Tracy Briggs: 'Help Wanted-Male' vs 'Help Wanted-Female' ads might be why women were burning their bras

Prior to 1973, most newspapers ran "help wanted ads" geared at either men or women. We found a few that might shock you.

Prior to the early 1970s, newspapers ran employment advertisements based upon with gender employers sought to hire. Graphic by Emma Vatnsdal

How much of the news did you grasp when you were a kid? As a child of the ‘70s, I remember one summer seeing a bunch of grumpy men on TV talking about something called Watergate. “How boring,” my 9-year-old self thought. Then I went back outside to try and break the teeter record with my siblings and cousins, just like Bobby and Cindy Brady did on “The Brady Bunch". Even when we dabbled in current events, I wasn’t sure exactly what was behind it. Case in point: my friend Lisa and I, singing along and acting out the lyrics to Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” in my groovy purple, shag carpeted bedroom.

I knew that song was about “women’s lib”, I just didn’t really know what that meant. It turns out, I just needed to take a peek in the back of our daily newspaper to see what Reddy was singing about.

While the newspaper's front pages documented the equal rights movement — its protests and events — it was in the back of the paper, in the small print of the “help wanted” ads where you could see the reasons why so many women felt compelled to fight in the first place — such glaring examples of inequality spelled out in the opportunities men and women were provided everyday just trying to earn a living.

The battle heats up

Prior to 1973, newspapers all over the country routinely organized their Help Wanted ads based upon gender: “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female”, and they often followed gender-based stereotypes — authority roles for men, support staff roles for women.


While some employers bought gender-neutral ads when looking to hire, most prior to the 1970s placed ads in the category of male or female. Photo/Emma Vatnsdal

The jobs advertised for men were diverse, everything under the sun from service and sales to healthcare and business to engineering and technology. Most careers in management, leadership and administration were almost always advertised in the male category. In other words, women needn’t even bother to apply. Their career growth in these areas was stunted before it even began. (The same could be said for people of color with some advertisements seeking “whites only” or for people of certain religions “seeking nice Christian girl.”)

But all of this started to change shortly after The Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. Following pressure from The National Organization for Women, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reversed an earlier ruling and called for an end to sexually segregated want ads.

The first national demonstration for women’s rights in over 50 years shown on Connecticut Avenue NW in Washington, DC August 26, 1970. Similar protests were also held at newspapers around the nation as women demanded the end of gender-specific want ads. Two years later, the Supreme Court made that law. Photo courtesy: Flickr

But those wanting to keep the want ads just the way they were didn’t go down without a fight. Some people argued forcing gender, race, and faith neutral want ads was a violation of free speech. But in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the gender-specific ads were discriminatory. The majority opinion stated, “By implication, at least, an advertiser whose want ad appears in the ‘jobs-male interest’ column is likely to discriminate against women in its hiring decisions.”

Following that ruling, the newspapers that hadn’t already made the change to gender-neutral help wanted ads, did so.


If you haven't seen these ads, you should

I don’t remember when ads were defined by gender. It was only in one of my favorite college classes, “History of American Journalism,” where I saw some. Given the importance of this in the history of women's rights, I think it's a good idea to go back and take a peek at the messages being sent to society through its want ads.

“The debate over help-wanted ads was not only a crucial moment in the initial battle to legally define sex discrimination; it also helped escalate the women’s movement.”

— Nicholas Pedriana/Sociologist

I decided to look at some random newspapers from all over the country, from the late 1960s and early 1970s — in the final years of the gender-specific want ads. I wanted to see the reality women faced as they set out to get jobs and build careers. (In this instance, I only sought to make a contrast between the jobs offered to each gender. I didn’t specifically look for ads seeking people of certain races or religions. But that is absolutely a story worth doing as well.)

Comparing typical 'Help Wanted-Male' vs 'Help Wanted-Female' ads in the late 1960s and early 1970s

This ad found in a Florida newspaper in 1968 is very typical. One company — many different opportunities for the male job seeker.


On the other hand, here is a pretty typical ad for women from a similar company of the time. The only choice offered female job seekers was what kind of clerk they wanted to be.

The "Help Wanted - Female" sections we searched were full of ads for clerical and support staff positions for women. New Jersey newspaper/ archive

Somewhat condescending ads for “Gal Friday’s” and secretaries were peppered throughout the want ads as if the only way a woman could seek to occupy the executive suite would be to fetch coffee for “a young v.p.” Think "Mad Men."

The want ads were full of "Gal Friday" positions for women looking to assist men. We found very few ads seeking women to fill leadership roles in newspapers prior to 1973. Philadelphia newspaper/ archives

Even when employers placed the same job title under both genders, the pay offered to the female job seeker was often less than that offered to the male job seeker. Take these two ads for a Fargo accounting firm published in The Fargo Forum in 1971. Each job required a business degree. But men were offered the chance to supervise six “girls” and offered a salary of $9,000. Women with the same degree were not offered the chance to supervise six “boys” and their top salary was $1,000 less.

This ad in The Fargo Forum in 1971 sought a male accountant to supervise six girls and paid up to $9,000 a year. Forum archives

The same company offered female applicants $1,000 less then the men and did not provide the chance to become a supervisor. Forum archives

From my hours of scouring newspaper archives, I found “Help Wanted-Female” ads frequently mentioned appearance, while men’s seldom did. Of course, the most well known examples of this through the years has been the airline industry hiring flight attendants, known then as “stewardesses.” The requirements were stringent for age, height, weight, marital status, even vision.

Airlines had strict requirements regarding the appearance of its flight attendants prior to the 1970s. Philadelphia newspaper/ archive

It should be noted that employers could also place ads simply under “Help Wanted” with no preference of which gender applied. However, sometimes even when this was done, gender was mentioned and the requirements were different. Why didn’t this bar require its male bartenders to be attractive? Didn’t they see how many tips Tom Cruise got in “Cocktail”?

This 1971 ad for a small town bar in Minnesota required that female applicants be "attractive." Forum archives

Finally, I thought it might be interesting to take screenshots of the want ads for women and men on the same day, with similar font size and placement on the page. These clips are from May 4, 1969 from “The Philadelphia Inquirer.” Bottom line: men were offered the chance to become management trainees, while women were given the chance to make a career out of “being nice.”

These two ads were side by side in a newspaper dated May 4, 1969. The jobs offered to each gender are vastly different. Philadelphia newspaper/ archive

These two ads were side by side in a newspaper dated May 4, 1969. The jobs offered to each gender are vastly different. Philadelphia newspaper/ archive

It seems as though women involved in the second-wave of feminism of the '60 and '70s were tired of “being nice” and were ready for real change.

Other stories by Tracy Briggs:

Stranded in a car for 3 days in 50 below weather, a 16-year-old North Dakotan faced multiple amputations. Where is Bennett Stebleton now?

Where is John Thompson now?

Angry mob of 500 fails to lynch a cop killer in 1888, but he became the one and only person hanged in Clay County

Train robbery near Glyndon, Minnesota in 1897 proves stupid criminals are nothing new

Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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