International Women’s Day: Women and Ads through the Ages

By Ana Lewis

International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated annually on March 8. The holiday has been officially celebrated since 1911 and originally decreed a holiday in Copenhagen.

1916 Willys Overland advertisement from the July 1915 issue of Women’s Home Companion magazine. Showing a woman in driver’s seat.

Every year IWD has a theme, and this year is no different. This year the message is: “An equal world is an enabled world. How will you help forge a gender equal world?”  And this made me think. How have we progressed through the years? Where are we now, in comparison to 1911, when IWD was founded?

Over the past 119 years, since the inception of International Women’s Day, I like to think that we’ve come a long way, but there have been many hiccups along the way, and I believe that we still have a long way to go before achieving true equality and a gender equal world.

We rode many waves along the way. For example, in 1921, in the period after women got the right to vote, we were empowered. Henkel’s Bread Flour proclaimed, “Women Will Vote for what is Pure…” The ad showcases a strong, confident looking woman who is ready to make decisions for herself and her family.

We continued to ride that high for several decades of strength and empowerment. Advertisements included a woman owning and driving a Buick in 1931, for example, and Coca-Cola gave a nod to Amelia Earhart in their 1941 ad.

But things took a turn in the 1950s.

“The 1950s – a time well before the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, when sexism was not only tolerated, it was expected and actively encouraged, partly through chauvinistic print ads like the ones we explore above. […] We’re now able to see the […] ridiculously overt sexism on display throughout the ads of the 1950s” (10 Most Sexist Print Ads from the 1950s. Business Pundit).

The “ideal” woman was reflected in ads by companies like Schlitz, who literally gave instructions on “How to pamper a husband” (by bringing him a beer after a day of mowing the lawn, and while he’s resting on his hammock).  There are so many levels of stereotypical mess in that ad.

Medifast ad, photo provided by Anne on Flickr

On March 22, 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by the U.S. Senate and sent to the states for ratification. First proposed by the National Woman’s political party in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment was to provide for the legal equality of the sexes and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Women were once again empowered and Tampax reflected that by running feminine hygiene ads stating, “Yes, you can!” (live your life no matter what time of the month it is).

However, there were some dark times for women to come. According to Psychology Today, A History of Eating Disorders, the cases of anorexia and bulimia escalated in the 1970s and 1980s, and though some will say they peaked in that time, a national study by the NIH suggests that bulimia, especially, continues to escalate.

Advertisements in by Control in 1981, a fad diet product, rode high during this time, with their tagline “Look at me, I’ve lost it.” as well as Virginia Slims showing a woman in curlers, looking unhappy with her appearance, in comparison to a woman who is smoking hot while smoking her slim cigarette.

The 2000s brought in a deep sense of sexualization of women. Sex in the City was popular, as it helped promote liberated, sexual, independent women. And companies like Viagra banked on that. Their ad was skewed to act like the husband went on Viagra for her. I sure hope that he doesn’t suffer the side effects for her, too. “I love him because he did it for us.”

According to statistics by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, during the period between 2000 – 2018 the number of breast augmentations grew by 48%, butt lifts grew by 256%, lower body lifts by 4295% and upper arm lifts by 5030%. Women are still trying to achieve the ideal and continuing to consider ourselves as needing fixing.

Women’s March on Washington, 21 January 2017. Image: Mobilus in Mobili. Source: Flickr CreativeCommons

TODAY – International Women’s Day

After reviewing ads through the ages and how women are reflected, I think that the 2020 International Women’s Day theme seems more relevant than ever before. #EachforEqual

Everyone, everywhere, can get involved with International Women’s Day supporting the #EachforEqual 2020 campaign theme to help forge women’s equality.

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