My diatribes about tobacco advertising often focus on its role in promoting nicotine’s weight-suppressing effects (and probably in encouraging our strong preference for slimness as well). Like all successful seducers, however, the tobacco industry has more than one arrow in its quiver. In this post I’d like to talk about smoking as a symbol of women’s rights and the way in which the purveyors of tobacco have capitalized on it.
When I accepted Smith College’s offer of admission in 1960, I don’t think I fully appreciated the company I’d be keeping. The ranks of my fellow alums include many illustrious advocates for and/or examples of female achievement—writers as diverse as Margaret (Gone with the Wind) Mitchell, tragic poet Sylvia Plath, and political humorist Molly Ivins; the redoubtable Julia Child; and feminist trailblazers Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, to name but a few.
I recently received the 100th anniversary issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly, featuring a decade-by-decade review of the college’s proud history of empowering women. Because of my interest in the history of tobacco use, I was particularly taken with an essay by Shirley Dlugasch Zussman of the Class of 1934. Zussman, a sex therapist living in New York, still active, still blogging at age 95, vividly evoked the heady sense of emancipation she and her classmates experienced: “World War I had brought women out of the house to work in offices and factories and given them a new freedom. The harsh sexual repression of the Victorian age had begun to subside…. [The] students relished the new freedom women had. Smoking was common, its dangers still unknown.”
The tobacco industry probably did not invent the connection between smoking and women’s emancipation, any more then it invented nicotine’s weight-suppressing effects, but it was similarly quick to turn the connection to its own advantage. Lucky Strike enjoyed remarkable success in expanding the women’s market by persuading a group of debutantes to smoke as they walked in the 1929 Easter Parade in New York, billing cigarettes as “torches of liberty” and lending a new air of respectability to smoking in public. By the time Shirley Zussman and her classmates arrived in Northampton, MA in the fall of 1930 to begin their freshman year, smoking among women had become commonplace on college campuses as well as in other settings.
In 1963 the so-called “second wave” of feminism was sparked by the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Three years later the National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed, and in the early ‘70s, Gloria Steinem became the founding editor of Ms. magazine. It was during this era that the Virginia Slims brand was launched, using the same twin themes of liberation and weight control that had worked so well for Lucky Strikes in the ‘20s. Images of sleek, glamorous women succeeding in business and social settings were served up to the catchy tune of “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
One big difference from the college days of Shirley Zussman: By now the health hazards of smoking had been well publicized. You might think the women’s movement, committed as it was to protecting the health of women, would have confronted the tobacco industry—but you would be wrong. Sadly, by advertising in women’s magazines, contributing to women’s causes, and sponsoring women’s sports events, Big Tobacco was able to fend off most potential opposition, and by and large the risks of smoking were downplayed in the pages of Ms.
The introduction of “women’s cigarettes” saw an alarming uptick in smoking initiation by 14-17 year old girls, running counter to the steady overall decline in smoking in the U.S. beginning in the early ‘60s. Thus were excess numbers of young women in the generation just behind mine lured into tobacco addiction.
Emancipation? Liberation? Or clever manipulation by people who have their own bottom lines and not your best interests at heart? You be the judge.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.