Selling Women’s History: Packaging Feminism in Twentieth-Century American Popular Culture 

The book cover of Westkaemper's Selling Women's History

Emily Westkaemper, University of Rutgers Press, 2017 

Review by Elana Levine

From Beyoncé performances to social media hashtags, references to feminism have a regular presence in the landscape of twenty-first-century popular culture. Yet the intersection of feminism and the typically commercialized sphere of the popular is not a new phenomenon. Across the twentieth century, American media and consumer culture spoke to and about feminism, referencing women’s historical contributions in ways that advanced capitalist interests while also challenging gender-based inequalities. In Selling Women’s History, Emily Westkaemper traces the engagement with feminist and women’s histories in popular culture from the lead-up of the passage of the nineteenth amendment through the launch of the “second wave” liberation movement, demonstrating the ways that the commercial and the political were consistently intertwined.

Westkaemper both broadens and deepens our existing understanding of popular culture’s historical engagement with feminism and women’s experience. While previous scholarship has considered the ways that women’s magazines or daytime radio serials spoke to and about women’s place in the public sphere, Westkaemper expands the story to analyze cultural objects such as ad campaigns, comic books, and feature films, as well as the practices of women media producers, including women in the early twentieth century advertising industry and feminist historians involved in radio and comics production in the 1930s and 1940s. Her distinct focus on the attention to and engagement with the place of women’s history across these sites demonstrates the prominence of referencing the past as a persistent strategy for addressing women’s social and political significance. This strategy may have been especially useful for a consumer culture pursuing profits while navigating the many changes in gender roles and relations across the twentieth century. Referencing women’s past allowed cultural producers to demonstrate respect for traditional femininity while suggesting historical precedent for contemporary women’s advancement into conventionally masculine spheres such as the business world.

Proceeding chronologically across much of the twentieth century, Selling Women’s History makes its most distinctive contributions in two ways: by attending to the practices of women workers in the culture industry, particularly adwomen, and by accounting for the use of history within African American women’s cultures and everyday life more generally, largely through analyses of ephemera and consumer goods. The professional practices of adwomen factor into several chapters and are the central focus of chapter 2, which details the deployment of “Quaker girl” imagery between 1910 and 1940. The place of women in the advertising industry grew significantly across this time, during which women’s exclusion from professional societies led to them establishing their own such clubs in cities nationwide. These clubs mimicked men’s advertising societies’ heralding of historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin with their own historical appropriations. Drawing upon the “Quaker maid” as an archetype of women’s independence and contributions to society, groups such as the Philadelphia Club of Advertising Women additionally made her a symbol of women’s professionalism. These adwomen sought both to validate and honor women’s past and to demonstrate their own contemporary stylishness in contrast to the maid’s plainness. Through this imagery and other uses of the past, adwomen sought to advance their professional standing.

The adwomen’s clubs were racially exclusionary spaces, even perpetuating racist assumptions about exoticized women of color. But African American women, particularly journalists and clubwomen, also employed ideas and imagery about the past in critiquing white society and advocating for black women’s professional advancement, as Westkaemper illustrates through the work of African American journalist Bernice Dutrieuille. This history intersects with glimpses into the ways consumers may have integrated historical references into their everyday lives. Acknowledging the difficulty of documenting how women responded to popular culture, Westkaemper draws upon print ephemera and the adoption of historical imagery popularized in consumer goods as evidence of meaning making. In analyses of the racial ambiguity of the silhouette imagery in greeting cards exchanged between Dutrieuille and her correspondents, as well as in evidence from scrapbooks and needlework, Selling Women’s History suggests ways in which women’s history was not merely sold but made part of daily living. 

The extensive research and creative attention to marginalized spheres effectively shape our understanding of the development of U.S. women’s history as a field of inquiry and of the intersections of popular culture and feminism across time, as well as of histories of women, feminism, and cultural production. Westkaemper might have drawn more attention to the contemporary context to illustrate the ongoing impact of the “sale” of women’s history across the past century. The epilogue considers imaginings of women’s pasts in the 1990s and 2000s, including in “third wave” feminist and Riot Grrrl culture, as well as in mass mediated representations. Yet the analysis would have benefited from consideration of a concept central to contemporary feminist cultural analysis, that of “postfeminist” culture. 

The “postfeminist” label typically describes a late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century western, hegemonic cultural sensibility that acknowledges and values the contributions of feminism but understands them as completed endeavors, located in the past, which are no longer needed. The emphasis on women’s and feminist histories Westkaemper details fits well within such a sensibility. Without using the label, Selling Women’s History demonstrates the long, ongoing life of postfeminist culture, in which women’s past progress has repeatedly been held up as evidence of how far contemporary women have come. That the cultural narratives Westkaemper documents were so often in service to commercialism and corporate interests, even as they validated feminist and women’s histories, makes them all the more clearly connected to today’s postfeminist context. 

These ideas peak in the final chapter’s discussion of the Virginia Slims “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” campaign, in which corporate interests largely subsume women’s historical contributions, painting the present as wholly removed from the concerns of earlier generations of women, and especially of feminists. Selling Women’s History may be seen as illustrating the intensification of postfeminist notions over time, notions shaped in and through popular culture since the early twentieth century.