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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 604-613

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Categorizing The Female Type:
Images of Women as Symbols of Historical Change

Kirsten Swinth

Carolyn Kitch. The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 252 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $45.00 hardcover; $18.95 paperback.

Julie Wosk. Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 294 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $39.95.

These two books belong in a special category. They are histories of representations of women, typologies of the female figure across time, in particular media, or in relation to particular objects. Carolyn Kitch and Julie Wosk follow the approach of Martha Banta whose Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History (1987) categorized shifts in representations of women from the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 to the end of World War I. Kitch traces the "girl" on the magazine cover, delineating the "types" of female figures dominating mass-market magazine covers between 1895 and 1930. Wosk performs a similar exercise, but with broader scope. She examines representations of women and machines, spanning the period from the industrial revolution to World War II, and including many visual media as well as written accounts. Both authors describe contradictions within representations of women as well as shifts in the imaging of female types over time. The books bring together suggestive sets of images. At the same time, the method employed by the authors raises questions about historians' uses of visual types. After summarizing the books' contents, I will take a closer look at the methodological assumptions underlying these authors' analyses of images and consider the strengths and limitations of histories based on visual typologies.

The Girl on the Magazine Cover is a study in mass media iconology. The girl on the magazine cover between 1895 and 1930 was, Kitch argues, a symbol system that conveyed social, cultural, and political ideals (p. 8). Magazine [End Page 604] cover girls were both symbols of an emerging modern social order and emblems of new possibilities and prospects for women in particular. Kitch links magazine cover types to the turn-of-the-century transformation in women's roles-the growth of college graduates and professional women, the birth of feminism and the campaign for woman suffrage, and the appearance of a younger generation in the 1920s enjoying the pleasures of mass leisure and consumer culture.

Kitch tracks the development of this iconology through the evolution of dominant cover girl types, from true woman to new woman and eventually to flapper. She also weaves into her narrative important variations in this typology: the presence of masculine counterparts on magazine covers; the use of types similar to those on mass-market magazine covers by woman's rights and African-American magazine editors; the transfer of feminine types from magazines to posters in World War I; and the displacement of actual women by babies on 1920s magazine covers.

The true woman makes her appearance in Kitch's book on the pages of the Ladies' Home Journal. Kitch analyzes a set of six full-page illustrations that appeared in the Journal in 1897. Produced by artist Alice Barber Stephens, these images showed "six types of American Woman as she is," according to the Journal (p. 17). The women portrayed in the illustrations are decidedly Victorian. They have the elaborate dress and genteel demeanor of middle-class ladies. Nevertheless, Kitch asserts that these are not static representations depicting women locked into traditional roles. She argues that "location and context" is central to these illustrations (p. 19). Younger female figures in particular "appeared in transitional settings that prepared them to leave the home and go out into the world" (p. 36). This is perhaps most apparent in the ambiguously titled "Woman in Business," in which mature, elegantly-attired counter clerks display wares to equally elegant shoppers in a department store. The new roles of sales clerk and female shopper...


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