The 1920s: The Period of Radical Women?
Were American women in the 1920s really that radical? Delving beneath the surface of cultural memories of the period reveals a more nuanced picture of American middle-class women…
‘Well behaved women seldom make history’. This title of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book is certainly true of women during the 1920s. Popular culture has often presented American women during the 1920s as radical – as epitomised by the flapper. To what extent was this really representative of middle-class women of the period?
We might think that women entered the interwar period liberated by the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the opportunity to vote. Though World War One expedited women’s suffrage, this did not reflect a significant change in societal attitudes or expectations for women. Suffrage had long been the aim of many women’s organisations, but it was in the context of ‘fighting for democracy’ that the government passed the 19th Amendment in 1920. It was not easy for the government to employ democratic rhetoric to justify participation in the war effort, when half of its population could not vote. Yet, as David Reynolds highlights, the amendment was seen ‘as a war measure not a rights issue’. Though the federal government gave women a channel through which to exert a political voice, they did not expect a fundamental change in women’s position vis-à-vis their relationship in the home. This political change did not reflect a transformation in the widespread conservative attitudes held about women.
Though ‘flappers’ were viewed by many as the scandal of American society, this masks much of the continuity in women’s values. Predominantly middle-class women rejected conventional modes of feminine appearance with their bobbed hair and looser, shorter clothing. Coupled with smoking and driving, women partook in activities which had previously been undertaken solely by men, as depicted in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’. As Kenneth Yellis highlights, flappers were perceived as the ‘utter antithesis of the material and wifely’. Yet while this would appear the case, many women still aspired to marriage as their central life goal. Indeed, marriage was more common in 1920 than it had been in 1890, with young people (especially between the ages of 20 and 24) getting married at a much earlier age. Flappers were essentially ‘new women flouting old values’.
However, what was radical about some groups of American women in the 1920s was their new approach towards their own sexuality, both in and outside of marriage. They no longer wanted to be subservient and obedient, but expected men to satisfy their sexual demands and desires. Both women and men became increasingly liberal in their relationships before marriage, but like their parents and grandparents, continued to respect the institution of marriage. They maintained such views while initiating new activities which experimented with different ways of showing affection. The growth of activities such as ‘petting’ and ‘dating’ contained the nature of romantic and sexual experimentation, by stopping short of sex, which many still viewed as restricted to marriage. Some surveys indicate that pre-marital sex increased during this period, but on most of these occasions, it took place with a long-term partner or fiancé.
When it came to marriage, the growth in contraception and family planning made it possible for women to be ‘sexual partners first and mothers second’. Marriage was still the goal of many women, but they approached it differently with a view to equality as a sexual partner. As Paula Fass encapsulates, it was ‘not a revolt against marriage but a revolution within marriage’. Nevertheless, while women might have been equal sexual partners to an extent, it was still widely expected that a woman’s long-term role revolved around her ability to be a good mother to her children. Whereas men could have both a significant career and marriage, this was not the case for the majority of women. There had been radical changes to the appearance of some women and within the institution of marriage, but conservative attitudes towards marriage still prevailed. By the 1920s women ‘had come a long way, though with an even longer way to come.’
The 1920s have popularly been characterised as a radical departure from conventional American values after the First World War. Conservative attitudes still prevailed, especially regarding women’s place in the home. Young people respected the institution of marriage and adjusted their actions accordingly. We should view the 1920s as a decade ‘full of interesting signs but deeper meanings’ for women, some of which showed greater continuity in values than we might expect.