Flappers and Mothers: New Women in the 1920s
Frederick Lewis Allen, in his famous chronicle of the 1920s Only Yesterday, contended that women’s “growing independence” had accelerated a “revolution in manners and morals” in American society (95). The 1920s did bring significant changes to the lives of American women. World War I, industrialization, suffrage, urbanization, and birth control increased women’s economic, political, and sexual freedom. However, with these advances came pressure to conform to powerful but contradictory archetypes. Women were expected to be both flapper and wife, sex object and mother. Furthermore, Hollywood and the emerging “science” of advertising increasingly tied conceptions of femininity to a specific standard of physical beauty attainable by few. By 1930, American women (especially affluent whites) had won newfound power and independence, but still lived in a sexist culture where their gender limited their opportunities and defined their place in society.
World War I and industrialization both brought greater economic autonomy to American women. With immigration curtailed and hundreds of thousands of men needed for the armed forces, women’s labor became a wartime necessity. About 1.5 million women worked in paying jobs during the war, with many more employed as volunteers or secretaries and yeomen for the Army, Navy, and Marines (James and Wells, 66). Women retained few of those 1.5 million jobs after men returned from war, but the United States’ industrialized postwar economy soon provided enough work for men and women alike. Once confined to nursing, social work, teaching, or secretarial jobs, women began to find employment in new fields. According to Allen, “They besieged the offices of publishers and advertisers; they went into tearoom management until there threatened to be more purveyors than consumers of chicken patties and cinnamon toast; they sold antiques, sold real estate, opened smart little shops, and finally invaded the department stores” (97). There were few female doctors, lawyers, politicians, or professors, to be sure, but the list of acceptable jobs for women had lengthened.
World War I also provided women with the means to finally achieve suffrage. Groups such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, enthusiastically joined the war effort, thereby intertwining patriotism and women’s rights. After the House of Representatives passed the women’s suffrage amendment in January 1918, President Wilson told the nation, “We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” (James and Wells, 67-68). True political equality did not result from the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment—very few female candidates were elected in the 1920s—but, in the words of Allen, “the winning of the suffrage...