The ubiquity of commercial cigarettes in the United States is a 20th century phenomenon. In large part, the massive popularity of cigarettes in the United States can be traced back to their rationing to soldiers during World War I and World War II. The cigarette’s rise in popularity amongst women, however, is a different story all together. In this special edition of Adventures in Feministory, we’re taking a look at how flappers, Freud, feminism and fashion transformed the perception and popularity of women cigarette smokers.
At the turn of the century, women that smoked cigarettes were associated with prostitution. A sign of “loose morals” and disregard of accepted social norms, in the United States, “proper” ladies didn’t smoke.
After World War I, however, when millions of their male counterparts picked up government-sanctioned cigarette smoking habits, a number of young women began smoking as well. This was the Roaring Twenties—an era where the flapper began redefining what it meant to be a woman. For flappers, cigarette smoking was sophisticated, stylish, and, of course, rebellious—it was a vaguely political symbol of their new found freedom.
By the mid-1920’s, cigarette smoking was popular among stylish young women, but it was by no means an acceptable behavior. Smoking-As-Woman was still seen as a sign of “loose morals” in popular culture.
Enter Edward Bernays, the father of public relations. Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, used his uncle’s theories of psychoanalysis and the principles of propaganda and applied them, for the first time, to business.
In 1929, Bernays was hired by American Tobacco Corporation President George Hill to find a way to convince women to pick up smoking. Hill wanted to lift the taboo of women smoking in order to, of course, sell more cigarettes. Bernays, in turn, hired psychoanalyst A.A. Brill, who told him that,
“Cigarettes were a symbol of the penis, and of male sexual power. He told Bernays that if he could find a way to connect cigarettes with the idea of challenging male power, then women WOULD smoke, because then they would have their own penises.”
In order to accomplish this mission, Bernays organized a publicity stunt at New York’s Easter Parade. He got a group of young socialites together to march in the parade and dramatically light up cigarettes. He told the press that, “a group of suffragettes were preparing to protest by light up what they called ‘torches of freedom’ ”. The story about the cigarette smoking debutantes was picked up by newspapers across the United States.
By appealing to women, the major advertising campaign that went along with Bernays’ public relations work had a tremendous impact on the sale of cigarettes; the number of cigarettes sold in the United States more than tripled between 1925 and 1930. By 1944, 36% of women smoked.
For women, smoking became more than just a fad. Smoking became a tangible symbol of women’s liberation, the result of a kind of corporate-sponsored feminism. Considering the curious linkage between feminism and smoking it comes at little surprise that, Virginia Slims, the first “women’s cigarette” brand, was introduced at the height of the second-wave feminist movement in 1968.
With the slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby” Virginia Slims similarly appealed to women with the corporate concoction of pseudo-feminist rhetoric. Women, now smoking at the same rates as men, bought Virginia Slims in droves. A brand manager for Virginia Slims said this about the wildly successful advertising campaign:
“It was never strident, almost always tongue- in-cheek, and not feminist so much as liberationist, in the sense that the slogan really meant, ‘You’ve got a lot of options now.’”
Considering that today an estimated 23 million women smoke cigarettes in the US alone, indeed we have come a long way, baby.