Depictions

Portrayals of Women

Tenement Mother doing Piecework; a woman sits at a table and works while holding her baby

The ways women and work have been portrayed in the media, literature, corporate publicity, and propaganda span the gamut from saintly to kitschy to scandalous. Portrayals of working women often embody concerns about femininity, sexuality, class, and home life, but can also be sources of humor and celebration. An early-20th century photograph of a mother doing piecework in her tenement apartment attempted to gain public sympathy for the plight of poor immigrant women, while war-time propaganda posters warned servicemen to stay away from prostitutes, who were depicted as disease-ridden femme fatales. 

Looking Forward; A female doctor works at a desk while children play a game in the background

Many portrayals show the struggle that existed around ensuring that women who worked preserved their “womanhood.” A 1922 poster from the American Social Health Association shows a “female physician,” but also highlights the fact that she is a mother.  Pamphlets written for secretaries emphasized the need for good grooming and maintaining their femininity, in addition to competence on the job. Pulp novels, on the other hand, played into the fears and thrills about working women by often portraying them as sexually voracious predators. Due to the lack of public portrayals of women in same-sex relationships, lesbian pulp literature, despite its sensational content,  was often one of the few places for queer women and lesbians to see themselves in pop culture.


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Depictions