Score one for the Internet. Not long after Bic launched its new line of “Bic for Her” ballpoint pens—boasting an “elegant design” that “features a thin barrel to fit a women’s hand”—women and men alike hopped on Amazon.com to bombard the product page with hilarious and brilliantly snarky reviews.
One woman writes, “Someone has answered my gentle prayers and FINALLY designed a pen that I can use all month long! I use it when I’m swimming, riding a horse, walking on the beach and doing yoga.” A man posts, “As if men hadn’t been stripped of everything good already, Bic steps in and piles on by encouraging women to learn to write, just like their male counterparts.”
Thanks to the women’s movement, consumers today often are quick to poke holes in such absurdly gendered products. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, less than 50 years ago, many Americans believed that women did, in fact, need everyday objects to be more elegant, delicate, and pink.
Between the late ’40s and the early ’70s, everything from golf balls and telephones to toy trains—and yes, ballpoint pens—were made in pastel “for her” colors and marketed toward women. The 1962 pastel Lady Capri pen by Paper Mate was billed as “completely feminine” and “practical for women who demand heavy duty pen elegance,” able to write “even over cold cream.” (See an advertisement at top.)
Feminist writer Lynn Peril, the author of Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons, explains that mid-century manufacturers realized that if you take an ordinary object, turn it pink, and put the word “Lady” in front of the name, then you’ve created a product “for women” that can be sold for more money.
In fact, Peril coined the term “Pink Think” to describe this particular phenomenon, which she defines as “a group-think about what constitutes ‘proper’ female behavior,” adopted by advice-book writers and other so-called experts, manufacturers, advertisers, the media, and the general public, starting in the mid-20th century.
“Pink Think assumes there is a standard to which all women—no matter their age, race, or body type—must aspire,” she says. “It’s the idea that women and girls are gentle, soft, delicate, and nurturing, made of sugar and spice and everything nice. ‘Femininity’ is sometimes a code word for this mythical standard.”
Peril, who writes a regular “The Museum of Femorabilia” column for Bust magazine, collects artifacts from the height of Pink Think, including advertisements, sex and dating guides, self-help books, toys, and other “women-only” products. She says this particular version of “femininity” was borne out of the end of World War II.
“After the war, you had this huge rush of consumerism, and the economy was just humming along,” she says. “People were making scads of money. But returning vets needed jobs. So middle-class women—who had worked in factories during the war—were being not-so-gently prodded to focus on their roles as homemakers and wives. And manufacturers were willing to give them all kinds of new products to make them happy in the home, whether it was washers and dryers, or beautiful pink Princess phones.”
But in the ’70s, the women’s movement brought Pink Think to a halt—or gave it a pause, at least. “The second wave of feminism made women aware of the con that was being pulled on them,” Peril says. “And it gave them opportunities for new career paths outside the home.”
But wait—weren’t women locked into their roles as homemakers way before the 20th century? Well, yes, Peril explains. But the feminine ideal wasn’t always so pink, or so linked with mass-produced products.
During the 19th century, upper- and middle-class society bought into the Cult of True Womanhood, which promoted the idea of Separate Spheres, that dictates men are better suited to the “public sphere” of politics and business, while women are only fit for the “private sphere” of the home. True women were pious, virgins until marriage, domestic, and submissive, like obedient children.
But around 1890, the women’s suffrage movement started in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Novelist Henry James coined the term “New Woman,” which historian Ruth Bordin describes as affluent ladies who “exhibited an independent spirit and were accustomed to acting on their own. The term New Woman always referred to women who exercised control over their own lives be it personal, social, or economic.”
Peril credits the invention of the safety bicycle, which replaced the penny-farthing as the forerunner to the modern bike in the late 1880s, as a big influence in this first wave of feminism.
“Take an ordinary object, turn it pink, add the word ‘Lady’ to the name, and you have a product ‘for women.'”
“In the 1890s, there was this huge craze for bicycling,” she says. “If you were a woman, the first thing you learned when you got on a bicycle was riding a bike in a full skirt was just stupid—and undoable. Early feminists had been working since the 1850s to get women out of corsets and skirts into what they called ‘rational wear.’ It just took one bike ride, and a woman went, ‘This skirt is ridiculous! I need pants!’
“Suddenly, things started to change, and women were going outside of the house to work. By the ’20s, you had flappers and different styles of womanhood. I think there were a lot more ways to be female in the ’20s and ’30s than there were in the ’50s.”
And the idea that pink, in particular, is a color for girls is a relatively new concept. Louisa May Alcott’s 1860s novel “Little Women” is the first-known reference to this tradition: In the book, the sex of fraternal twin babies is identified with ribbons, pink for the girl and blue for the boy. However, it wasn’t until after World War II that this custom widely adopted in the United States.
“It’s only been within the last 50 years or so that it’s really come down hard on ‘Pink is for girls,'” Peril says. “Even in the late ’50s, pink was a fashion color that was for men or for women. So you had Elvis wearing awesome pink shirts and pink suits and driving a pink Cadillac, because pink is the ‘it’ color of 1955. It’s probably not until after that people started getting into the idea that pink is ‘for girls only.’ And now that’s the only thing that it means, right?”
“I didn’t realize that the level of idiocy that those pens represent was still going on.”
Peril, who was born in the ’60s, says being a little girl at the tail end of the first big push to “think pink” had a big impact on her. “I grew up in the ’60s and early ’70s, and watched a ton of TV,” Peril says. “From an early age, I was aware that who I was—a girl who thought pants were more comfortable than dresses and hated playing with dolls—and that I was different from what little girls were ‘supposed’ to be: dainty, frilly, and content to watch instead of do.
“I thought it was ridiculous that on ‘Bewitched,’ Darrin wouldn’t let Samantha use her powers, and that on ‘I Love Lucy,’ Ricky treated Lucy like some kind of not-very-smart child. Luckily, I turned 16 in 1977, and punk rock gave me role models who did femininity in ways I could relate to: Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, and Ari Up of The Slits.”
However, the second and third waves of feminism have obviously not scrubbed Pink Think from our culture completely. In fact, Pink Think seems to have re-emerged in the new millennium with the popularity of the Disney Princess line for little girls and even “pinkified” garden-variety products for adults, like tool kits and the new line of Bic for Her ballpoint pens.
“I’m happy that people are seeing right through the Bic for Her positioning,” Peril says. “But I have to say, I was a bit shocked. I didn’t realize that the level of idiocy that those pens represent was still going on. We’ve really jumped backward with the gendered products introduced in the last 10 years, and it’s disconcerting. I’d thought we’d left this idiocy in the dust, but no, it’s back.”
The last product to cause a similar uproar was Lego’s new Friends sets, aimed at girls. Released six months ago, these sets came with pastel blocks and larger Lego “dolls,” with accessories like purses and brushes. These sets provide instructions to create beauty shops, cafes, and animal shelters.
“Again, they’re taking this completely non-gendered toy that’s totally fun just as it is, and trying to make it girlie,” Peril says. “The hope is to create another market that’s based on the assumption that if you’re a girl, you can’t just play with the regular stuff. Then the regular stuff, which is non-gendered, will be the default toy for boys.
“When I was growing up everyone played with Legos. They were great, they were fun, and you could make whatever you wanted out of Legos. I had this little toy felt mouse, and I made a house for my mouse. But nobody had to direct my play to make sure it was up to gender expectations.”
SLIDESHOW: The Dumbest Products Made ‘For Her’
1. The Lady Capri Pen by Paper Mate (1962)
"The ad has some great language about how it's supposed to provide 'heavy duty pen elegance' and how you can write over cold cream with it"," says "Pink Think" author Lynn Peril. "So it's very ladylike."
Lynn Peril’s other books include “Swimming in the Steno Pool” and “College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-Eds, Then and Now.” Find out more at her web site.