Shere Hite appeared in "Olivetti Girls" ads to help her pay college fees
while at Columbia University in 1971.
Now that Shere Hite, sex educator and feminist and author of 1976’s The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, has passed away, it’s time to bury the false story about the Olivetti typewriter advertisement which allegedly propelled Hite toward the women’s movement.
The story relates to Hite being one of the models who appeared in the “Olivetti Girls” series of ads, which appeared in US newspapers from February 1972 and in magazines such as LIFE and New York in March and April that year. The ads were part of Olivetti’s drive to break into an office electric typewriter market dominated by IBM with the Olivetti Editor series and the Praxis 48. (Ironically, Hite herself used an IBM.)
More than 10 years later, in November-December 1982, a series of newspaper articles about Hite claimed that the tagline in the 1972 Olivetti ads contained the words, “The typewriter is so smart she [that is, the Olivetti Girl] doesn't have to be.” This was simply untrue, as the ads said nothing of the sort. Yet in obituaries which have appeared for Hite around the world this weekend, the false claim has been repeated ad nauseam, unchecked and unsubstantiated. A few minutes’ research would have confirmed the truth. Surprisingly, the supposed fact-checking New York Times is among the many guilty parties.
What the ads really said were words to the effect that the Olivetti Girl was someone about whom “people [are] saying terribly nice things”, because she typed mistake-free copy as a result of using a typewriter with a “brain” – a machine which could “actually think for itself”. “She may be prettier than other typists, but she’s not necessarily brainier.” She was “sharper, looser, never uptight” and could have fun. The typewriter eliminated common mistakes such as “flying caps”, improper spacing, “shading or ghosting” and “crowding or piling”.
Now, no matter which way one interprets these words, or thinks of them as seeming to be condescending, they do NOT state that the typist did not have to be smart. Nor is there any suggestion the models used in the ads are “leggy dumb blondes”, as so many articles would have us believe. That is purely a personal interpretation, and not the stated view of the advertiser. The whole premise of Hite’s argument for becoming a feminist fails. At best she has exaggerated what the Olivetti ads said, or worst she lied. Just because Hite said the story was true doesn’t make it true.
The false story (some versions of which stray so far from the truth as to claim the ads appeared in Playboy magazine), dates back to at least 1977. In its May 9 issue of that year, German news magazine Der Spiegel said, “Just a few years ago, Shere Hite from New York could be seen as a two-legged office machine in the canyons of Manhattan. At that time, the young woman had to play the part of a typist in a TV commercial: As ‘Olivetti Woman’ [sic] it was her job to ‘introduce a typewriter that was so smart that the user could easily appear a bit stupid’. The mimodrama was the trigger for the sex world bestseller of the 70s and made the former Columbia doctoral student a star guest on American talk shows. Because New York feminists who protested the Olivetti commercial convinced Hite that their strip was typical of the role played by many women in the United States - a silent majority of sexual objects ‘whose feelings are suppressed and exploited’. Hite began to be interested in the attitudes of her sex comrades on the subject of sexuality and sent out the first questionnaires. Four years later (and $35,000 in debt) she submitted the Hite Report - a work that summarises the statements of 3019 women on the subject of sexuality and appeared on seller lists almost overnight.”
Hite died from the rare neurological disorder corticobasal degeneration last Wednesday in North London, England, aged 77. She was born Shirley Diana Gregory in Saint Joseph, Missouri, on November 2, 1942.