The social definition of women's smoking behaviour

Soc Sci Med. 1985;20(12):1269-78. doi: 10.1016/0277-9536(85)90380-6.


The history of women's smoking behaviour is one of changing normative definitions. Recent trends have been explained in terms of the symbolic value of smoking, representing for women freedom and independence. This view is emphasised by advertising. However, other evidence suggests the continued existence of an older, more negative cultural stereotype. A two-part study of young women undergoing professional training for nursing and teaching throws some light on the way in which female smoking behaviour is currently socially interpreted. The first phase indicated that among the minority of parents who had expressed their attitudes towards their daughter's smoking in relation to sex-role norms, smoking was presented as unacceptable for women. More than half the sample perceived a negative cultural stereotype to be operating in contemporary society and two-thirds recognised its existence in the past. This stereotype presents smoking as a male behaviour and hence inappropriate for women. Women who do smoke are liable to be labelled as having unfeminine or degrading attributes. The stereotype operated more strongly in the general social background rather than in reference to personal relationships and hence its influence on contemporary behaviour is likely to be limited. It was rejected as out-dated or a male belief by some but nevertheless it represented the personal opinion of others. In terms of a more favourable definition the female smoker was perceived in terms of an elegant/sophisticated dimension and in relation to an extrovert personality. The view of sample members that the growing acceptability of women's smoking was related to social change indirectly supported the view that sees smoking as symbolic of independence. Those who saw smoking in neutral terms, i.e. as not having sex-role attributes, perceived smoking in this sense as normal social behaviour for men and women alike. The second phase suggested that smokers and non-smokers have divergent views about the image of the female smoker. The non-smoker's image was based on the older cultural stereotype ('unladylike'), whereas the smokers were more likely to take a view corresponding to the perspective that sees women's smoking as symbolic of social change and greater independence ('liberated'). The non-smokers had a clear and positive image of 'girls who don't smoke' ('feminine'), whereas for smokers the female non-smoker lacked a distinctive identity. The study thus suggests that traditional concepts of appropriate female behaviour continue to inhibit smoking among some women, whereas others perceive it as an aspect of independent behaviour.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Gender Identity*
  • Humans
  • Identification, Psychological*
  • Public Opinion
  • Smoking*
  • Social Behavior
  • Social Change*
  • Social Environment
  • Social Values
  • Women's Rights