How the Father of Public Relations Paved the Road for Women’s Rights: Post-second Wave Feminists Will Not Approve

Easter Parade and Bonnet Festival in New York City (Mashable)

Easter Sunday, in March 1929, as people watched the Easter Sunday Parade in New York City, they were unprepared for the shocking appearance of a gaggle of gorgeous young women walking the parade while smoking cigarettes. Yes, smoking, and in public!

The sight of these beautiful, youthful women smoking in public was not only distasteful, but many believed a gross display of the current feminist manifesto, and at its worse.

Just a little context….

While women had long smoked pipes, to see women openly engaging in an activity that was relegated for men was more than testing the boundaries of decency. America was shocked!

Furthermore, this defiant act that was supposed to free women from an oppressively male society has not only held them in bondage to an unhealthy habit but served to be no more than a cosmetic band aid on the problem of female strength and autonomy.

The who, what, where and why of what went down….

While what would be called the Torches of Freedom campaign happened almost a century ago, the cause was a symbolic gesture of equating smoking with women’s liberation, but more importantly, with measuring themselves against men. The cigarette was obviously a symbol (a phallic one) of male subjugation.

Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, pretty much used propaganda to convince women that by smoking women would free themselves from the bondage of a society that would not allow them free reign.

What did the Torches of Freedom actually accomplish for women?

In the moment of the decade, being able to smoke freely probably made women feel as though they had been empowered, as through Bernays’ campaign women were not only empowered to stand toe to toe with men of their time, but they also were told cigarettes could help them control their weight.

Yes, there is a great irony in this situation….

On the one hand, women are being told they could be free (by a man), and the tool of that freedom is not only dangerous to their health but one which women would use to be sexually attractive, for men.

Women are taught to vote in the US in 1935 (FEM Magazine)

Some public relations perspective….

On a PR level, the event got a lot of publicity. In fact, it influenced a whole generation of women to take up smoking, but were they freed?

When looking at the event decades later, many second wave feminist and post-second wave feminist might not see these women as accomplishing their initial goal of liberation, and for a number of reasons.

  • Previous to this event, women had won the right to vote and had made advances in their own reproductive health—that is liberating!
  • Even as little as two decades after the Torches of Freedom, women began to think of their lives in terms of whole lives—as mothers, daughters, girlfriends, professionals, etc. While they still used men as the standard by which they measured their worth, the conversation had depth. What was the point of smoking like men if the salary that you earned to buy the cigarettes was much less than a man?
  • For post-second wave feminist, this event is probably recorded somewhere in the annals of feminist pedagogy, but as a major achievement for women, especially in a society where feminist thought has come to be more inclusive and diverse, it probably means little.

Keep in mind, though, The Torches of Freedom happened right at the end of a decade that can only be described as one of extreme excess, so this might have something to do with the lack of substance behind the campaign.

What does freedom mean for a post-second wave feminist?

For a number of women, feminist thought has taken on different shades and has very different meanings. However, one simple definition that encompasses a pro-female movement is the ability to have autonomy over your life.

Feminism encompasses believing that women have the right to choose the direction of their lives. It is not that women should go one way or the other, but they have that basic right of choice.

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