- Australian Women in Advertising in the Nineteenth Century by Jackie Dickenson
Joy Jobbins, mother of five, and former fashion model turned PR executive for the Australian Wool Board aptly captures the predicament common to women juggling an advertising career and family life with her simple statement: “There are many lost years as a mother that the Wool Board owes me” (114). While these words ring true for many women in the industry today, Jobbins was reflecting on a career that spanned the 1950s and 1960s. Jobbins’ predicament was not unique. Popular television series such as Mad Men generally depict male-saturated advertising agencies, but Dickenson’s Australian Women in Advertising in the Nineteenth Century brings to light countless women, such as Jobbins, who forged successful careers in advertising, promotion, public relations, and other creative industries in Australia throughout the nineteenth century.
Dickenson’s text extends Robert Crawford’s initial exploration of Australian women working in advertising in his book But Wait, There’s More…(2008). Unlike Crawford’s text, the reader will find very few examples of specific advertisements or references to particular campaigns. Dickenson repositions the lens away from advertisements themselves and towards the women who worked their way into the industry and rose to positions of leadership and prominence. Dickenson combs magazines, trade journals, newspapers, speeches, and novels to piece together a portrait of the lives of several early female leaders ranging from Clara Behrend, who leveraged her national success in Australia to globally promote women’s advancement in business, to Elma Kelly, who built an advertising empire stretching from Hong Kong to Singapore. The book reads as a series of vignettes highlighting the career paths of key women and their contributions to professional organizations, politics, philanthropy, and feminist campaigns. The research is primarily historical in nature and does not explore the full sociocultural context that some readers of this journal might expect. The discussion stops short at times, and its significance is left up to the reader to determine.
A particularly interesting theme emerges, however, as Dickenson observes how businesswomen negotiated the complexities of existing in a “man’s world” while embracing their femininity and furthering the position of women in Australian society. Often these goals were contradictory and women functioned as liminal subjects with unclear boundaries, passing feely between the domains of family/work, femininity/feminism, and consumerism/communism. Women either emphasized or denied their gender differences depending on whether it was advantageous to do so. They justified their existence in the industry by claiming to understand the coveted female consumer, while pushing against critics who claimed their natural position as consumers precluded their suitability for work as producers and advertisers. While using their femininity to their advantage, the same female leaders actively worked to abolish gender differences in industry and politics. Another contradiction emerges when examining the female experts who hawked national brands to housewives and used their earnings to bankroll leftist pursuits that critiqued excessive commercialism and the very consumer culture they publicly promoted. Lorraine Salmon, for example, parlayed her skills as a celebrity home economist to further her political pursuits within the Communist Party of Australia.
Often, advertising historians find that the modern definition of “advertising” proves too narrow to encapsulate the abundance, variety, and creativity of promotional activities in the early period. Dickenson offers a solution worthy of more extensive elaboration that could contribute to methodological practices within the field. She extends the concept of advertising in the early twentieth century to also include retail promotions, philanthropy, public relations, journalism, and other creative industries that were clearly intended to sell products and services. Scholars researching advertising to marginalized groups such as children, immigrants, and minorities may find that employing Dickenson’s broader definition greatly expands the volume of historical sources available for study and more accurately represents the promotional landscape of the period.
Serious issues that likely plagued the average woman working in advertising are, in my view, underserved by this text. Dickenson does not elaborate on the pay gap between women and their male cohorts other than to report that pay was...