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Publication date: 19 May 2020

Jeanie Wills and Krystl Raven

This paper uses archival documents to begin to recover a history of women’s leadership in the advertising industry. In particular, this paper aims to identify the leadership…



This paper uses archival documents to begin to recover a history of women’s leadership in the advertising industry. In particular, this paper aims to identify the leadership styles of the first five presidents of the New York League of Advertising Women’s (NYLAW) club. Their leadership from 1912 to 1926 set the course for and influenced the culture of the New York League. These five women laid the foundations of a social club that would also contribute to the professionalization of women in advertising, building industry networks for women, forging leadership and mentorship links among women, providing advertising education exclusively for women and, finally, bolstering women’s status in all avenues of advertising. The first five presidents were, of course, different characters, but each exhibited the traits associated with “transformational leaders,” leaders who prepare the “demos” for their own leadership roles. The women’s styles converged with their situational context to give birth to a women’s advertising club that, like most clubs, did charity work and hosted social events, but which was developed by the first five presidents to give women the same kinds of professional opportunities as the advertising men’s clubs provided their membership. The first five presidents of the Advertising League had strong prior professional credibility because of the careers they had constructed for themselves among the men who dominated the advertising field in the first decade of the 20th century. As presidents of the NYLAW, they advocated for better jobs, equal rights at work and better pay for women working in the advertising industry.


This paper draws on women’s advertising archival material from the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe and Wisconsin Historical Society to argue that the five founding mothers of the NYLAW provided what can best be described as transformational feminist leadership, which resulted in building an effective club for their members and setting it on a trajectory of advocacy and education that would benefit women in the advertising industry for the next several decades. These women did not refer to themselves as “leaders,” they probably would not have considered their work in organizing the New York club an exercise in leadership, nor might they have called themselves feminists or seen their club as a haven for feminist work. However, by using modern leadership theories, the study can gain insight into how these women instantiated feminist ideals through a transformational leadership paradigm. Thus, the historical documents provide insight into the leadership roles and styles of some of the first women working in American advertising in the early parts of the 20th century.


Archival documents from the women’s advertising clubs can help us to understand women’s leadership practices and to reconstruct a history of women’s leadership in the advertising industry. Eight years before women in America could vote, the first five presidents shared with the club their wealth of collective experience – over two decades worth – as advertising managers, copywriters and space buyers. The first league presidents oversaw the growth of an organization would benefit both women and the advertising industry when they proclaimed that the women’s clubs would “improve the level of taste, ethics and knowledge throughout the communications industry by example, education and dissemination of information” (Dignam, 1952, p. 9). In addition, the club structure gave ad-women a collective voice which emerged through its members’ participation in building the club and through the rallying efforts of transformational leaders.

Social implications

Historically, the advertising industry in the USA has been “pioneered” by male industry leaders such as Claude Hopkins, Albert Lasker and David Ogilvy. However, when the authors look to archival documents, it was found that women have played leadership roles in the industry too. Drawing on historical methodology, this study reconstructs a history of women’s leadership in the advertising and marketing industries.


This paper helps to understand how women participated in leadership roles in the advertising industry, which, in turn, enabled other women to build careers in the industry.


Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, vol. 12 no. 3
Type: Research Article
ISSN: 1755-750X


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