Peggy Olson wasn’t alone: awesome ad-women before the ‘Mad Men’ era

Women’s presence was limited in the ad world during the 1960’s, however they played a huge part in the development of the U.S. industry far earlier.

“Nothing is more proof that women are important in advertising than the plain fact that they have been in advertising, in one capacity or another, almost from the very beginning of the profession,” said Christine Frederick, the founder of Advertising Women of New York.

That was in a speech Ms. Frederick gave in 1938.

In fact, though AWNY was founded a century ago, the first female-owned agency predates the organization by decades. Mathilde C. Weil opened the M.C. Weil agency in New York in 1880. She divided her clients into three categories: entertainment, education and profitable proprietary medicines.

Although women were not yet able to vote, postwar legislation granted them the right to work and possess their own wages, even if married. Women were paid less than men, and after the use of the typewriter became more widespread, they started to enter the business world as secretaries, according to Marilyn Morgan, an archivist at the Radcliffe Schlesinger Library.

For those women who ended up in advertising, a field so new that roles and accounts had not been divided into men’s and women’s jobs or accounts, there was massive opportunity for advancement. In 1885, the J. Walter Thompson agency hired its first female space buyer, Alice Stoddard. The foremost advertising trade publication in 1895, Profitable Advertising, was owned and edited by a woman, Kate Griswold.

In fact, their gender actually opened doors for women. They were perceived as specialists in targeting a demographic whose buying power had became apparent as categories such as trademarked foods, cosmetics, department stores and women’s magazines flourished from 1890 to the 1920s. Jane Martin, a founding member of AWNY known as the “woman who made ad women famous,” said in a 1916 address to the Women’s Press Club of New York City that 75% of advertising was directed at women and women did 90% of the buying. Not only that , she said that 67% of the goods for men were purchased by women.

Most advertisers believed that women could do a better job selling to female consumers than men because they possessed a “female viewpoint.” So many agencies started hiring women as copywriters to speak for and to female consumers.

“Women can be the greatest help in a constructive way where products sold to women are advertised. They see the project through the eyes of all women,” wrote an anonymous ad woman in a 1920 edition of Printers’ Ink. “You’d be surprised at how many, many women are in the background of our largest national advertising campaigns, hidden from sight, tucked away, but giving invaluable service.”

Women wrote for and managed some of the biggest clients in the first part of the century: Woodbury Soap, Macy’s , Ford and Campbell’s Soup, to name a few.

These women weren’t always tucked away in the office, though, especially as they gained more power and entered executive positions. The headline of the May 8, 1912 edition of the New York Evening Telegram, for example, announced: “Women Advertising Managers Now Entrusted With the Spending of Twenty Million Dollars a Year.”

A year earlier, JWT hired its first female copywriter, Helen Landsdowne Resor. And after she and her husband took over the agency, she staffed an entire department with women copywriters to work on similar accounts. By 1918, that department accounted for more than half the agency’s billings.

Still the gendered nature of consumer products extended into the agency, and women were often segregated from their male counterparts. AWNY was founded because women were not allowed to become members of the all-male Advertising League or attend their meetings.

While there are several stories of how the group originated, most agree that J. George Frederick, editor of Printers’ Ink (and AWNY founder Ms. Frederick’s husband), informed her that a banquet was being held by the Advertising League and she might sit in the balcony and listen to the speeches.

Ms. Frederick, a well-known editor at Ladies’ Home Journal, felt that “being privileged to sit in the balcony was not sufficient recognition for women who were doing things in advertising,” according to a 1938 account by Louise Rogers.

Myrtle Snell, an ad executive at N.W. Ayer & Son in Philadelphia, once noted that she never felt disapproval from her colleagues because of her sex. It was the men in the executive suite who paid her salary who were skeptical of her. And it showed in the fact that women were paid less than men. A 1924 survey, for instance, showed that female buyers of space were paid $5,000 a year while their male counterparts received $7,500.

Some women, such as copywriter Ms. Martin, were paid on par with what men got. She was earning $10,000 a year in the early 1920s. But she noted that “a good many secretaries in those days were virtually advertising managers on clerical pay!”

Even so, the opportunities for women in advertising through the 1940s greatly surpassed those in the decade that followed. “The female viewpoint opened a door for early ad women, but in the end it held them back,” said Ms. Morgan. The nature of the work done by these advertising women proved limiting, as agencies then pigeonholed them as suitable only for certain types of assignments, for promoting “female products.” And the very ads they worked on — projecting an image of women as homemakers — served to reinforce rather stereotyped views about women that restricted their advancement in the work world.

So “Mad Men” didn’t get it wrong, it just failed to mention that there were many Peggy Olsons before there was a Peggy Olson .