Vintage Sexism: Hanging on the Telephone

LeotardsImage via flickr

Of the stereotypical pastimes linked to women throughout the decades, few seem more persistent than the tendency to while away the hours on the telephone. While technology has redefined the way we communicate — and in many ways, made the landline seem like more of a novelty — these ads from eras past remind us of how easily we can be convinced that something we all do, perhaps now more than ever, was favored by one gender over another.

Take the above ad from the 80s, though miles apart, these “besties” do everything over the phone together, including aerobics routines. Perhaps the copy should have read: “Thank goodness for the advent of the extension cord, Emma. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to share my light-headed giddiness with you!”

Below we have ads from the 50s and 60s for the everyday housewife, who understands that the telephone is simply another tool of the trade. But closer examination reveals much more, “Your kitchen telephone looks so bright and beautiful on your wall, but it’s much more than that. It’s one of the most useful appliances you can have. Color telephones make your most-lived-in-room so much more livable. They let you pamper yourself…”


Image via flickr

Both ads, while very colorful and engaging, reinforced the stereotype that women hardly strayed from the kitchen; the copy only appealed to their sense of decor, as if they would find the actual function secondary to how well the phone might match their drapes. The only real mention of any useful feature is how it hangs on the wall, allowing for more counter space, and more room to prep meals.
Image via Photo of the Day Online

According to the ad above, bedside phones are important for safety, convenience, and comfort. Apparently, there’s nothing more comfortable than a hard plastic phone to snuggle up with right before bedtime, and bonus points if it comes in a precious shade of pink! As the copy states, “You know, of course, that a bedside extension phone has its practical, everyday virtues. But a bedside phone has a wonderful bonus as well. Comfort“. This ad seems to award more credit to the female consumer and her ability to discern the pros and cons of acquiring a second phone for the same room in the house. But ultimately, it assumes that she’ll want that second phone as close to her pillow as possible — and why fight it, when that’s all a lady really needs to be safe and comfortable? 

What do you think these ads have to say about women and their perceived relationship with the telephone?   — By Amy, Customer Care Assistant Lead

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  1. Avatar
    Bry 01/31/2014 at 8:06 am #

    What is wrong with talking on the phone? And what is wrong with more counter space? Or talking on the phone in bed if that’s what you want. Why is that “sexism”? I just don’t see it.

  2. Avatar
    Adrienne B. 01/31/2014 at 9:31 am #

    Decades ago, my grandma’s cousin bought a video camera and my family began recording these amazing videos – partially scripted, partially improv. These creative videos are something that our family will treasure for years and years.

    In them, there are several scenes in which my grandma chats away on the phone as the clock twirls by and the day turns to dusk. It’s funny. Hilarious actually. It is SO my grandma.

    My point is, I think we often like to pin the “sexism” labels on things that were ultimately pretty realistic. Women were home, there was no internet, and there was a lot of housework because we didn’t have the convenience of the advanced appliances of today. Women, I imagine, relied on telephones pretty heavily to keep in touch with family and friends.

    I find the 80s ad silly and pretty funny. Because it is. I also would guess that was the thought behind it in the first place. Make it funny.

    I think there’s enough real sexism – both in the pas and present, that we don’t need to look for it in silly things like telephone ads. Are we just looking for reasons to be annoyed now? In another decade we may be outraged about how 2010’s women were portrayed as spending their days writing blogs and posting outfits of the day.

    • Avatar
      Tam Francis 01/31/2014 at 12:53 pm #

      Adrienne, I love your take on this as well. I’m not sure how I see it as sexist either and maybe some women like to cook and exercise and talk on the phone. I have no problem with any of it and wonder what the author’s intent is. Great vintage pix though. I’ve written a “vintage” novel and I have to say my 1940s characters are on the phone a lot.

      Tam Francis

    • Avatar
      Amy K. (ModCloth) 02/02/2014 at 6:55 pm #

      Thanks for your feedback, Adrienne! You make some excellent points, and I agree that it’s hard to know what may be regarded as stereotypical or sexist when we look back on another decade. Ultimately, I think an individual’s perception is more important when it comes to making that distinction, because we’re bound to all have a different take depending on where we’re coming from. I have to admit, it was pretty rough finding ads of men in spandex talking on a phone. 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Beth 02/01/2014 at 5:46 pm #

    Okay, I actually enjoyed these ads. In fact, I have a similar print, of a 1950’s women on the phone, hanging in my kitchen. I often am cooking and baking and chatting to my mom or sister or bff, just like the women in the ad. I just do not have to worry about getting the cord caught in the oven door or slipping into the cooking pot like those ladies did! And the women on their heads, that is just awesome. I wish I could do that! So, I don’t really find these ads any more ‘sexist’ than any other ad targeting a specific group (I mean, I receive coupons in the mail for maternity clothes, my husband gets Lowe’s. I am not at all offended, even though I DID by far bring the better tool set and power drill into my marriage. 🙂 Honest, these ads are great, I really think they are a lot of fun!

  4. Avatar
    Michelle Diane 02/02/2014 at 12:22 am #

    So I guess I’m super stereotypical because I have been known to buy appliances that match my decor over quality and it never works out. Now I take a guy with me to buy things like that. Also, those poor 80’s models who had to stand on their head until they got the shot. All the blood must have rushed to their heads.

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