Filling a Vacuum: Women's Health Information in Good Housekeeping's Articles and Advertisements, 1920-1965

By Chuppa-Cornell, Kim | The Historian, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Filling a Vacuum: Women's Health Information in Good Housekeeping's Articles and Advertisements, 1920-1965


Chuppa-Cornell, Kim, The Historian


FOR MEDICAL ADVICE and treatment, most eighteenth-century women relied on a network of folk wisdom passed through female neighbors, relatives, and local midwives. In the nineteenth century, many women supplemented these traditional sources with knowledge gleaned from lecture tours and health manuals. By the twentieth century, however, the medical profession's establishment of authority drastically altered this informal and communal system. As a result, women were forced to turn elsewhere in their search for medical information. One of the places to which they turned were popular women's magazines, which, as a part of their weekly or monthly diet of housekeeping tips, child-care strategies, and fashion advice, also included articles and columns on health-care issues. Perhaps even more important than the articles as a source of medical information were the advertisements carried by the popular magazines that offered readers advice on everything from beauty to birth control. This article looks at health articles and advertisements aimed at women between 1920 and 1965 in one of those magazines, Good Housekeeping, and finds, perhaps contrary to expectation, that rather than dispensing helpful knowledge, much of the materials published offered dangerous and unreliable information.

Prior to the professionalization of medicine, women served as the traditional healers, midwives, nurses, and pharmacists in their communities. Most of these women did not view themselves as doctors because their roles were communal, informal, and often paid in kind rather than in monetary means. Male doctors began changing this long-held pattern as part of the general trend to establish professional standards in the nineteenth century. Physicians succeeded in solidifying their expertise by reforming medical schools to restrict enrollment, reorganizing the American Medical Association (AMA) for greater political power, adopting stronger licensing practices to curb competition, and restructuring hospitals to serve a wealthier class of patients. As a result, the scientifically trained male expert emerged to replace the informally trained female practitioner, discrediting her "folk" remedies and "superstitious" knowledge in the process. The medical profession's struggle for authority in the late 1800s seemed, at first, to offer women equal footing in that they initially gained entry into elite medical schools (most of which were strapped for funds and needed students). The opportunity proved to be short lived, however, as discriminatory practices caused the number of women in medical schools to drop 54 percent between the high enrollments of the late 1800s and the decreased enrollments of the early 1900s. Medical school administrators adopted entrance policies that succeeded in capping women's enrollment to about 5 percent from 1919 through 1950. Thus, the authority figure to emerge from the professionalization of medicine was clearly a male one. (1)

As the medical profession became more formal and authoritarian, it stressed its specialized knowledge, warning patients to stop taking health matters into their own hands. Dr. R. V. Pierce, for example, urged his readers to consult a professional physician at the first sign of serious illness because he alone possessed the needed skills to treat disease effectively: "No man can with advantage be his own lawyer, carpenter, tailor and printer; much less can he hope to artfully repair his own constitution." Women's magazines began echoing the physicians' warnings as early as 1903; Ladies' Home Journal editor, Edward Bok, cautioned his readers against continuing to use home remedies and folk wisdom: "The physician's fee ... which the mother seeks to save, may prove to be the costliest form of economy which she has ever practiced." (2)

Women's magazines not only supported the professionalization of medicine; they also capitalized on the trend for establishing experts with specialized knowledge. …

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Filling a Vacuum: Women's Health Information in Good Housekeeping's Articles and Advertisements, 1920-1965
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