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Thinking Against the Grain

I am pleased to have been chosen for the Financial Times’ “Thinking Big” video series.  In this interview, you’ll see Andrew Hill asking me how I came to the concept of the Double X Economy (see also Andrew’s blog here).  Here is a more detailed account of the unexpected path that led to this moment.

The starting point itself is counterintuitive:  this whole journey began with the feminist critique of the beauty and fashion industry and my own determination, as a young assistant professor, to bring it down.

Jean Kilbourne recycled the same bogus, evidence-free argument to generations of young women. She reissued the video year after year, often using the same outdated ads.

I started my academic career after having worked in the advertising industry.  My research specialty was initially nonverbal forms of mass communication. I developed a particular expertise in the human response to pictures, for which I still have a good scholarly reputation.  In my early career, however, I coincidentally found myself being pulled into a controversy about the effect of advertising images–especially for beauty and fashion products–on women.  These were the days of Jean Kilbourne‘s Killing Us Softly and Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth.  Journalists would call my university, which had one of the world’s best advertising programs, and ask to be put in touch with an expert for comment. Because I worked on images and because I was a woman, they were consistently directed to my phone.

The problem was this:  the feminist critique of beauty images made absolutely no sense in the light of what was known about either the human response to images or the process of consumer product selection.  It was pure folk theory.  But that didn’t stop journalists from wanting me to give them a sound bite that echoed Wolf or Kilbourne. The experience was extremely frustrating.  No one would listen to the objection that these fantastic theories of control through pictures were without empirical foundation.

Look at this cover for The Beauty Myth! This kind of shameless exaggeration created a stream of feminism in which Western women--the wealthiest and most powerful group of women the world has ever known--focused on their own faces instead of working for the freedom of more disadvantaged women.

So I did what scholars do.  I dug in to debunk.  I began by following up the footnotes and references in the published criticism, hoping to find source material that would justify (or not) the claims being made.  A bad sign cropped up immediately:  there were very few citations at all in these works.  Indeed, most of these writers were just citing each other.  Usually, the argument was based on “Theory” (in that typically late 20th century way that required a reference to a famous theorist, but not evidence). Often, the critique was based on a historical narrative about how the modern economy had enslaved women (by making them wear corsets and so on).

This history, however, was a collective fabrication.  Please remember that women’s histories really only began to be written in the 1970s.  By the 1990s, there were still very few such works–and these were strongly skewed toward materials about a tiny but powerful subgroup, the elite puritan founders of the 19th century women’s movement.

Many of the first famous movie actresses were immigrants, but Anna Mae Wong was a Chinese American, born in California in 1905.

I started checking the assertions of this imagined history.  Over and over, I found that the facts didn’t match the claims.  The origin of the corset was class, not gender, for instance (yes, men wore them) and people did not lace them as tightly as was argued.  Most of the fashion designers in American history were not men, as was often claimed, and the roster of beauty magnates was overwhelmingly female (Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, Germaine Monteil, Estée Lauder, and many others were real people). The images of beautiful women in American pictorial history were not all white blondes–in fact, they were remarkably various in ethnic origin, reflecting the true makeup of a uniquely multicultural society.  Lipstick was not first worn by prostitutes but by actresses–and these daring, independent women (many of them immigrants) were mimicked as much for their challenge to convention as for their sexuality.  Indeed, the common feminist refrain that a single beauty ideal was imposed on American women was the biggest untruth of all.  In every era, there had been many ideals to choose from, often transgressive ones.

I was amazed at how easy it was to find representations of various ethnic groups and cultures in the fashion ads of the past. In the end, I was heartbroken because there was no way to show all that I had collected in book form. Clockwise from left, these appeared in trade cards, newspapers, and magazines and are meant to represent Native Americans, the Middle East, and Russia.

As I pulled apart this house of cards, I saw something else emerging:  the transformation that the modern economy had wrought for American women.  I first stumbled on it when I tried to identify some of the women who were casually mentioned in the biographies of the founding feminists, but who did not yet have biographies of their own.  I have mentioned just a few of these in an earlier post, but there were many.  Consistently, I found that names like Jane Cunningham Croly, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, and Paulina Wright Davis represented an entirely different kind of feminism, one firmly rooted in the opportunities growing from the new economy.  Several of these names belonged to women who built fortunes for themselves in fashion, but then turned to philanthropy and activism–for instance, Ellen Demorest and Harriet Hubbard Ayer. This group of founding feminists was arguably more effective than the stuffy puritan women being lionized in the first round of histories–but they didn’t fit the politics of late 20th century feminism, so these leaders were simply being lost to us.

One of the hottest "ideals" of the 19th century was Annie Oakley. Legions of Annie wannabes never held a gun, but bought the buckskins (and wore them). Far from being cowed by The Steel Engraving Lady feminists insisted was the only alternative, American women had many choices to emulate.

I continued building up the evidence that allowed me to draw a line through time from the early American colonies to my own era. Beginning with the very first factories, which employed teen girls, the institutions of the new market economy opened avenues for economic empowerment for females.  There were shops to sell in, magazines to write for, and, yes, even advertising agencies to work in.  It was as if an entire shadow economy sprang to life, populated by women.

Of course, this phenomenon was eventually replaced in the schoolbooks by a story of American industrialization in which men figure more prominently.  That one was a tale of railroads and steel (we have all heard it). In truth, those things came later.  The actual birth of the modern economy in America began in textiles and expanded to shoes, notions, garments, and so on.  It was a fashion economy, like it or not, and what made it run was the labor of women.

The Gibson Girl looks sweetly feminine to us today, but in her time she challenged conventions of all kinds. A particular distinction--one that drove conservatives wild--was her association with sports, especially golf. Her clothing was considered "mannish" and the drawing style "modern." Though you can't tell in this particular piece, she was always depicted as being rather large, towering above most of the men in the pictures, never mind the wasp waist.

It took me ten years to assemble all this into a book.  I organized Fresh Lipstick as a rebuttal of the feminist critique, yet its scope was larger.  I took on the problem of images, for instance, using a detailed reconstruction of the Gibson Girl craze.  I unearthed every issue of Life magazine in which she appeared and ran down every contemporary comment that was still available (quite a lot of material, as it turned out).  I explained the meaning of Dana Gibson’s visual style in the iconography of the Gilded Age.  I used the example to explain why human interpretations of visual materials are so much more situated, subtle, and cognitively engaged than the silly theories then being posited by feminism.