Women – how far did their position in society change?

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Walsh, pp. 195-7;
SHP, pp. 40-43;
Edexel, pp. 184-185
The image above captures at least one of the dilemmas of the 1920s: as swimwear became shorter, women had to be on the lookout for the beach police who patrolled the area with measuring tape in hand. These skin censors would measure the distance between the bottom of a woman’s bathing suit and her knee. Too much bare skin and that could result in a hefty $10 fine or even being hauled off to jail! Most of these modesty rules were lifted by the mid twenties – partly because too many women simply didn’t care to follow them and partly because too many men enjoyed the view.

Many aspects of social life changed to give women more freedom – e.g. the rise of the car meant that young women could go out without a chaperone. But it also made young women more vulnerable too.

The following video illustrates some of the fashions in clothing but also in behaviour – where daring acts were carried about groups that became known as ‘the crazies’.

There are at least 4 areas, related to Work, Politics, Fashion and Sexuality which suggest changes to women’s lives were significant (i.e. permanent changes that were here to stay).

On the one hand, changes to women’s lives were very significant:

Work: Many women had taken over jobs traditionally reserved for men (such as manufacturing), and 1920-29 the number of working women increased by 25%; many went to be teachers and secretaries. The clerking jobs that blossomed in the Gilded Age were more numerous than ever. Increasing phone usage required more and more operators. The consumer-oriented economy of the 1920s saw a burgeoning number of department stores. Women were needed on the sales floor to relate to the most precious customers — other women

The Vote: Starting in 1910, some states in the West began to extend the vote to women for the first time in almost 20 years. (Idaho and Utah had given women the right to vote at the end of the 19th century.) Still, the more established Southern and Eastern states resisted. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was formed on February 18, 1890 to work for women’s suffrage in the United States. In 1916, NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt unveiled what she called a “Winning Plan” to get the vote at last: a blitz campaign that mobilized state and local suffrage organizations all over the country, with special focus on those recalcitrant regions. (Meanwhile, a splinter group called the National Women’s Party focused on more radical, militant tactics–hunger strikes and White House pickets, for instance–aimed at winning dramatic publicity for their cause.)

World War I slowed the suffragists’ campaign but helped them advance their argument nonetheless: Women’s work on behalf of the war effort, activists pointed out, proved that they were just as patriotic and deserving of citizenship as men, and on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified. The former suffrage campaigners formed themselves into the Woman’s Joint Congressional Committee, which lobbied successfully for a Maternity and Infancy Protection Act (1921), equal nationality rights for married women (1922), and the Child Labor Amendment.

Fashion: Flappers dumped the old restrictive fashions, corsets etc. in favour of short skirts, short hair, and the flat-chested ‘garconne’ look. Many of them wore men’s clothing. They smoked, drank, used make-up, played tennis, and danced wildly in jazz clubs. Flappers went out without a man to look after them, went to all-night parties, drove motor cars, smoked in public and held men’s hands without wearing gloves. By wearing skimpy beach wear in public, Flappers sometimes got themselves arrested for indecent exposure. The President of Florida University said low cut tops and short skirts “are born of the devil. They are carrying the present generation to destruction”. Some flappers were openly lesbian, others were sexually active.

Before the 20th century, “nice girls” did not wear makeup which was commonly called “paint.” As late as the 1910s, what we would call makeup today was associated with prostitutes, dancing girls, and movie stars. It was the silver screen that made young women flock to the beauty section of their local department stores. “Beauty salons” were practically unheard of in 1917, but by 1929 the beautician industry had 18,000 beauty parlors in America. The industry of women’s beauty services had exploded.

Sexuality and Birth Control: Margaret Sanger led a campaign to overturn anti-contraception laws and opened up the first birth control clinic in New York city where she distributed contraceptives. For this she was arrested and served a 30-day jail term. The publicity from Sanger’s trial generated immense enthusiasm for the cause, and by the end of 1917 there were over 30 birth control organisations in the United States. As a result of Sanger’s efforts, birth control clinics in New York were made legal and in 1924 she opened the first such legal clinic. Another feminist, and campaigner for the availability of contraception, Mary Dennett published a book entitled ‘The Sex Side of Life’ in which she treated sex as a natural and enjoyable act. The birth rate in America fell by 20% between 1920 and 1930 probably as a result of birth control. Nonetheless, there were still a lot of unwanted pregnancies – the phrase ‘shotgun wedding’ emerged in the 1920s: literally meaning a hurried wedding before the ‘bump’ began to show and metaphorically ‘make an honest woman of my daughter or I’ll shoot you!’. It’s emergence may well suggest that there more sex outside of marriage was taking place – at least in the cities.

On the other hand, there were other continuities with the past which helped ensure that the changes did not affect the majority of women:

Work: most working women were in low-paid jobs, and they were paid less than men for the same job. 10 million women were working in 1930 … but this was still only a quarter of the females age 15 and over; the rest worked for free in the home and on the farm.

Vote: Apart from exceptions such as Florence Kelley and Alice Paul, few suffrage campaigners went into politics; they gave up politics and returned to being housewives. Women campaigned in vain after 1920 for an Equal Rights Act.

Fashion: The flappers scandalised many Americans – the Anti-Flirt Association tried to persuade young Americans to behaved decently. Most girls, especially in rural America, still behaved ‘decently’, got married and had babies.

Sexuality and Birth Control: whilst revolutionary, it still came under opposition from conservative forces. Although clinics became more common in the late 1920s, the movement still faced significant challenges: Large sectors of the medical community were still resistant to birth control; birth control advocates were blacklisted by the radio industry; and state and federal laws – though generally not enforced – still outlawed contraception. The most significant opponent to birth control was the Catholic Church, which mobilized opposition in many venues during the 1920s and opposed Margaret Sanger and Mary Dennett’s attempts to have the anti-contraception laws overturned – because contraception was unnatural, harmful, and indecent. One thing suggests that underlying attitudes to sex and marriage remained much the same – the median age at which couples got married fell from 22 to 21 between 1890 and 1929 – people seemed to get married earlier, not later as we might have expected. One reason for this may well have been that the 1920s saw more money and people were able to get married younger. The emergence of the phrase ‘shotgun wedding’ suggests that unmarried motherhood was still considered a shameful state. Another reason for younger marriages may well have been linked to greater sexual activity outside of marriage at a younger age – a clear sign that attitudes to sex were changing even if the power relationship between the sexes hadn’t.

The experience of WWI to some extent seemed to shatter cultural traditions. The young set themselves up against the old. Nowhere was this more evident than among the ‘Flappers’ – the urban women who wore silk stockings rolled just above the knee, exposed their shoulders and got their hair cut at male barbers into a short bob. Women in the 1920s faced a dilemma: on the one hand, there was the desire of the young to challenge convention and for young women in particular to express themselves in defiance of convention. On the other hand, there were the forces of conservatism trying to restrain what was seen as moral decline. Moreover, the new sexual liberation wasn’t simply a matter of female liberation; it was also about male exploitation.


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