Adventures in Feministory: Women Cigarette Smokers

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.

by Katie Waldeck
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10 Comments Have Been Posted

Fabulous History!

Thanks for the great article -- as a smoking fetishiste myself, it's lovely knowing some of this history.

Girl Power

Love this article.. Girl power. It seems all smokers look after the girls to buy the cigars. lol


This article show us how powerful propaganda can be, with the adequated psychologic theory in practice a lot of social change can be done.

This is great, coming as a

This is great, coming as a pre-cursor to the Bitch Mad World reading of "Can't Buy My Love." Kilbourne talks about this a bit in the book. Just yesterday I saw someone comment on another blog about this very history, although in his slightly illiterate comment he claimed that this is a sign that the women's movement means nothing and women are always still just the pawns of men. Riiight.

If you find this history interesting, definitely read "Can't Buy My Love." I do believe there will be a discussion of the book on this very blog in the next week or two (or did I just make that up?). Kilbourne is a little heavy handed at times, but there are some good insights in the book.

Yep, we've come a long way.

Yep, we've come a long way. The campaign was so successful that lung cancer passed breast cancer deaths in the 1980s. Unfortunately women appear to be more susceptible to smoking-related illness, have a more difficult time quitting, and some of the most common treatments work less well for women than men.

I was at Bryn Mawr College,

I was at Bryn Mawr College, a single-sex school, from 1989 to 1994. When students arrived for classes in either the fall of '93 or the fall of '94 (I can't remember which), we discovered that the campus had been declared virtually smoke-free. This was an issue in part because Bryn Mawr has an incredibly powerful student government and a Quaker commitment to consensus, and the ban on cigarettes was instituted by the administration, and in part because Bryn Mawr was the first college in the United States to allow women to smoke. The connection between women's liberation and cigarettes is, as you suggest, complicated.

First woman's cigarettes

As for first woman's cigarettes, there are some really interesting facts about them . From the beginning, Virginia Slims have been created and marketed as a female-targeted fashion brand, generally oriented to a younger population (18-35 year olds). When various topics have emerged in the marketing campaigns for many years, the main threads have been liberation, slimness, attractiveness, independence, glamour, taste, style, and a contrast to men's cigarettes. Even in our days they are still in great demand in stores etc.., so the advertising campaign was indeed very powerful and successful.

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