How was life changing for American Women in the 1920s?

Background Information

American society had been quite conservative for women, especially in the central Sates, but the 20s changed much of this. Before the 20s, society expected women to behave calmly and demurely, dress conservatively and not show skin, play no sport in public, not smoke, and not wear make up. Any interactions with men were expected to be ‘chaperoned’ by a supervising adult, and if a woman wanted to dance with a man she had to wear gloves. Middle and upper class women were almost banned from working, and poorer women who absolutely had to would get paid less, and do worse jobs. Women were employed in jobs that were traditionally associated with women e.g. servants, seamstresses, secretaries, nursing. America’s involvement in the First World War caused much of this to start to change – women were needed in the workforce, so wages rose, and women gained an increasing sense of independence.

How was life changing for American Women in the 1920s?, figure 1

In this picture you can see expectations for how women would dress before the 1920s.

Define the following terms:

The Impact of the First World War

  1. During the war, women started to be employed in different types of jobs e.g. factory work, replacing the men who had gone to fight in the war in Europe.
  2. Organisations such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) had been fighting for decades to get the vote for women. As women had contributed so much to the war effort, it was difficult to refuse their demands for political equality. As a result, the Nineteenth Amendment to the constitution became law in 1920, giving women the right to vote.
  3. There was a change as far as work was concerned too, with an increase of 25% __in the number of women working during the __1920s. By 1929, 10.6 million women were working.
  4. By now, independent women of the middle classes and above had more money to spend. Because of this, advertising companies started targeting women in their campaigns to encourage them to buy their new products.

Family and Marriage

Women gained the vote in 1920, and this was mirrored with significant societal gains. Women were allowed to smoke, go out alone, and dance however they wanted for the first time. The divorce rate doubled in the 1920s, as women were more able to leave bad marriages, and for the first time many women went out with clothing that rose above the knee.

How was life changing for American Women in the 1920s?, figure 1

A 1920s woman doing the most scandalous thing of all - showing her knees and thigh.

Flappers

There was a new ‘style’ of woman called the ‘flapper’ – these women lived mainly in the (northern) cities, were independent and fashionable, and defied all of the restrictions woman had previously faced. They smoked, went out to clubs (with men), and drank whatever they wanted. These women swelled much of the public craze around jazz and new forms of entertainment. They even began to engage in ‘energetic sport’.

  1. Hollywood films of the period characterised these ‘flappers’, and as a result, their behaviour and dress sense was imitated by millions around the world.
  2. The Jazz Clubs played a crucial role in allowing the flappers to express themselves. This is where they could smoke and dance. They also drank illegal alcohol in the speakeasies. Instead of dancing the waltz that was popular in the period before the war, people started to enjoy more daring dances such as the Shimmy and the Bunny Hug.
  3. Petting Parties began where the flappers would kiss men in public.
  4. The flappers had their own slang too. “I have to go see a man about a dog” was slang for going to buy whisky, and a ‘handcuff’ or ‘manacle’ was an engagement or wedding ring.
  5. A number of the flappers’ terms are still used today, eg ‘big cheese’ for an important person, ‘bump off’ for killing someone and ‘hooch’ for alcohol.

One famous flapper of the time was Joan Crawford. She started her career as a dancer on Broadway before moving to Hollywood to make a name for herself. She starred in films such as Paris (1926) and The Unknown (1927) in which she became famous for her flapper style. Many young girls admired and copied her style.

How was life changing for American Women in the 1920s?, figure 1

Louise Brooks was another famous flapper of the 1920s, known for her iconic 20s hair and hats.

Fashion

  1. In 1919 womens’ skirts were about six inches above ground level, but by 1927 the hems of skirts were up to knee-level. Young women rebelled against the old-fashioned clothes of their mothers’ era.
  2. The corset went out of fashion, and it became all the rage for women to cut their hair in a bob and wear a lot of make-up and jewellery.

How widespread was the Flapper movement?

Flappers were not representative of all women – only the wealthier had the money to support this lifestyle, and the southern and central States remained too conservative for them. These States are sometimes referred to as the ‘Bible Belt’, and saw very little impact of the Flapper movement upon women’s rights.

Similarly, flappers were predominantly young. Most women were still expected to lead a respectable and family-oriented life, so when women got past their early 20s their ‘freedoms’ disappeared against increased social pressure. Similarly, after the war men started to take ‘their’ jobs back, and women’s wages fell again, and they were kept in lower-status jobs. Similarly, there was societal resistance to this growth in female emancipation, such as the ‘Anti-Flirt League’ to protest and argue against flappers.

Finally, poor women could not afford the new fashions and they didn’t have the time to go out and enjoy social events. Black women could not benefit from the changing lifestyle either – whilst they may have found some employment in the Jazz scene and clubs, they certainly couldn’t attend.

Define the following terms:

Flapper
Your answer should include: 1920s / woman / women / independent / fashionable
Joan Crawford
Your answer should include: flapper / dancer / Broadway / Hollywood
Anti-Flirt League
Your answer should include: against / flappers / protest
The Shimmy and the Bunny Hug
Your answer should include: new / style / dance / flapper
NAWSA
Your answer should include: National / American / Women / Suffrage / Association
Nineteenth Ammendment
Your answer should include: 1920 / women / vote / constitution