How to Be a Woman, According to 1960s Women's Magazines
Photo collage by Lia Kantrowitz


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How to Be a Woman, According to 1960s Women's Magazines

First step: Douche.

As a rule, I take issue with dismissing women’s magazines as shallow, vapid junk. Society has a habit of turning up its nose at things that are marketed to and enjoyed by women, which, yeah, is kind of an unfair double standard. No one should feel shame while reading Allure or the like. That said, go back far enough and there are some very valid reasons to drag women’s magazines that don’t involve shitting on people for being interested in fashion or makeup or home decor. As I learned over the course of a weekend after reading nothing but women’s mags from the 50s, 60s and 70s, there are some truly bonkers things buried in their dusty pages. So let's jump in the way-back machine to take a look at how women were told to be women back in the day. And then find your grandmother and give her a nice, firm hug.


Don't Talk About Sex on Dates…Kiss on a First Date… Or Dress to Accentuate Sexual Appeal

The January 1957 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal tackles an issue on every mother’s mind: her teenage daughter’s marriage potential. In an interactive quiz contained within, a woman can find out whether or not her precious angel baby will one day be found suitable for marriage by answering a series of questions about her daughter. Does she go on blind dates, for instance? Does she "pet when she goes steady"? Does she "refuse to go to church regularly"? Well, these, as you may have guessed, are bad signs.

In fact, if your daughter follows ten or more of the practices in the quiz (loses her temper easily with family members, goes to parties…occasionally), the magazine warns "she may find it difficult to make a successful marriage." But it's not all bad news. "On the other hand, if your daughter is too prudish, lacks spontaneity, and is always in a state of conflict, she may also not be able to make a happy marriage. With either extreme, she needs more understanding or guidance than you are giving her now.”

Douche Often

Every issue of Seventeen, Cosmo, and Ladies’ Home Journal I flipped through featured two or more ads for douches. Women's magazine publishers were obsessed with the stuff, apparently. Or addicted to the money the ads brought in. Either way, the message was clear: Vaginas are weird and meant to be treated as problems to be solved. Of course now we know the practice is not recommended by doctors, and can lead to yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis and, in some cases, ovarian and uterine infections.

A Gentle Spring ad, left, from 1978. Demure ad was from 1969.


But beyond the questionable efficacy of the product is the way it was marketed in these periodicals—it was made abundantly clear you couldn't be truly beautiful or keep a husband if you didn't use them. The tagline to one: "The world's costliest perfumes are worthless unless you're sure of your own natural fragrance." Pretty foul, manipulative stuff. But at least women of the day weren't being encouraged to use Lysol for feminine hygiene. Oh wait.

Learn Where to Smoke

According to Peg Bracken, author of the book I Try to Behave Myself, an etiquette guide for “liberated young ladies” sampled in a January 1964 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, once a lady takes up a healthy cig habit, it’s important for her to know when and where it's appropriate to light up. Bracken, quite reasonably, suggests women shouldn't smoke in elevators. But also suggests they not smoke on the street. Such an act, she writes, “gives her a Sadie Thompson or beatnick or washerwoman effect, depending on her age and build.”

Furthermore, Bracken writes, a woman who smokes should carry her own cigarettes. "No man will marry a woman who's always bumming theirs."

Coddle Your Man

An article in the August 1965 issue of Cosmopolitan titled “38 Ways to Coddle a Man” is an early look at the long tradition of such lists in the pages of women's mags. And some of the suggestions here are truly bizarre. Highlights include:

“Just once—don’t wake him in the middle of the night to say you’re feeling lonely and insecure. If he has a tough day ahead, he may need the sleep.”


“Give him your full, rapt, before-marriage attention when he’s telling you what happened at the office.”

“His idea of Nirvana is a vigorous backrub… Instead of investing time with the PTA, take a course in Swedish massage.”

"If you know exactly why his motor is sluggish (his car motor) don't say so."

Earn Money… Like a Man

“The childishly simple truth (not yet recognized by many women) is this: the way to earn a man’s salary is to get a man’s job,” writes Caroline Bird in a February 1974 issue of Cosmopolitan. Bird’s article, “How to Get a Man’s Pay,” is filled with tidbits like this, as well as lots of advice for women looking to climb the corporate ladder without sacrificing their feminine charms.

Are you the type who can handle doing a man's job? Bird suggests asking yourself:

“Can You Keep Going Without a Daily Dose of Praise?”

“Can You Manipulate Circumstances to Your Advantage?”

“Can You Regard Men as People Instead of Sex Objects?”

That last one is indeed real, and about it Bird writes, “Don’t laugh. The working world is full of men, and they are not there to play the mating game. A few women do sleep their way to the very top, but that is not a reliable means of professional mobility.”

Yep, sounds right.

Above All Else, Understand It's Always Your Fault

Back in the 60s, Ladies’ Home Journal had a recurring feature called “CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED?” in which a male therapist, William Zehv, weighed in on the woes of average couples everywhere. First, the woman tells her side of the story, followed by the man, and then the good doctor issues his diagnosis and explains to the reader how it all worked out.

In the January 1964 edition of “CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED?” 28-year-old Vera discovers her husband Thad has been having an affair. It's also revealed that her husband Thad—literally his name—has flunked out of medical school and has taken a job as an insurance adjuster from the father of his mistress. When finally confronted by Vera, Thad proceeds to 1) Deny everything 2) Refuse to grant her a friendly divorce. 3) Continue to see the other woman and lie to Vera about it.

Zehv excuses Thad’s lies. His shortcomings, after all, a result of an overbearing mother and Thad’s fears that Vera may have undiagnosed epilepsy (???). "Thad's mother brought him up to believe that it was unmanly to admit error, weakness, ignorance in any field," he writes. "She taught him to regard failure as a calamity. So he refused to acknowledge his failure at the university, hiding the truth as he had hidden smaller failures from his mother in boyhood."

He implores the couple to have more sex. "When they frankly discussed their sexual difficulties and accepted a little sound professional advice, the difficulties gradually were eliminated," Zehv writes. "Their lovemaking became mutually enjoyable and more frequent." In the end, all that sex leads to the ultimate quick fix for any troubled marriage: a baby! The couple brings their infant to Zehv's office after six weeks, and the magazine therapist is happy with what he sees. "As a counselor, I was proud, seeing the radiance of their faces as evidence of a marriage that would last."

Nothing left to see here! Great advice as always, Will!

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