Academic journal article Nursing History Review

"Who Would Know Better Than the Girls in White?" Nurses as Experts in Postwar Magazine Advertising, 1945-1950

Academic journal article Nursing History Review

"Who Would Know Better Than the Girls in White?" Nurses as Experts in Postwar Magazine Advertising, 1945-1950

Article excerpt

Abstract. American advertising in the period immediately following the Second World War portrayed nurses as trusted advisers and capable professionals and frequently pictured them performing skilled work, including dispensing medicine and assisting in surgery. Advertisements published in a range of magazines whose target audiences varied by gender, race, age, and class show that nurses in postwar advertisements embodied two broad categories of representation: (a) medical authority, scientific progress, and hospital cleanliness; and (b) feminine expertise, especially in female and family health. Typically portrayed as young white women-although older nurses were occasionally depicted and black nurses appeared in advertisements intended for black audiences-nurses were especially prominent in advertisements for menstrual and beauty products, as well as products related to children's health. Although previous scholarly examinations of nurses in postwar mass media have emphasized their portrayal as hypersexual and incompetent, this investigation posits postwar advertising as a forum that emphasized nurses' professionalism, as well as complex expectations surrounding women's professional and domestic roles.

"Who would know better than the girls in white?" asked the headline of a 1947 advertisement for Modess sanitary napkins. The full-page ad prominently pictured three nurses, portrayed as young women in white uniforms and starched caps, passing each other on a hospital staircase. "Nurses, busy nurses," it went on to say, "bending, lifting, pulling, pushing, stretching . . . who could better judge the chafe-free comfort of a napkin?" Drawing on the daily demands of nurses' difficult jobs, the advertisement situated these young women as professional authorities whose experiences were relevant to women consumers. Their particular expertise as medical professionals was highlighted in ad copy that claimed nurses had proven Modess's safety and comfort in "hospital after hospital."1

Portrayals of nurses as hardworking and trusted professionals were common in postwar advertising in the United States, in sharp contrast to previous historical studies that emphasize the widespread portrayal of nurses as sexual objects and authoritarian menaces in other postwar mass media. Relying on an understanding that postwar gender ideology uniformly emphasized women's domestic roles, scholars have tended to interpret cultural representations of nurses during this period as symbolic of women's conformity to, or subversion of, expectations of domesticity. For example, Phillip and Beatrice Kalisch, writing with Margaret Scobey, describe the nurse of postwar television as "the ideal woman of the 1950s," whom they characterize as "kind, sweet, and marriage oriented."2 According to the authors, television nurses in the 1950s were rarely depicted doing "skilled work," and positive representations of nurses focused almost exclusively on feminine virtues rather than professional skill. Barbara Melosh asserts that nurses in postwar pulp fiction and sociological texts were often hypersexualized or explicitly frigid, symbolizing a cultural anxiety that paid labor "would pervert or unsex women" by portraying nurses as "failed women" who chose careers over marriage with disastrous or pitiable results.3

The portrayal of nurses in advertising provides one counterexample in which nurses in postwar mass media were portrayed as respected authorities, their professionalism was emphasized rather than downplayed, and they were not depicted as either sexually perverted or socially threatening. Instead, nurses in postwar advertisements embodied two broad categories of representation. First, they represented medical authority, scientific progress, and hospital cleanliness. Second, they exemplified feminine expertise, especially in terms of female and family health. In both cases, advertisers portrayed nurses as trustworthy professionals whose skill and experience lent authority to their claims. …

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