Women and Smoking in the 1920s

Written by ruby martes
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Women and Smoking in the 1920s
In the early 20th century, smoking for women was an act of defiance. (Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

The 1920s were a time of dramatic social changes but also of resistance to the changes. Women got the right to vote in 1920. Amelia Earhart started flying and Margaret Sanger founded a birth control organisation in 1921. In the early 1920s, women who smoked in public were considered so vulgar and depraved that they were blamed for a host of social ills, from breaking up families to causing men to resort to crime and even murder.

Social Attitudes

Nice women were not supposed to smoke. Smoking, like voting before it, was thought to be bad for women's delicate health. It was said that smoking would make women coarse and besmirch their motherly virtues. However, some women actively embraced the rebellious image of the female smoker. According to Steve Craig of the University of North Texas, smoking became a fad for women in college in the mid-1920s, with as many as one-third of female college students smoking.

Official Disapproval

So strong was the social disapproval of women smoking in public that a U.S. Representative tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to promote a bill to make it illegal in 1921. The surgeon general in 1920 warned of the dangers of smoking for women (but not, apparently, for men). Even the Cleveland executive board of the Boy Scouts recommended that scouts try to save women from indulging in the dishonourable act.


The tobacco industry saw a vast untapped market in women. In the late 1920s, some companies started running ads that were aimed directly at women. A 1928 campaign by the American Tobacco Company for Lucky Strikes had the slogan "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet," which implied that smoking would help women lose weight. Philip Morris used the slogan "Mild as May" to promote a cigarette it made specifically for women.

"Torches of Freedom"

In 1928, the president of the American Tobacco Company hired public relations counsel Edward Bernays to make smoking more socially acceptable for women. Bernays consulted a psychoanalyst, who told him that smoking represented equality for women. To make cigarettes more appealing to feminist women, Bernays dubbed them "torches of freedom." He created an effective publicity stunt by convincing 10 debutantes to smoke the "torches" while marching down Fifth Avenue in New York's Easter Parade.

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