He-Men and Homemakers: Gender in Mid-20th Century Advertising

24 September 2014

Cultural Studies | Gender and Sexuality | History

Unfortunately Emma Watson throwing down the UN HeForShe gauntlet this week came too late for the male-dominated mid-20th century advertising industry. Well aware that 75% of the buying power in America was held by homemaking women, they actively reinforced gender inequality in fear that their industry would crumble without it. The below car ad clearly illustrates this approach. The Admen must have thought they were pretty clever marketing it at both men and women but to the modern viewer this two-pronged attack brings the gender bias into sharp contrast. The ‘She’ section of text on the left promotes the aesthetic qualities of the ‘gorgeous-looking’ car and the ease of maneuvering; ‘for the first time in my life I feel at home behind the wheel…knowing how easy it is to steer, shift gears, stop and park’. While the right ‘He’ side even more cringingly claims; ‘that never-say-die power…that romping eager mounting speed…were put there for the sterner sex’. Thankfully the sterner sex also has enough room for his protuberant legs and elbows in ‘this he-man car’.

"Having wonderful time with new Chrysler!", 1930s © The Advertising Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The ad gallery in the online resource American Consumer Culture, is full of examples like this, where women are sold soap to prevent man-repelling B.O. and canned soup as quick nourishment for husbands returning home from work. Taglines such as ‘ALONE…because she doesn’t know. LOVE can be lost…romance ruined if you offend with perspiration odour’ and ‘clever wife…she knows that men like soups’ are ridiculous enough to potentially be dismissed as harmless. But in her seminal essay ‘The Sexual Sell’ Betty Friedan explored the influence advertising like this, the ‘most powerful perpetuator’ of the feminine mystique, had on gender inequality in American society.

Clever wife / she knows that men like soups, 1930s © The Advertising Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


‘The Sexual Sell’ was originally published as a chapter in 1963 in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s ground-breaking manifesto based on research into the consumer analyst industry. Reports such as Homemaking and Appliances: A Psychological Survey outlined the threat market research identified from free-thinking women, who were ‘sure they would be happier if they were not “imprisoned” in their homes…’, an attitude business clients agreed was ‘not a very healthy one’. While The Psychology of Buying a Car reported that women judged the mechanical quality of a car based on the ‘same criteria they used to buy fashion’; colour and appearance, but as ‘poorer drivers’ than men were dependent on its technical perfection. Ernest Dichter was pioneer in this field and the complete market research reports and studies of his Institute for Motivational Research are now made digitally available along with ‘The Sexual Sell’ in American Consumer Culture: Market Research and American Business 1935-1965*.  

Consumer analysis and advertising such as this show the manipulation of female equality that Friedan exposed, sparking second wave feminism in doing so. On the other hand, this material also illustrates the issue that HeForShe hopes to bring to light; it was not only women that men imprisoned in gender stereotypes, but themselves. 

* Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license. 


Ernest Dichter, Homemaking and appliances: a psychological survey, 1945, © Hagley Museum and Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Ernest Dichter, The psychology of car buying, 1940, © Hagley Museum and Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

About the Author

Hannah Davison

I've been part of the Editorial Development team at Adam Matthew since April 2014. I have enjoyed travelling to archives and conferences in the US and Europe to research new project ideas. My background is in art history, anthropology and museums.