll take that one, but not that one.” No. To get one that was not offensive and didn’t try to dictate the editorial around it was a real triumph. And, I suspect, incidentally, they probably didn’t pay for this. Probably what happened was that it was trade. We got to put an ad in their publication—I’m not sure. . .

LS:

But that would be a possibility.

GS:

Yes, because Intellectual Digest probably couldn’t afford to buy an ad either. So what we often do is try to reach other readers, which is what they were trying to do, by trading ads.

LS:

I see. Was there any kind of trading or anything like that, with their existing relationships with organizations with ILG? Ongoing relationships?

GS:

We may have run it pro bono, or they may have just paid cost. I just don’t remember.

LS:

The IGLWU actually runs as a campaign. All of these ads were taken from the first year. All of them. It’s interesting to me that through your first year, there are several versions of this ad. It’s this advertiser, it’s this look, but it’s a different picture. There’s one of the suffrage movement that said, “I wish Ma could vote.”

GS:

Well, certainly, the ILG were all people we knew and with whom we were marching for the farm workers at the same time. I mean, I don’t remember how this happened. But, yes, it would be a good question whether they paid for it or not. How that worked, I don’t know.

LS:

Did you have any way of knowing whether or not many of their membership read the magazine?

GS:

No, we wouldn’t know that. We might have known how many members were union members, because we asked questions like that, but not a specific one.

LS:

Did you have pretty good representation among union members?

GS:

I don’t remember.

LS:

Because that’s something that doesn’t go recorded in the public sources like the Simmons data. Okay, what about this one?

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GS:

This was a series that Dewar’s did with real people. The fact that it was a real person who was a woman, who was a physicist, made it rare in the advertising world. The fact that it was an ad for an alcoholic beverage—I don’t remember that being an issue because we weren’t going to make that decision for women if they wanted to have a drink. We continued to run articles about alcoholism. As long as the ad didn’t keep us from doing that. And the reason why is because Dewar’s is a dual-audience product. Both men and women drink it. The products that try to dictate your editorial copy are much more likely to be women’s products. If they’re cars, if they’re insurance, if they’re any product a man can also use, it is likely to have a higher ethical standard than the cleaning products, the makeup, the food things that are regarded as women’s products. They feel they can throw their weight around and dictate the copy because that’s what they do in women’s magazines.

LS:

That’s interesting, because it was also, as I recall, a big issue of being able to even convince those who advertised alcohol and cars to advertise in Ms.

GS:

It took us eight or nine years to get to do any ad from Detroit. It took us more than that to get a beer ad. First they said that women didn’t beer. Then we showed them all the figures. After all, we don’t suddenly stop drinking beer after high school or college. And then they said, “If we advertise beer to women, it will devalue it to men because we are selling it on masculinity.”

LS:

That sounds like it could have been said yesterday, doesn’t it?

GS:

We did finally get a couple of beer ads—light beer ads.

LS:

One of the reasons that this intrigued me as something we could talk about is that I do remember it being considered a very interesting campaign at the time because it did feature these individuals and they were very interesting individuals, all of them. And, of course, because it is a physicist, it has got the math and everything. At the time, I think, it would have been seen as pretty progressive.

GS:

A big advance.

LS:

But that it would be in 1973, and now in 2003, this woman here, does she look like a physicist? And what about the way she is looking at the camera in terms of what the feminist critique has given us in terms of pictures and representations?

GS:

Well, she’s pretty. She has long hair. She’s in a dead-on-to-the-camera pose. However, if she was not pretty and had her hair pulled back in a bun and was looking grouchy, she would be stereotyping physicists. The point is that she is real person. I think that issue would come up much more if it were a representation.

LS:

And we presume this is her normal way of presenting herself.

GS:

Are you saying whether we asked her?

LS:

No, I’m just saying you and I, in looking at it, that we do need to presume here, that this is the way she presents herself normally. That they didn’t make her take her hair down or something. But look at the written part of the profile.

GS:

Yes. “Brilliant. Beautiful.” No, we wonder if she got approval of the copy. But at a certain level, this is about fighting stereotypes. If this were a Miss America—brilliant, beautiful, in love with life, wants to help people [laughter]—we would be going with the stereotype. But at this point in history, for female physicists, who were seen as sexless, joyless, perhaps non-existent and dried-up, this was going against stereotypes.

One of our biggest problems in terms of effectiveness is that we have hopes, but our opposition has interests. We measure everything against our hopes, including politicians that we are voting for or choosing amongst. We don’t measure up to our hopes ourselves. How can we expect anybody else to? The anti-equality right wing has interests. We have to learn to stand up for our interests. To seek purity is self-defeating and a stereotype in itself: women have to be pure, women are not concerned about money . . .

LS:

I really like what you just said. So if we direct that back to this ad, or any of these ads, we would sort of say, “Look, even I’d rather it didn’t say ‘beautiful’ down here, even if she kind of has this sexy look on her face, or whatever it is. We are not going to ask this to be perfect. We are just going to ask that it advance our interests.” Is that what you are saying?

GS:

And we are going to ask it to be true. They don’t have a right to change the way she looks and they don’t have a right to state in the ads something that is inaccurate.

LS:

Yes. Because clearly this one is presenting itself as if this is all really true.

I think we have time to do one more. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this Right Guard ad for a couple of reasons.

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One was because it is a whole different aesthetic of appearance that ends up being part of the feminist milieu of the time, as opposed to how the early NOW women were looking and the Superwomen and all that. The other thing I wanted to ask about is the placement of this ad. It appeared quite frequently. In fact, it appeared in every issue that I looked at. Usually in, from what would be an advertisement point of view, a prime position—a back cover or opposite the table of contents. I think there may have been one inside the front cover. So I thought you might remember it.

GS:

I don’t, actually, but I can imagine the dialogue, because the fact that it was an ad for an antiperspirant would have been a strike against it because, obviously, the idea that women don’t smell fine on our own is a problem. However, the fact that it is a dual-audience product—the same thing is sold to men—makes it a little less odious, to make a pun. We did not, for instance, take ads for female deodorants, vaginal deodorants, because their message was that only women smell. At least this was an equal opportunity antiperspirant! And the woman herself looks natural. She looks like a real person.

LS:

Long hair and bare feet.

GS:

Right. I’m sure that the advertising women were on their knees to get it.

LS:

I wondered, actually. Because it had all these things going for it and because it had the good position, was there any kind of ongoing relationship here? Was this ad or any other ad you could think of made specifically for Ms.?

GS:

It’s possible, but I don’t know about this particular ad. There were ads made specifically for Ms., like the first Volkswagen ad, which had a big checkerboard of lots of Volkswagen ads, and underneath, there was a big headline that said, “We’ve never run an ad that couldn’t run in Ms.” It was a very early issue. Sometime in the first year, I think. Merrill Lynch made an ad for us, too, in which they photographed all their employees.

LS:

And some of them were women.

GS:

Or maybe they photographed all the women. But it was a big group and it said something like, “The Women of Merrill Lynch.” So there were those kinds of ads made specifically for us. But mostly it wasn’t done. It’s very expensive to expect the agency to produce an ad for one magazine. Sometimes, they were persuaded to do that.

LS:

But it did happen.

GS:

It did happen.

LS:

There is another ad by Arpeja, and I remember they were a heavy advertiser of the period.

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GS:

What did they make?

LS:

It was a dress manufacturing company.

GS:

We hardly ever succeeded in getting clothing.

LS:

This was an odd ad. It was very early on. It was very similar to what I remember running in the fashion and women’s magazines at the time. It was a batik dress, so it was a little bit different as a dress. And it had a woman standing as if she were standing on a side of a building and they photographed her this way. She looked very much like a fashion model. You would have gone right past it thinking that it was just another one of these ads, except I was looking for ads to talk to you about, so I read the copy, and this woman was the VP of marketing for this company. She was very highly placed. So it was trying to say, “We have these women in our company.”

GS:

I am surprised by that, because the amount of apparel advertising you could put in a thimble. They just insisted on having fashion editorial that mentioned their clothing—even Susie Tompkin’s company, Esprit de Corp, with very interesting, comfortable clothing, and it was her company, and she really wanted to advertise with us, but her husband wouldn’t let her and he was her business manager.

LS:

That’s interesting. As an aside, in the early women’s press, in The Revolution,3 in the suffrage press, there’s a very frequent advertiser: Ellen Demorest, who was a designer. She was kind of like the Anne Klein of her time. She was not only into design, she was into retailing. She was consistently putting ads in those papers when nobody else was supporting them. We have these nice stories sometimes. Which is kind of what I am trying to do now—to dredge them up somehow.

GS:

I did think that if we were going to say “yes” to advertising, we had to also be able to say “no.” So I do think it’s important that there are feminist publications that are not dependent or only marginally dependent on advertising.

LS:

To be able to have an independent voice.

GS:

Well, you can have an independent voice with advertising, but it’s harder, and I think it would be easier if more publications showed that we didn’t need that. Books don’t have ads, and we buy books. Most books are bought by women. So although it’s going against the business practice, we shouldn’t just go into new ventures, whether they are on the Internet or old-fashioned print publishing, assuming that we need ads.

LS:

There is always the trade-off of what this does to the subscription price.

GS:

Yes, but you can always subsidize that. That’s what Ms. did and does. Nobody that I know of has ever written into Ms. and said, “I can’t afford a subscription.” We give them free subscriptions. I distribute them to prisons or to battered women shelters. And you can get contributions for that.

LS:

A few minutes ago, you were saying, “If we are going to be able to say ‘yes’ to advertising, then we need to be able to say ‘no’ to advertising,” and you meant that in terms of having publications not taking advertising. Where I thought you were going was the kind of advertising that we need to say “no” to. If you could just take three or four items and just say, “We as a movement need to say ‘no’ to this type of advertising,” what would you say?

GS:

The most visible candidate for “no” is the candidate that has a terrible image in it. For instance, the ad for Club Cocktails had a line, “Hit her with a club,” or something like that. That’s an easy “no,” and we can all see that. We also need information so we know which companies are using sweatshop labor of women in other countries or in this country. Which are doing major damage to the environment. Or which are using non-unionized labor. We need to pay attention to that and also to let the companies know that we are paying attention. We need to write them and mail them saying how we feel. And also which are selling us their logo, but not the product. A lot of them are just charging for the logo, and the product is almost incidental.

Gloria Steinem

A devoted activist and writer, Gloria Steinem is undeniably one of the most important voices of the modern feminist movement. Perhaps best known as the co-founder of Ms. magazine, Ms. Steinem’s name is synonymous with the advancement of women’s social equality in America and throughout the world.

As Ms. magazine became a symbol of the women’s rights movement, Gloria Steinem established the Ms. Foundation for Women, devoted to helping the lives of women and girls in three main categories: economic security, leadership, and health and safety. She was a convener of the historic 1971 Women’s Political Caucus, supported the founding of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and is president of Voters for Choice.

In her speeches, Ms. Steinem reflects on the social movements of the past four decades in which she plays such a crucial role. In her guide to “Feminism 101,” Ms. Steinem discusses the politics of gender, education and the origins of hierarchy and violence. She addresses the central issue as we move into a new century of how we can foster a spirit of co-operation to continue the advancement of the rights of all citizens, especially our children and how the communities in which she speaks can empower themselves.

Notes

1. Komisar, Lucy. 1972. The image of women in advertising. Woman in Sexist Society: Studies of Power and Powerlessness, Ed. Gormick, Vivian, pp. 304–17. New York: New American Library.

2. Elizabeth Cagan. 1978. “The selling of the Women’s Movement,” Social Policy. May/June, 4–12.

3. The Revolution was a short-lived suffrage paper put out by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.