As the Porfirian gente decente read their newspapers, they would be bombarded with advertisements for all types of products: "Wife! Your husband will soon lose affection for a nervous, bad humored, sick wife, who, far from being a companion in the home is a weighty load. Try our infallible remedy for all of the irregularities of women. 'Femenina.' It's as valuable for young women in puberty as the woman who is entering the critical period of life."1 Along with promising women relief from physical maladies, "Femenina" offered the following caution: in order to have a fulfilling marriage and home life a woman needed to be pleasant and congenial. Products such as "Femenina" were marketed to men and women concerned with "order and progress," during a period when the Mexican government sought to modernize their country. Ads for this product, and others like it, show the ambivalent and often contradictory attitudes Porfirian gente decente held surrounding women's involvement in this project. Women were to take an active role and use modern, scientific remedies to cure their ills and help their families, while remaining at the same time docile and good-natured wives.
As William French has argued, women were central to the creation and maintenance of the emerging gente decente—a growing middle class that prized manners, morality, and domesticity.2 As those members of society charged with the safeguarding of "the race" through reproduction, as well as through their roles as mothers and consumers of modern goods, advertisers in leading newspapers such as El Imparcial targeted women. This targeting of women as mothers and consumers generated certain anxieties, however, as the commodification of female beauty and sexuality (that is, the use of images of women as sexual objects to sell products) used in some of the ads threatened to disrupt the sexual norms and propriety of middle-class womanhood. Likewise, the incorporation of women into more active roles as citizens (as [End Page 1] consumers and modern women) also had to be circumscribed to maintain Porfirian gender norms and the family as its core social unit.
This article traces several often contradictory discourses surrounding the intersections of gender, class, race, and modernity that can be seen in turn of the century Mexican newspaper advertisements. Porfirians believed that through consumption, particularly the consumption of foreign goods, middle-class women—women of the gente decente—could participate in the construction of a new, modern Mexico. Ads targeting women showcased a femininity tied to the transnational and privileging a certain kind of motherhood that at the same time emphasized women's sexuality. While historians such as Joanne Hershfield, Julio Moreno, and Susan Besse have argued that this transnational appeal to a modern femininity was a product of the consumer boom of the 1920s, the discourses that asked women to consume in order to be "modern" wives and mothers as well as attractive sexual beings had their roots in the nineteenth century.3 Women, through their consumption, played a key role in the construction of the gente decente. Ads told women what to buy and which products would be useful for their homes. Middle-class standards were additionally reinforced through ads that mocked the poor or working classes—making fun of a racialized poor allowed the middle classes to construct themselves as white through what they consumed. These ads are a window into Porfirian anxieties surrounding race and class as the gente decente grew in influence, and allowed women to delineate more firmly both what was and what was not acceptable—what was and what was not considered modern. Thus housewives played an important role as "arbiter" of what Porfirians considered fashionable. Women read El Imparcial and responded to the advertisements. Their responses and purchases reinforced what was then marketed and considered acceptable.
If considered cautiously, advertisements can be used and analyzed as historical documents. Advertisers sold products. If advertising did not try to speak to society's needs, then the ad was unsuccessful, and the product would not sell. Advertisements may not mirror reality, but as Roland Marchand asserts, they can serve as a basis for plausible inference about important attitudes and desires. Even if an ad...