Date of Award

Spring 1998

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Michael Donnelly


Some of the most significant changes in women's statuses and roles have occurred over the last eight decades. These changes in women's lives have been precipitated by social, economic, political, and cultural arrangements and technological developments. In varying degrees, some of the most significant of these events have had the effect of transforming women's lives in this century. Since these events have also led to shifts in perceptions of feminine status, roles, and sexuality that mirror and reinforce women's changing reality, we might anticipate a parallel transformation in cultural representations of feminine sexuality.

This study relies on two popular women's periodicals for uncovering cultural messages about feminine sexuality--Ladies Home Journal and Mademoiselle. A total of 55 issues were included in the sample. The analysis focuses on 598 "special" and "regular" feature articles from this sample.

While certainly theme shifts in how to look and be occur over several decades, these are embedded within two overarching meanings or paradigms of feminine sexuality--a modern, or "self actualizing" paradigm, and a traditional, or "other" focused paradigm. Thus, what has changed is the package (i.e., how to look and be), not the meaning of the feminine sexual ideal. The feminine sexual ideal that permeates all eight decades is presented as either sexually available, but deferent, or sexually chaste; her demeanor toward a romantic partner is "sweet," receptive, and supportive; to look at she is "pretty," "graceful," "decorative," and "soft.".

While women since the 1970's have been presented with "new" choices in how to look and be it cannot be said that the cultural messages of feminine sexuality reflect the "increased choice" that is assumed to characterize women's lives over the last century. After all, there is no real choice in how to look and be when the very meaning of those prescriptions do not change. Considering the very significant transformations in women's social status and roles over the last eight decades, the finding that one of these paradigms of feminine sexuality permeates all eight decades is nothing less than striking.

In my attempts to understand this perplexity, I have relied on contextualizing these messages with considerations of social, economic, political, and cultural organization, and developments in reproductive technology and law. I have argued that, while the emergence of the modern meaning of feminine sexuality might be explained by shifts in gender ideology that were the consequence of a number of events, the persistent presence of the traditional paradigm might best be interpreted as a response to rapid social change or to tensions resulting from those very transformations that have occurred in women's roles.