The History of Working Women's Impact on Food Products

Women are part of a dynamic history of food advertising and consumer culture

A Black woman wearing protective face mask buying grocery at a supermarket.

Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Always evolving to meet the needs of new generations of consumers, the food industry pivoted quickly to cater to millions of women working from home during the global pandemic. One notable Lunchables ad featured a woman, mouth open in shock or maybe exasperation, pointing to her to-do list: virtual learning, make lunch, pack a mask, broken sink, meal prep.

Women are top of mind for most consumer brands. Part of a dynamic history of food advertising and consumer culture, Lunchables is just the latest in a long line of packaged food products marketed to women juggling work, homelife, and everything else.

Selling Mrs. Consumer

Long before women became culturally accepted members of the American workplace, packaged food companies understood the importance of women’s food-related labor in the home. These companies recognized women’s purchasing power, especially related to household goods. This was thanks to home economists like Christine Frederick who published Selling Mrs. Consumer in 1929 which outlined the buying habits of the “average Mrs. Consumer.”

Woman Baking Biscuits

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While Frederick herself prioritized independence, she expected her book to maintain a domestic lifestyle that focused on family and the home. Missing from Frederick’s research were scores of low-income, unmarried women as well as women of color who already established themselves within the public workplace. Despite this significant oversight, white women of means and their domestic social expectations became the general target of food advertising for many years to come.

Social Change

Several significant social changes, including the success of the suffrage movement and the massive shortage of workers during the World Wars, led to a steady increase of women in the  American labor force. As new generations joined the working world, food companies continued to prey upon women’s societal expectations concerning their primary roles as mothers and wives. Companies pandered to housewives’ anxieties over the quality and overall health of the food they fed their husbands and children. Other concerns included the ability to balance a busy lifestyle or grocery store budgets—two issues we still see marketed in packaged food items today.

Foods for the Working Girl

Once it became clear that a significant portion of women did work outside the home, companies found ways to market foods relying on claims of boosted energy and work ethic. Many of these products were originally marketed to men, but shifted during the war to appeal to newly employed women.

A wartime ad campaign for Shredded Ralston whole wheat cereal featured both men and women with the slogan “I’ve got a job to do!” The woman sported a mechanic’s uniform with the focal point on her new occupation and patriotic duty: “Uncle Sam is counting on me.” Other foods that boasted energy-giving properties for women on the job included candy bars, such as Butterfinger, and carbonated beverages including Coca-cola and Pepsi.

Cake Mix and Culinary Creativity

One of the most recognizable products marketed to women for its timesaving was boxed cake mix. Introduced in the 1930s, cake mixes provided women baking shortcuts, while still allowing them to participate in the creative process of cake decoration. This marketing strategy relied on the belief that women still shouldered the responsibilities of homemaking despite working outside the home. The prospect of failure in either task was simply out of the question.

Bird's Cake Mix Advertisement

Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

These mixes, produced by the some of the same big brands we know today, such as Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker, changed the way women thought about “baking from scratch” and how it fit into their busier, rapidly modernizing lifestyles. While companies marketed these mixes to homemakers, they undoubtedly appealed to the scores of working women employed outside the home who still dreamed of baking even on busy days.

Convenience Culture

Post-war convenience culture led to a bounty of packaged foods that capitalized on the potential of the working woman’s pocketbook. These packaged and often pre-cooked foods allowed women to spend less time in the kitchen as they often required fewer ingredients and kitchen tools to prepare.

With the exception of numerous gender-specific diet foods, convenience foods weren’t explicitly made for women—companies simply realized who was doing most of the grocery shopping.

Some of the more famous convenience foods marketed to working women include quick desserts like JELL-O instant pudding (introduced around the 1930s), stove-top boxed mixes such as Hamburger Helper (invented in 1970), countless “health” and granola bars (a staple of the 1980s and 1990s fitness scene), and many instant products that only needed a quick rotation in the microwave or the addition of hot water. With the exception of numerous gender-specific diet foods, convenience foods weren’t explicitly made for women—companies simply realized who was doing most of the grocery shopping.

Jell-o Ads

Fotosearch / Getty Images

Culinary Technology

It wasn’t just food companies that profited, but cooking equipment brands, too. Slow cookers and later microwaves paved the way for new marketing campaigns that, ironically, offered completely opposite styles and speeds of cooking. While the microwave was invented in 1946, it took awhile for the general public to warm up to the costly appliance. About a decade later, the microwave found its way into most homes along with a spurred craze for quick frozen dinners marketed to working women that exists to this day. 

Woman Using a Microwave

Pictorial Parade / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Is the Future Female?

Despite decades of revolutionary advances in food products, kitchen technology, and nutrition, women are still overwhelmingly in charge of food- and cooking-related tasks in contemporary American homes. While some companies have worked hard to create genderless advertising, statistics still define who ultimately buys their products in the grocery store.

More women are recognizing their impact on the food industry and taking back ownership of their purchasing power. However, it's a slow change, and one that's starting with younger generations who already prioritize women's workplace equality and sometimes even avoid products with distinct gendered advertising altogether. As the workplace continues to evolve, history has proven women will make their food purchases work for them and their schedule.

Article Sources
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