I bought the Life magazine for the picture of Batman on its cover- the Adam West Batman from March 11, 1966. Promising a feature on the "Mad New World of Batman, Superman, and the Marquis de Sade" I paged through its contents and it was like entering another world, but it wasn't that mad new world of Batman, et al. From my 21st century viewpoint, it was a world seemingly gone mad with sexism and the patronizing of women.
The ads' portrayal of women hit me across the face like one of Batman's punches. Pow! Zap! Bam! Of course, this was 1966 and Women's Lib and feminism were in their infancies as engines of social change. Madison Avenue though was still giving America the view of women as harried housewives and portraying them in the prim and proper manner of Donna Reed and June Cleaver.
For the most part, women were shown in that 1950s TV manner we all grew up with- dresses, pearls, high heels, gloves. From a General Motors ad touting its fine safety record and Body by Fisher, we see a mother and daughter at their car after an outing of grocery shopping. The little girl watches her mother from the shopping cart as she puts the bags into her GTO's trunk. Mom wears a very pink dress and she glances back at her daughter who wears a dress with a Peter Pan collar with white tights and black patent Mary Jane shoes.
Later, an ad for Western Auto features a "Wizard" washer for only $169.88. The washer is pictured open, but fully loaded and on its door rests a string of pearls and a pair of elbow-length white gloves. The implication is that this is a very handy appliance after that night on the town for the little lady.
Excedrin, the headache remedy, features a woman clutching a bag of groceries while she says, "With eight people coming to dinner, who can take time out for a headache?" Another housewife who just received a call from her husband that he's invited the office staff home tonight for dinner?
An ad by the Edison Electric Institute shows Mom and Dad giving glowing approval to Junior's artwork. Mom bends over to examine it while wearing a pink shirt dress and stylish beige pumps. Dad has obviously shed his coat and tie for the night as he settles in on the couch to take in the family moment.
Smaller photos festoon across the page bottom, vividly illustrating how "You Live Better Electrically" as Mom, still in her dress, fixes dinner on an electric range, checks the clothes in an electric dryer, and with Junior's help, empties the electric dishwasher.
This "totally electric" home earns the prestigious "Gold Medallion" and is "fully equipped with flameless electric appliances to save you time and help take the drudgery out of routine housework." The American Dream for the homemaker, hmmm?
In other ads, "girls" predominate. Parker Pen tells us that "A girl-size hand needs a girl-size pen." And later, after a photo comparison showing the smaller "Jotter" pen alongside the "man-size" Jotter, we learn "Girls- and girl-size hands- delight in the new compact Jotter. It's smaller, daintier, a joy to write with." So nice of Parker to tell all the girls out there what they needed.
An ad for the Ford Mustang labels its offering as "Six and the Single Girl," an obvious takeoff on "Sex and the Single Girl" by Helen Gurley Brown, the very popular (and revolutionary, for its time) book and movie from the early '60s. The ad copy reads, "She knew she could trust this husky, suave brute of an engine to squire her around town, drive her to the mountains for a weekend, even drop her off for dinner with the girls" It sounds as if the Mustang is the protector for the poor, defenseless female.
Such attitudes even permeated some feature articles. A fashion feature- "Charlie Chaplin's Daughter Geraldine Lights up a Circus" is even more of the girl mode. "If I were a man," says Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie's 21 year old daughter, "I'd want to be a clown." But being a girl and a very pretty one at that "she did the next best thing to running away with the circus" And that would be that, starring in a fashion show with the circus as a backdrop?
One exception to all the sexism was an ad for Metropolitan Life Insurance which asked, "How come one out of every four professional accountants is insured by Metropolitan Life?" Of the seven accountants pictured in the ad, one was a woman. In1966, was the tide slowly turning towards acceptance of women as something other than the old standby careers- teacher, nurse, secretary, housewife? Or was Metropolitan Life just ahead of its time? You'd never infer much social progress for women from the other 99% of the magazine.
What a world! If that magazine is truly representative of its time, what a revelation it is to compare the representation of 1966's women with what women are capable of today- heading major corporations, flying into space, going into combat, filling vital, high-profile roles in government, medicine, business, and on and on.
The difference in 40 years is remarkable. I realize the condescending tone of the ads and the compartmentalized roles women were portrayed in reflects that time and this was universally accepted. But what an eye-opener for today.
Perhaps I'm just an over-reacting father of two daughters who wants the best that life has to offer for them. I'd always told them they could be anything they wanted to be. Yet, after seeing all this, I have to wonder what I might have said in 1966- "Don't worry about a "career" because it's just temporary until you find the right man? "I want to think" I would have fared better than that but I realize we're products of the times we live in.
I might have succumbed to society's mores for that time, and also considered my daughters in limited roles. And what's even worse, odds are they would have accepted them, too. Thankfully, they no longer live in a world that says you can't do this or that because you're not a man or have a need for a "girl-size" pen. Still, I have to wonder though' when did they stop making girl-size pens?
About the author: David Galassie is a human resources specialist in Columbia, SC. When not writing in his free time, he pursues genealogy, Wisconsin history, and comic book collecting. A frequent contributor to Rewind the Fifties, he has been published online in The Comic Book Electronic Magazine, Long Story Short, and in print in Good Old Days Specials magazine.
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