Writing professor explores the evolution and contradictions of a “Mad Woman”
Before the rise of fictional character Peggy Olson on Mad Men, Jean Wade Rindlaub was a real life “Mad Woman” — a highly successful advertising executive whose mid-century career spanned three decades.
Rindlaub was a champion of free enterprise who rose to become the first female vice president, and later board member, of one of the most influential agencies on Madison Avenue. Yet, even as she herself pursued independence and a successful career, she used her success in the workplace to persuade women that they should remain in the home.
“Rindlaub embodies a fascinating contradiction: She was a powerful and influential corporate executive, yet she was selling to her female audience the virtues of staying home, being a housewife and looking after your husband and children,” says Ellen Wayland-Smith, associate professor (teaching) of writing, at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Through the advertising campaigns she created at ad agency Batten, Burton, Durstine and Osborn (BBDO) for such clients as Betty Crocker cake mix, Oneida silverware, Campbell’s soup and Chiquita bananas, Rindlaub helped sell American women the idea that their role as housewives was more powerful — and more patriotic — than any outside the home.
Indeed, Rindlaub wasn’t just selling cutlery and cupcakes, she was also selling a postwar American dream of capitalism and a Christian corporate order, says Wayland-Smith, whose research into the life of this complex figure has become the subject for her new book, The Angel in the Marketplace: Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America (University of Chicago Press, 2020).
“By buying into these images of morality through an unregulated market, many of the housewives who were the audience for Rindlaub’s ads helped fuel backlash against economic regulation and socialization efforts throughout the 20th century,” Wayland-Smith says.
One of the boys
Born Jean Wade in 1904 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Rindlaub moved to New York City in 1930 upon her marriage to Willard Rindlaub, an engineer, and was hired by BBDO as a copywriter, remaining with the agency until her retirement in 1963.
Unlike the heroines of Mad Men — young women thrown into a man’s world who use their sex appeal to help them climb the corporate ladder — Rindlaub was, by her own account, too homely to employ such seductive strategies.
“I was great at my job and I was great in the family circle, but at a party I couldn’t hold my own,” she wrote. “Nobody would look twice at me.”
Ellen Wayland-Smith. (Photo: Sarah Wayland-Smith.)
One female colleague described her, unkindly, as “the most unattractive female you’d ever want to lay eyes on.”
“She’s not anybody that anyone in the copy room wants to get into bed with,” Wayland-Smith says. “She’s described as having a mustache. She’s almost a man. She took herself out of that whole sexual economy.”
However, aware that she had to be enough of a woman to convince men that they needed her input, Rindlaub adopted the qualities of an earth mother. Mainly, however, she concentrated on being “one of the boys.”
“She hated women who complained about being discriminated against in the workplace,” Wayland-Smith notes. “She’d say, ‘If he hits on you, just laugh it off.’”
She defended the argument that women are underrepresented in the corporate world because they choose to opt out to have families, dubbing them “mark-time women.”
“Rindlaub argued that if there were fewer ‘mark-time women,’ then you would find more women in the executive suite,” Wayland-Smith said. “She never seemed to think that was a structural problem.”
A woman’s place …
Wayland-Smith became fascinated by Rindlaub after coming across her wildly popular wartime ads for Oneida during research for her first book, Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table (Picador, 2016).
“Titled ‘Back Home for Keeps,’ the idea behind Rindlaub’s ads was that when the boys came back from war, they would be welcomed with open arms by their sweethearts, with Oneida silverware on the table ready to make them a post-war home,” Wayland-Smith says.
This cloying sentimentality set the stage for Rindlaub’s career: Her ads continued to idealize domesticity, priming the nation for the post-war economic boom while encouraging women to surrender their wartime manufacturing jobs and newfound financial independence and return to their kitchens.
Ironically, even as Rindlaub was urging women to value domesticity over a job, her own career was taking off in one of the rare fields where women were still welcome.
“Advertisers believed that only a woman could speak to other women and convince them to buy their clients’ products,” Wayland-Smith says. “That was why Rindlaub was able to get where she did — because she claimed to be speaking from the woman’s point of view.”
But Rindlaub was no hypocrite.
“Jean sincerely believed that a woman’s place was in the home,” Wayland-Smith says.
Rindlaub saw her own role not as climbing the corporate ladder, but as being of service to America’s housewives by helping them find the best products. Thus, she was able to tally her professional life with her domestic beliefs.
Rindlaub’s view of her role also reflected how the advertising industry viewed itself in the 1920s and ’30s — as a service industry that facilitated the smooth functioning of the market.
“The view was that they were matching consumer need to production and greasing the wheels of this industrial mechanism so that the country could prosper and money could be made and this was a tide that would raise all boats,” Wayland-Smith says.
“Jean’s alibi for having a job as a woman was ‘I’m going to be the handmaiden for this new Christian utopia where all God’s children are going to be fed and clothed and have a higher standard of living.’”
A change of heart
However, when Rindlaub retired, her views changed radically.
A lifelong volunteer, she threw herself into working for the National Council of Women of the United States, a liberal group lobbying on behalf of women’s issues.
Ellen Wayland-Smith’s new book explores the rampant sexism on Madison Avenue during the era of Mad Men.
“That’s not only where she got into the idea of women’s rights in the workplace, but where she also became an advocate for the civil rights movement,” Wayland-Smith says.
In an article for Harvard University’s Radcliffe Quarterly, Rindlaub wrote, “I used to be proud of the fact that I could go into the workplace and hold my own with the men and I thought that was a great thing and that any woman who couldn’t do it was either just too weak or not up to the task. I know now that I deserved better. I didn’t have to put up with second-class citizenship.”
Rindlaub’s vocal freemarket economic views also changed in retirement. As she realized how many people were left behind by the failures of the trickle-down approach, she became an advocate of government-provided social services.
Towards the end of her life, Rindlaub declared that the ideals she had poured so much effort into promoting throughout her career were, in fact, a sham.
In a 1967 talk she gave to budding ad executives, she concluded, “I wish you the deep joy of believing in what you are doing. Because I know how bitter life can be when you have lost that belief.”
Wayland-Smith says she found Rindlaub an off-putting figure — until her retirement.
“The sentimentality and sexism of her advertisements was sometimes hard to take,” Wayland-Smith says. “Then at the end you realize, she’s not so bad after all. What I really like about Jean is that she believed her own hype until she didn’t.”