- Cultural History and Consumer Culture
The “inarticulate longings” in the title of Jennifer Scanlon’s effectively illustrated, well-researched, smart, and focused book is a phrase Lois Ardery of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency coined in 1924. Ardery and others hoped consumer goods would satisfy these dreams. Persistently emphasizing the contradictions revealed by the interaction between the Ladies’ Home Journal and its readers, Scanlon focuses on how the magazine promoted the vision of women as consumers. The resulting domestic ideal, she shows, focused only on white, middle-class women but failed to meet the needs of its targeted audience. Scanlon argues convincingly that what the ads proffered would not satisfy “inarticulate longings for personal autonomy, economic independence, intimacy, sensuality, self-worth, and social recognition” (p. 10). Scanlon’s larger task is to demonstrate how from 1910 to 1930 this influential mass circulation woman’s magazine helped strengthen both capitalism and patriarchy at the same time that it unwittingly enabled its readers to work toward a more adversarial response to what the advice columns, fiction, and advertisements offered.
We have known many elements of this story before, but Scanlon fills in and elaborates—accomplishing what she sets out to do in a nuanced way. At key points she offers fresh readings, evidence, and arguments. She avoids one-dimensional analysis of consumer culture, again and again emphasizing the dialogic nature of the relation between readers and texts. Sources that seem at first glance to offer pat, traditional answers on closer reading unintentionally enhanced women’s interest in nontraditional pursuits. Although on occasion, as she examines the articles or the self-promoting claims of professionals, she seems less skeptical than she should be about what rhetoric reveals and texts [End Page 310] mean, she is nonetheless an astute reader of documents. The fact that the hundreds of thousands if not millions of letters to the editors no longer exist makes recovering the voices of women readers and consumers difficult. Scanlon overcomes this problem by continually juxtaposing the contents of the periodical with what we know from women’s history and feminist scholarship and by reminding us of the class, racial, and ethnic identity of the audience.
The heart of the book examines the advice columns, fiction, and advertising of Ladies’ Home Journal. In the first of three chapters on advice, Scanlon concentrates on the magazine’s insistence that housekeeping was the only work acceptable to women whom it encouraged to pursue both a simple life and a more professional approach to running a house. This happened even when the magazine itself increasingly linked consumer culture with housekeeping as it became captive of the advertisers that underwrote its publication. The second of these chapters focuses on the treatment of the issue of paid work for married and single women, showing the contradictions, uncertainty, and ambivalence that went along with its traditionalist position, something articulated more for married than for single women. The third concentrates on the periodical’s prescriptions for women’s political participation, with editor Edward Bok vehemently opposing suffrage, though sanctioning participation in reform movements that were within women’s traditional realm. “Like other aspects of the Ladies’ Home Journal,” Scanlon writes in a note struck throughout, “the magazine’s stance on women’s political involvement overtly discouraged but also, perhaps, unwittingly enhanced women’s individual and collective political struggles” (p. 111).
In the chapter on the magazine’s fiction, the most methodologically sophisticated of those in the book, Scanlon relies on feminist literary analysis and on Fredric Jameson’s writings to explore the contradictory messages of the stories. She suggests that fiction enabled women to explore mysteries in their lives, mysteries which provided “a site for the truly subversive in women: their ability to dream of another, vastly different world” (p. 139). At the same time that stories prescribed...