“Speak Softly and Carry a Lipstick”: Government Influence on Female Sexuality through Cosmetics During WWII by Adrienne Niederriter is an essay written for the Writing 20 class, The Rhetoric of What We Wear. Its main focus is red lipstick and how this accessory became a major trend of the WWII era.

During WWII, it became necessary for the US to enlist the services of women in support of the war. Their skills were needed at home, their manpower was needed on the front, and their sexuality gathered support. All three aspects of women in the war were linked through lipstick. In a man’s war world, lipstick became a signal of femininity and strength. Women were expected to do a man’s job, yet not be masculine, to be intimidating, yet inviting. Fitting was the contradictory color of red lipstick.

Wearing red lipstick during times of war became a militaristic strategy and tactic.Red lipstick redefined what America was fighting for: protection of freedom, democracy, AND  beauty. Red lipstick became American women’s and American cosmetic ads’ war paint. An advertisement with a play on words relating to the war effort and an American icon was how red lipstick vendors served their patriotic duty.

Moreover, in this era women were expected to “Do as a man, appear as a women” (Niederriter, 2010). As cosmetic ads, songs, and newspaper writings argued, women were needed and capable of a man’s job, while still retaining their womanhood.

However, many worried that women taking on traditionally masculine roles would cause women to lose their lady-like qualities. These opponents were very critical of red lipstick society. For many, pin-up girls became a source of controversy. To some pin-ups were the ideal of beauty raising soldiers morale, while others viewed them as classless whores.  Yet, red lipstick and other cosmetics comforted the concerns regarding women’s masculine roles and pin-up girls reputation. Cosmetics were a necessity in countering fatigue, improving morale, and increasing productivity in working and enlisted women.

Unlike the pin-ups, USO hostesses helped maintain the ideal of virtuous women. The USO was an organization established to provide male soldiers a social center for an off duty hang out, dancing, and mingling. A junior hostess supported red lipstick as a sexual tool, while a senior hostess was the motherly side of red lipstick.

Red lipstick gave women empowerment and independence. It redefined the role of women in society and began the feminist movements of 1960 and 70 and other cultural movements. Red lipstick led the way to a new frontier in fashion and sexuality. It allowed a woman to do a man’s job and be lady-like.

Niederriter engages with the work of others, articulates a position, and situates writing in a specific context. Unlike natural science writing, Niederriter uses direct quotes to engage with the work of others. Her specific discipline allows her to directly quote, as well as begin with an informal introduction. This is very different from the natural sciences which is written for a formal, educated audience. Lastly, Neiderriter states a new position on the issue of red lipstick and makes you rethink it as a household item, suiting for Deliberations. She takes the position that red lipstick allowed women to do manly jobs while still being feminine. This is similar to all types of academic writing. Why write a paper, without articulating a position? What is the point?

No matter what type of academic writing, it is necessary to entertain the audience, to articulate a position, and to create a new way of looking at familiar issues. I believe Neiderriter’s writing was extremely entertaining. I loved her topic of lipstick and how she expanded on such a common household item. I was shocked at what an impact lipstick had in WWII and how it redefined many aspects of society. I would go as far to say that Neiderriter’s topic alone draws the audience in. However, I give her credit for keeping us interested through her use of images and strong argument. Neiderriter now has me rethinking my usage, or lack of, red lipstick.



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