By Sharon Anne Cook
Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2012, 418 pp., $49.95, hardcover
Sex, Lies, and Cigarettes evokes many memories: for the first three decades of my life, smoke weaves through my recollections in a way that is entirely absent now. One particular memory is of a dinner in a local restaurant, sometime after I left high school, with five close female friends, catching up on news and gossip. After dessert, one friend nonchalantly took out a packet of cigarettes and proceeded to light up. It was a gesture that immediately set her apart, showed that she had grown up and moved on from her provincial school friends. Looking back it still seems a gesture of considerable power, and this book goes some way to explaining why one small act could demonstrate so much. Indeed, the compelling aspects of this book lie in its analysis of life stories, personal testimonies, memories, and photographs, which are skillfully drawn on to explain the many reasons women have used the cigarette over the last 130 years. It is not just a book about tobacco, although one can learn a lot about tobacco from it, but about the role and position of different groups of women in Canadian society and the ways in which they have negotiated public spaces over the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The central contention of the book is that the cigarette, as a visual device and material object, has allowed women to demonstrate agency in the changing circumstances of their lives, whether or not they themselves smoked. Sharon Ann Cook charts the ways in which Temperance women used campaigning against tobacco as a means of entering the public sphere in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Young women in the Temperance Union were trained to be antitobacco and anti-alcohol advocates, to take on leadership roles in local organizations, and to win authority through their perceived moral qualities, without transgressing accepted gender roles. Smoking, like drinking, was seen as reprehensible, and women were exhorted to discourage their male friends and relatives from indulging, and to refrain themselves. As Cook shows, it was only women on the margins of society who used tobacco at this point: "the very poor, the rebellious, the artistic, and the sexually explicit." Cook analyzes the use of sexual imagery to sell tobacco to men from the nineteenth century onward, showing the ways in which the equation of tobacco with the feminine rendered both available. Smoking among women was, from the start, instilled with sexual meaning and located at the boundaries of respectability.
Nonetheless, as the twentieth century progressed, the position of smoking among women moved from the margins to the center of feminine identity. The sexual allure of women smoking morphed into sophistication; its challenge to the status quo weakened as female smoking became conventional--yet it did not entirely lose its power to shock. By the mid-1920s, when advertisers began to target women as smokers, they did so with images of luxury and elegance. Smoking was tied with fashionable modernity: the cigarette appeared in advertising and popular culture alongside bobbed hair, short dresses, and slim silhouettes, a symbol of women's expanding public roles beyond domestic and maternal duties.
However, if this was emancipation, it was built on shaky foundations. Through the use of biographical testimony and archival analysis, Cook shows that women wage earners still faced hostility and little chance of promotion in the workplace, and that relatively restrictive codes of social behavior remained in place. For the majority of women during the interwar period, the risks of smoking remained too high. Smoking a cigarette could still mean the loss of a much-needed job, a ruined reputation, and eroded status. In other words, for many women, a substantial gulf remained between the images portrayed in advertising and reality.
It was not until World War II and beyond that women smoked in any substantial number in Canada--a trend Cook attributes to the growing number of women in the workplace, the opportunities paid labor presented to share cigarettes, and the greater financial and social autonomy of women, which allowed the consumption of tobacco. In this, Canada fits within international trends that see female smoking rates rise in line with women's increased economic and political participation. There is some suggestion that women smoking in professional, educational and public contexts simply mirrored male norms, but Cook gives enough examples of successful women who eschewed cigarettes to suggest that women's smoking was not just about adopting male expressions of privilege.
What the cigarette offered women, for a relatively short period of time, from World War II to the 1980s, was a socially acceptable means of negotiating the multiple demands of modern life, at both a physiological and performative level. From images of the competent professional to the sophisticated socialite, from negotiating stressful situations to relaxing with friends, smoking was associated in visual culture and in women's testimonies with myriad positive attributes, which helped women establish a range of identities. A substantial part of the book is given over to arguing that university campuses were crucial sites for the development of smoking culture; thus, it is not surprising that smoking figured strongly in the visual identities of second wave feminists.
Yet, although Cook argues that feminists adopted smoking as an integral part of a liberated identity in Canada, she overlooks the leading role of feminist health campaigners in bringing the health risks of smoking among women to the fore at a global level in the late 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, although the health risks of smoking are foregrounded in the early chapters, it is possible by the latter part of the book to be seduced into a bygone age and to forget that the reality of a smoking population, whether male or female, was, and remains, higher morbidity and premature death. In the latter decades of the twentieth century, women were instrumental in uncovering gendered tobacco marketing strategies and policy, and showing the reality of smoking women's lives. Poverty and addiction were compelling reasons many women continued to smoke by the turn of the millennium, a point that Cook touches on only briefly in her final pages.
Cook's analysis is loosely framed in Foucault's concept of "governmentality." She uses this primarily to evaluate the ways in which women have drawn on public and popular discourses in constructing subjective identities--"technologies of the self"--rather than to analyze and make explicit the complex processes and structures of power that underlie those discourses. The influence of the tobacco industry on smoking among women is clear in relation to advertising and expanding the consumer market, but more ephemeral in the extent to which the presence of a domestic tobacco industry in Canada, the lobbying potential of tobacco manufacturer's associations, and the importance of tobacco revenue for the state have played a role. In other words, if smoking allowed women to construct multiple identities, it did so within a context of financial and fiscal gain for (multi)national corporations and the state. Thus, it was not only women who had a stake in their smoking practices.
Further, the underlying processes and structures of power lay bare the patterns of inequality and attributions of value evident in discourses around smoking among women. Cook rightly rejects the simplistic argument that women were duped into smoking by clever marketing, contending that female smokers collaborated in and contributed to the creation of meaning around smoking. Using cigarettes fulfilled a function in women's lives, whether that was to stay slim, to project a "modern" feminine image, or to cope with the emotions and stress of achieving their ideals. Nonetheless, Cook also suggests that women smoked to manage the numerous demands of socially acceptable femininity, which were created, at least in part, by advertising and prescriptive literature that reinforced hierarchical gender roles. In an astute summary of these pressures, Cook alludes to the need for women to be "smart and responsible ... to demonstrate leadership while being thin, pretty and smartly dressed in the latest fashions." Given her earlier focus on the erotic power of the female form and the role of the cigarette in signifying this, she might well have added the need to negotiate sexual mores without transgressing the boundaries of respectability. In other words, for all that women traversed new spaces and challenged the sexual division of public space, they did so in a way that reworked rather than removed gendered ideals. Arguably, smoking created the illusion of empowerment, enabling women to become agents in their own oppression.
One of the key sites of gendered inequality in the modern period, child-bearing and child-rearing, is almost absent in Cook's analysis of the popular and visual culture of smoking. This omission is remarkable given the focus of the book on the ways in which the cigarette facilitated the creation of diverse identities, and is both a consequence and perpetuation of the devaluing of unpaid caring labor. The book centers on women in public spaces, negotiating public roles, but surely a good deal of the stress and pressure inherent in such roles came from the need to balance public identities with more traditional female norms, in the absence of a substantial cultural shift in male patterns of behavior. It is telling that, when Cook mentions women in health education, it is as potential and future mothers. Certainly, the societal proscription on smoking when pregnant and around small children meant that cigarettes may have remained absent from cultural presentations of motherhood. However, research shows that cigarettes filled an important function in helping women, particularly those in straitened circumstances, to negotiate the demands of full-time caring, with smoking rates particularly high among single mothers. The marginalization of women's domestic role, and therefore of the women undertaking that role, in an analysis of the role of smoking in female identities seems curious.
This omission can perhaps be explained by Cook's explicit recognition that much of her material focuses on privileged, racialized white, middle class women, although she tries to mitigate this by making it clear, and drawing in less-privileged groups when she can. Nonetheless, racialized nonwhite women appear in only two places: in the discussion of nineteenth and twentieth century cigar box imagery as exotic "others" and in the final chapter about smoking on the margins of society. This chapter brings together female prisoners, teenage mothers, drug users, and gay women across the twentieth century and provides some of the lesser-known and therefore most compelling material of the book. Within this chapter I found the life story that, to me, fundamentally demonstrates what might be meant by agency in relation to women's lives. Cook draws on the 1936 Depression-era diary of Lauretta, a widow who managed to create an independent, respectable, and socially meaningful life when economic, familial, and social circumstances left few options for survival. However, Lauretta did not smoke, at least not as recorded in her diary for that year. Simple conclusions about why women smoked, or did not smoke, remain elusive, but the power of this book lies in the way snapshots of lives beyond public and popular discourse render otherwise invisible women visible.
Rosemary Elliot is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Glasgow, Scotland and has published on the history of women and smoking, in Women and Smoking since 1890 (2007). Her current work focuses on smoking and health in postwar West Germany.
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|Title Annotation:||Sex, Lies and Cigarettes: Canadian Women, Smoking, and Visual Culture, 1880-2000|
|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2013|
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