Mad Women: advertising and feminism

Dr. Devon Atchison speaking about the progression of feminism throughout history. Alyssa Brown / The Watchdog

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, Bellevue College’s history department showcased “Mad Women: Advertising and the Feminist Movement,” another installment of the department’s lecture series “Storytelling with Historians: Explorations in History,” by historian Dr. Lorraine McConaghy. Held from 11:30 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. in room D106, the lecture was about advertising and its connection with the feminist movement from the 1960s to present.

Dr. Devon Atchison gave a lecture on advertising and the feminist movement from the 1960s to the present. Atchison, an American Historian who focuses on women in post-World War II America and one of the newest members of the history department at Bellevue College, spoke about the development of feminism and the effect advertising had on it.

Atchison developed the concept of Mad Women, a play with a twist on the title of popular AMC show Mad Men. The show Mad Men was set in 1950s Madison Avenue showing the lives of men working in the advertising business, or “ad men.” As ad men, they controlled “what the American public saw when they opened up a magazine or turned on their television.”

Students taking notes during the lecture. Alyssa Brown / The Watchdog
Students taking notes during the lecture.
Alyssa Brown / The Watchdog

Atchison noted, “what we see is this depiction of men in the 1950s as powerful, determined, and capable. The women depicted on this show were mostly wives and mothers.” The show represented typical life in the 1950s.

In the 1950s, women were expected to be housewives – cook, clean and take care of the children. This is due to the ending of World War II, which caused a tremendous baby boom. “We see that the economy grows tremendously, such that people can have one-income families. They can have wives at home, taking care of the baby boom, and men out working and making enough money to provide for the family,” Atchison explained. Women were expected to have a clean home and well-behaved children for men to come back to everyday after work.

Women as a result felt trapped and desired something more in life. Out of this growing sense of dissatisfaction, the feminist movement began. Atchison described the movement as “an idea that women could fight for and change the status of women in a nation.”

With this idea in mind, the National Organization for Women was formed. Women wanted to be treated as equal, with the rights of U.S. citizens. With this sudden uprising of a desire for gender equality, advertisers had to somehow utilize that idea in their advertisements to appeal to that demographic.

In the 1950s, ad men depicted feminists as “open and willing to serve men,” one advertisement using an image of a women wearing a bikini with feminist terminology written across the ad. Clearly this was not quite reaching the eventual goal of gender equality, so the movement for women’s rights began developing more and more.

Ms. Magazine for example was created by feminists in 1972. “Ms. was a really radical concept because it said that a women’s marital status does not define her,” said Atchison. However, inside the pages several sexist advertisements existed.

A common theme in the advertisements depicted a woman acting out the roles of a traditional housewife, but with feminist terminology written across the ad. Ad men understood what women wanted to hear but did not execute it well since sexism was still the norm. At this point, “there was a chasm between the feminist movement and the mainstream media,” said Atchison. This went on for a long time before any sort of complete gender equality was shown in ads.

The progression of feminism advertisements advanced slowly but surely. With the typical housewife shown in a 1960s advertisement to an ad featuring a woman calling a man to fix her appliances in the 1980s to finally an ad showing a working woman with no mention of her gender at all. Throughout the history of the feminist movement, advertisements played a large role in exposing people to the notion that women can be equal to men.

Later in the year, there will be one more installment of Storytelling with Historians. Faculty and Program Chair of the history department Dr. Sabrina Sanchez stated, “our goal is to have scholars, professors, writers come to campus to share their research with the students.”

“We try to broaden students exposure to history as a discipline by letting them hear from historians who have researched these issues to teach students what they would have not gotten from a regular class,” said Dr. Brian Casserly, one of BC’s history professors.