Over 100 years ago, a woman was detained by a police officer for smoking a cigarette. After being stopped by an officer on a bicycle on Fifth Avenue in New York City, Mrs. William P. Orr blew smoke in his face and flicked cigarette ash toward him. Her rationale: “Yes, I was smoking a cigarette and I don’t see that I was doing any harm. I have done it in many other places… I think the policeman overstepped his authority.”
This incident marked the start of a century-long battle over women’s health, identity and behavior by raising the questions of who could and should smoke. While smoking would eventually become a public health question — cigarette smoking is a leading cause of preventable death — it has continued to generate debates over whether individuals have the right to choose to do something harmful. Throughout history, American women have fought for the right to vote, equal pay and to control their own bodies. But with hard-fought freedom comes choice: must women always choose what others say is right for them?
Controlling smoking in the early 20th century frequently was about controlling women’s behavior. Four years after Orr’s detainment for smoking on Fifth Avenue, the Sullivan Ordinance made it illegal for restaurant and bar owners to permit women to smoke in their establishments. The stated rationale from “Bowery moralist and political chieftain” Tim Sullivan was that “proper” ladies were offended by women’s smoking, and that it certainly wasn’t any kind of attempt by a man to control women’s behavior. Sure.
Despite the ordinance’s short duration — it only lasted two weeks — the sentiment underlying it was held by others as well. Women smoking was viewed by many as taboo, associated with what Amanda Amos and Margaretha Haglund have termed “louche and libidinous behaviour and morals.”
Over time, attitudes about women smoking began to shift, jump-started by World War I as women moved into traditionally male jobs while men were away at war. This change was driven in part by the women themselves, who, enjoying some new freedom, cut their hair short, wore trousers and smoked cigarettes. Tobacco companies also sensed a new wind blowing.
Cigarette advertising companies, which at the time primarily employed male advertising executives, quickly co-opted the ideas of independence that women began to assert at the polls and in the workplace. They targeted women, conveying the notions that women who smoked were independent, attractive and even athletic. Lucky Strike’s 1925 marketing pitch to women told them to “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” The message: Smoke and you’ll be thin.
Four decades later, the feminist movement played into cigarette companies’ hands. Once again co-opting the idea of liberation, the cigarette industry intensified its campaign and turned the slogans of feminism into more female smokers. Virginia Slims cigarettes told women, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Satin cigarettes similarly targeted women, communicating the idea that housewives and working women alike deserved some time to themselves to indulge in the pleasure of smoking. Cigarette advertising took advantage of women’s psychosocial needs, linking smoking to both equality and pleasure. We understand women, cigarette ads seemed to say. This marketing approach worked, as one in three women smoked during the 1960s.
But as the health risks of smoking for women became clearer — low birth weight babies, early menopause, osteoporosis and cervical cancer, to name a few — a class gap in female smoking emerged. Women with more education and higher incomes reduced their smoking.
In response, during the past four decades the tobacco industry shifted to marketing cigarettes to poorer and working-class women, who are more likely to smoke and less likely to quit smoking once they start. This included strategies like cross-promotions of cigarettes with luxury brand items, like Yves Saint Laurent pantyhose or scarves, and coupons for cigarettes bundled with food stamps. A review of tobacco industry marketing documents by researchers concluded that “sexist ideologies are particularly evident in the industry-conducted assessments of needs for low SES women,” viewing women as subservient, lacking in confidence and easily manipulated by outside forces.
Today, the decisions women make, including the decision to smoke, are interwoven with questions of both health and identity. Women differ from men in how much and how often they smoke. Among young women, factors like moving out of their parents’ home, getting married and becoming pregnant may impact their their decision to start or stop smoking. Other factors that can increase women’s smoking include depression, stress and becoming a mother at a younger age. In her research on women smoking, Lorraine Greaves has identified several themes in why women smoke, including establishing an image, creating identity and emotion control.
A century later, men no longer attempt to use smoking as a means of controlling the public behavior of women. And most women likely make decisions about smoking independent of what men would have them do. But women’s identity — how women see themselves and their options — is still crucially linked to whether they smoke. And women still face moral judgments for smoking that male smokers don’t.
In a blog post, writer Osien Kuumar wrote “I’m a woman and I smoke. So what?” Kuumar noted that while yes, smoking is “injurious to health,” so are the negative labels that people tag her with. She asked about smoking, “But how does it define my morals, my character or my so called ‘evil’ side? Why does that question who I am as an individual?” Relatedly, describing her smoking habit in the New York Post, Elisha Maldonado wrote that “some people just love to smoke. Count me among them.”
Women have striven for the freedom to chart their own path. For some, smoking is part of that. And they shouldn’t be judged for it any more than men are.