You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about women’s rights issues. It is not an easy thing to do for a person of the male persuasion, much like how a white person who grew up in a middle-class suburb really cannot understand completely what is it like to grow up black in a ghetto. But with all the things going on politically in the US that seem detrimental to women specifically, you can’t help but wonder exactly what is going on with women’s rights, anyway.

Again, hard for phallus-wielders, because so much sexism and misogyny is baked into our culture.

What set me off on this train of thought, was one of those weird brain moments, when your noggin’ decides to suddenly start playing a jingle from an old commercial in your head on an endless loop.

This time, it was an ad that was popular back in the late 70’s, early 80’s, when I was but a wee slip of a lad. It was the jingle for the product “Virginia Slims”, a cigarette marketed at young women.

“You’ve come a long way, baby
To get where you’ve got to today!
You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby!
You’ve come a long, long way!”

Typically, the tv ads features young, attractive women in slinky or revealing outfits, like the print ad pictured above. The whole campaign is based on the idea that women have finally gained rights and are equal to men, and we can tell this, because they have their own cigarette.

So let’s break this down, shall we?

First of all, the jingle that celebrates a woman’s new-found status as a full human being refers to her as “baby”.

Twice. Small, weak, defenseless, dependent, crying, and helpless are all implied when you say baby.

And what is with the models? I understand using attractive women to get a man’s attention, but why for women? Is it supposed to be a message that you too can be young and attractive if you smoke our product? Again, pushing the idea that women should be young and attractive, and that is the only way they have value.

Not as bad as the 1920’s Lucky Strike campaign, which urged women to “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet!” (don’t get fat, get cancer!), although you notice the print ad featured below does suggest you can drop a few pounds by smoking.

Finally, women can rejoice that they are equal because they have their own cigarette?

To quote from Milton L. Rusk, who was the director for market at PM, “[T]he concept for a consumer segment did precede the development of the reduced diameter cigarette…research and creativity worked together for both Silva Thins and Virginia Slims. In both instances the usual process was reversed. Historically, the products were developed by the manufacturing people and then tested or then turned over to market to sell. In the case of the thin cigarettes, the concept of a market segment came first and then the development of the product.”1

In other words, nothing was changed but the packaging. It was decided that a slimmer, daintier cigarette would appeal to women. No doubt legions of women were exhausted from struggling to lift those giant, man-sized cigarettes.

It came down to a direct attempt to latch on to the budding women’s rights movement in order to sell cancer and heart disease to more women. In a sense, they did help women to achieve equality. Before 1969, women were 15-18% less likely to get lung cancer. In 1993, that had dropped to 5%.  Free at last!

On the subject of hidden assumptions, around the same time there was a marketing campaign for Tiparillos, small cigar-like products wth a plastic tip. “Should a Gentleman Offer a Tiparillo to a Lady?” was the way the ads and jingle started. The assumption of course, is that it is up to the man to make the offer. Heaven forbid a woman should just go buy the damn things herself if she wanted to smoke them.

But fear not, ladies! STrong, protective man is going to allow it! The jingle ends with the musical conclusion, “And what if he does, well baby it’s alright!”

Again with the baby.

So when I look back on what I have seen in just my lifetime, I can understand why some women would be upset and concerned about the current administration’s attempts to turn back the clock. Generations of women have fought that kind of built-in bias to try and get to the point where they still don’t get equal pay for equal work. Remember women did not even get the right to vote until 1920, and then for decades it was assumed that she would vote as her husband or father directed.

So I understand, even though it is from a distance, why women would want to protect what rights they have slowly accumulated. Because that condescending, biased attitude is still obvious in so many things today. Female protesters are routinely dismissed as over-reacting (just like a woman!), or being too emotional (just like a woman!). It is suggested by some that they are just angry they don’t have a man, or should be at home with the kids, or even that they must be lesbians or least man-haters. One pundit even derided the Women’s March the day after the inauguration as ” a bunch of ugly women who couldn’t get dates”. And now a woman faces jail time for the audacity to laugh at Jeff Sessions.

I think everyone would agree that our country is at a crossroads now, and is teetering on the edge in many, many ways. I can’t imagine a worse time to try and sideline and repress (or piss off) half of our population, and pass them off as second class citizens who need men to make all of the important decisions about their lives and their health.

As Tawakul Karman said, fighting for her rights in Yemeni:

“The solution to women’s issues can only be achieved in a free and democratic society in which human energy is liberated, the energy of both women and men together. Our civilization is called human civilization and is not attributed only to men or women.”

Or, as Nicholas D. Kristof pointed out in his book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women WorldWide”:

“When anesthesia was developed, it was for many decades routinely withheld from women giving birth, since women were “supposed” to suffer. One of the few societies to take a contrary view was the Huichol tribe in Mexico. The Huichol believed that the pain of childbirth should be shared, so the mother would hold on to a string tied to her husband’s testicles. With each painful contraction, she would give the string a yank so that the man could share the burden.”

Now THAT’S equality, baby!

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