Modern Women in the 1920s

Susan Goodier. Women’s Rights: People and Perspectives. Editor: Crista DeLuzio. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

The end of World War I brought vast and exciting, yet conflicting and ambiguous, changes for women in the United States. During the first two decades of the 20th century, women increasingly received college educations, worked outside the home, joined reform organizations, and broke some social barriers. On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote. The following decade firmly ushered the United States into the modern era. Among the developments that Americans witnessed in the 1920s were the maturation of the industrial corporate economy, the expansion of urban populations, the growth of a mass consumer culture and mass media techniques, and the increasing predominance of scientific authority in many areas of public and private life. Many Americans eagerly embraced the changes associated with modernity. Others anxiously sought to stem the tide of social change, thereby rousing religious fundamentalism, resurgent racism and nativism, and political conservatism.

The modern woman was shaped by and helped create these complex social changes; for many Americans, she epitomized the promises and dangers of modernity itself. Building on the gains of earlier generations of women’s rights activists, suffragists, and feminists, women of the 1920s enjoyed more opportunities for independence and equality than ever before in U.S. history. They also faced a range of challenges—some familiar, some new—as they struggled to claim more rights and freedoms in a nation simultaneously enthusiastic and wary about the arrival of the modern age.

After the Vote, What?: Women in Politics and Reform in a Post-Suffrage Age

The decade began with enthusiasm for women’s newly won political power. To celebrate the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Alice Paul and the executive committee of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) commissioned feminist and well-known sculptor Adelaide Johnson to sculpt Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony for a commemoration monument. Paul and the NWP revived an earlier National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) project, paying Johnson $2,000 to complete the monument for placement in the Capitol crypt. Representatives from more than 100 women’s organizations attended the ceremony, held on the anniversary of Susan B. Anthony’s birthday, February 15, 1921. Sara Bard Field, the west coast suffragist and reformer who presented the monument to the Speaker of the House, claimed that the statues represented the “body and the blood of a great sacrificial host … the body and blood of Revolution, the body and blood of Freedom herself” (Cook 1978, 58).

Other speeches during the three-day convention following the ceremony made it clear that voting was only a single step on the path to true equality for women. As NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt had predicted, “Winning the vote did not end the woman’s campaign for equality and justice. Many a hard fought battle lies ahead and its field will be found in unexpected places” (Wilson 2007, 9). Former suffragists expressed confidence that women would use the vote to further advance their rights and improve society. Initially, this optimism seemed well founded, as women registered to vote and cast their ballots, formed and joined organizations devoted to promoting women’s political activity and securing women’s rights, participated in party politics, ran for political office, and lobbied federal, state, and local governments for social reforms.

Having grown up thinking that voting was a male concern, and needing time to learn how to be politically active, many activist women expressed ambivalence regarding membership in the major political parties. After all, after opposing woman suffrage for decades, neither the Republican nor Democratic parties had endorsed it with enthusiasm. Instead, two organizations led the way in coordinating and influencing the direction of women’s political energies. Alice Paul had already reorganized the Congressional Union as the suffrage-focused NWP, in 1916; from 1921, it sought to achieve women’s equal rights in political, social, and economic life. Proudly identifying themselves as “feminists,” NWP members initially advanced an agenda that included attention to nationality laws, employment opportunities, and jury service for women, but their priority quickly became the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

Meanwhile, Carrie Chapman Catt had begun the process of reorganizing the NAWSA as the League of Women Voters (LWV) in anticipation of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. The objectives of the League included educating women in their new civic responsibilities, promoting social welfare bills and protective legislation for women, eliminating discriminatory laws, and promoting international cooperation to prevent war. Although the League encouraged its members to join the existing political parties, Catt made it clear that the new League “must be nonpartisan and all partisan” to accommodate party women, as well as those who resisted joining parties (Van Voris 1987, 157-58). Politicians welcomed and encouraged women’s work for the parties, but fearing a women’s voting bloc, they barred women from holding any real power within the parties. As Eleanor Roosevelt pointed out in 1928, “Beneath the veneer of courtesy and outward show of consideration universally accorded women, there is a widespread male hostility—age-old perhaps—against sharing with them any actual control” (Freeman 2000, 149). Nevertheless, women worked within the party structure at the local, state, and national levels throughout the decade.

Although women had held political offices before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the number of those who campaigned for or accepted appointments to political office increased substantially after its passage. Sophonisba Breckinridge, a women’s rights activist with a doctorate in political science, showed that county and local positions as mayors, comptrollers, city clerks, and city council members were far more available to women than positions higher up on the political ladder. Certain governmental offices, especially those relating to education, welfare, and record keeping at state, county, or local levels, came to be seen as particularly appropriate for women. The first woman elected to Congress was Jeannette Rankin of Montana, who served from 1917 to 1919 and again in the early 1940s. Alice Robertson, a former antisuffragist, was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives after national enfranchisement. Altogether, 11 women served in Congress during the decade. In 1925, Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming was elected the first female governor in the United States, replacing her husband, who had died in office. Later that year, Texans elected Miriam A. (Ma) Ferguson as the first female governor of their state. By 1929, at least 149 women served in the legislatures of 38 states.

Women also continued their social reform efforts during the 1920s, working through existing organizations, as well as newly established organizations. Activists sought more opportunities for women in education, the professions, and the industrial workforce. The National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW), for example, focused on equality in pay and employment opportunities for women in the white-collar job sector. The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and National Consumers’ League (NCL) continued their efforts to improve labor conditions for working-class women, although these organizations became less important as unions took over. The WTUL and the NCL did pressure the government to establish the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor in 1920 to promote governmental action to benefit working women. Mary Anderson, formerly of the WTUL, ran the agency, but because it was poorly funded, the agency primarily gathered women’s employment data.

In addition to focusing some federal attention on the needs of working women, reformers met with limited success in lobbying efforts on behalf of mothers and children. The Children’s Bureau began its work in 1912 to reduce deaths related to childbearing. Under the capable leadership of Julia Lathrop, a close friend of Jane Addams, agency workers gathered statistics on the high rates of maternal and infant deaths in the United States. Lathrop, her successor Grace Abbott, and their colleagues sponsored lectures on child health, and prepared informational pamphlets on maternity, childbearing, and childcare. The agency proposed a maternity and infancy act and eventually found support from Senator Morris Sheppard and Representative Horace Mann Towner. The 1921 act, commonly called the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act, provided matching federal grants to individual states for lectures on nutrition and health, prenatal and child health clinics, and visiting nurses for pregnant women and new mothers. Many women’s organizations endorsed the broadly popular act.

In 1920, Maud Wood Park, President of the LWV, gathered representatives of 10 major women’s groups to consolidate women’s political activity. They created the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee (WJCC) to oversee federal-level lobbying efforts for social reform. The WJCC did not support any particular legislative program, but if five or more member organizations supported a specific piece of legislation, the WJCC would establish a subcommittee to coordinate lobbying efforts on its behalf. Subcommittees in the early years included infancy and maternity protection, child labor, increased appropriations for education, industrial legislation, independent citizenship for married women, regulation of the meatpacking industry, social hygiene, prohibition, and opposition to the ERA. By 1924, 21 organizations representing 12 million women belonged to the WJCC.

Because black women were frequently excluded from white women’s organizations, they founded local Phillis Wheatley Clubs, the National Colored Parent-Teachers Association, and other organizations. Members of black women’s clubs continued to work through the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), as well as through the male-dominated National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Their efforts usually focused on racial equality—”racial uplift”—rather than on gender equality, however. At the forefront of the black women’s agenda were efforts to secure a federal anti-lynching law. In 1922, Mary B. Talbert founded the Anti-Lynching Crusade to coordinate women’s support for the NAACP’s campaign against lynching. Its goals included fundraising, publicity, pressuring Congress and state legislatures to enact and enforce anti-lynching laws, and support for legal investigations. Efforts to stop lynching had begun 30 years before and would continue for decades.

Those efforts provoked cooperation between some black and white women to eliminate racism and intolerance. Some, including Charlotte Hawkins Brown, joined the Council for Interracial Cooperation (CIC), founded in Memphis, Tennessee in October 1920. Speaking on behalf of African American women, Brown argued that white women must control the violence of their men: “The negro women of the South lay everything that happens to the members of her race at the door of the Southern white woman … We feel that so far as lynching is concerned that, if the white women would take hold of the situation, that lynching would be stopped” (Lerner 1973, 470). Although ongoing racial tensions allowed for little progress during the decade, the Council did initiate a nascent cooperation between middle-class black and white women.

Despite the success of some of their lobbying and reform efforts, and their inroads into electoral and party politics, women activists experienced some significant disappointments during the 1920s. Differing concerns among groups of women voters, disagreements between women activists about the meaning of gender equality, and a conservative backlash hostile to a progressive reform agenda all contributed to the fracturing of a broad, coordinated movement on behalf of women’s rights, although an organized women’s movement did not disappear.

The concentration on acquiring woman suffrage as a right of citizenship had effectively erased the differences among activist women during the Progressive Era. Once they achieved voting rights, the differences among them surfaced, affecting their organizational efforts. Factors such as class, race, educational level, religious affiliation, geographical region, and political ideology influenced more women than their gender. Thus, it did not take long for women activists, or male political figures for that matter, to realize that women did not all vote the same way on what were deemed to be women’s issues. Furthermore, disenfranchisement remained problematic in some regions of the country, especially in the South, where poll taxes, literacy tests, and long waiting periods prevented many black women from voting. In spite of some interracial cooperation, white women activists rarely took up the issue of restrictions on black women’s voting rights.

In addition to the social and ideological differences dividing women voters, the organized women’s movement was especially compromised by disagreements about the nature of gender equality and how best to achieve it. Members of the NWP gathered extensive information on state laws that discriminated against women in areas of education, work, marriage and divorce, birth control, and child custody. They introduced the Equal Rights Amendment—”Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation”—in December 1923. ERA supporters perceived protective labor laws for women, especially those that limited the hours they could work or prohibited them from working at night, as unfairly discriminating against women as a class and denying them their rights as individuals to freedom of contract. Feminist Crystal Eastman pointed out that “a good deal of tyranny goes by the name of protection” (Cook 1978, 156). She and other supporters of the ERA contended that protective legislation should apply to both women and men.

Outside of the NWP, women who had long been active in social reform argued for political, legal, social, and economic equality but feared the loss of protective labor legislation for women. Opposing the ERA, they argued that because of women’s historically disadvantaged status in the workforce, and because all women were mothers or potential mothers, women required special protections under the law. As Florence Kelley, who resigned her position with the NWP because she believed the ERA would endanger protective labor legislation, put it, “The cry Equality, Equality, where Nature has created inequality, is as stupid and as deadly as the cry Peace, Peace, where there is no Peace” (Lemons 1990, 185). The Women’s Bureau and the WJCC also opposed the ERA for the same reasons. The disagreements between the two factions of activists over the ERA rendered both groups less effective in advancing women’s rights during the decade.

Women’s political activity during the 1920s was most fundamentally thwarted by a conservative political climate that was adverse to a progressive reform agenda. Promoting this climate were fears that surfaced as the population shifted from rural to urban areas and as the economy shifted from an agricultural to an industrial base. Many commentators argued that urbanites, many of them immigrants and the children of immigrants, rejected basic American values, thereby encouraging the rise of antiradical groups and the strengthening of fundamentalist associations. In addition, three Republican presidents each served one term during the 1920s: Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. Their primary policies supported big business and opposed government regulation of the economy; Congress only passed laws that supported big business. Until the stock market crash in October 1929, making money seemed more important than reform. The apparent prosperity of the decade undermined many of the reform goals that had once been so important to women.

Additional hostility to women’s reform efforts and feminism stemmed from the Red Scare and fears of Bolshevism, or communism, following the end of World War I and coinciding with the Russian Revolution. Many Americans believed that their own country was vulnerable to communism, the antithesis of free-market capitalism. They convinced themselves that Bolshevism would result in “unnatural gender roles” and “immoral sexual values,” and that women represented the weak link allowing foreign influences to penetrate the nation (Nielson 2001, 28). Any hint of radical behavior was cause for alarm. Feminism was especially vulnerable to criticism as a subversive ideology; protection against radicalism could only come from powerful men and the patriarchal family. Red Scare antifeminists exhibited hostility toward government bureaucracy, social welfare policies, and women in positions of authority in government. Their efforts helped to undermine the public policy efforts of feminists and women reformers during the 1920s.

Several women’s groups fostered the conservative political climate. One prominent example was the Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK), which brought together thousands of native-born Protestant white women committed to a crusade against Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and blacks. The WKKK recruited members through the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a church-based movement that did not challenge existing gender relations but that often targeted Catholic and immigrant populations, and through nativist and patriotic societies. Many women joined to support the efforts of their husbands, family members, and friends already involved in the KKK. The women spread rumor or slander and organized consumer boycotts, serving as a vocal and economic complement to the night riding and gang terrorism of male Klan members. By the end of the decade, membership in the Klan had decreased, not because racism and xenophobia had diminished, but because restrictive laws resulted in a curtailment of immigration, and because fewer people supported the Klan’s methods. While the WKKK was one of the most extreme right-wing groups, it symbolized the growing conservatism of the decade.

Women reformers’ clout was also compromised by their ongoing association with the unpopular cause of Prohibition. When the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect in January 1920, saloons all over the country closed, although enforcement of the ban on liquor was uneven. Speakeasies, where illegal liquor was readily available, opened to replace them. Men wore hip flasks filled with booze; women carried flasks in their handbags. Drinking became a problem on many college campuses. Many people thought it was incongruous that alcohol was illegal in a decade marked by so many social freedoms, and Prohibition was generally considered a joke and a failure. Although women and men widely opposed the amendment, some women reformers continued to support Prohibition, thereby arousing resistance to their efforts to achieve broader social reforms.

By the mid-1920s, the WJCC and other women-run organizations and governmental agencies were spending more time fending off the criticism of right-wing groups than promoting the legislative interests of their members. The 1924 publication of the “Spider Web Chart,” which accused the WJCC, the NWP, and other women’s groups of communist connections, undermined women’s organizational work. Prompted by a New York legislative investigation into radical and subversive activities, Lucia R. Maxwell, the librarian of the Chemical Warfare Service of the War Department, had created the chart. She distorted the records collected by the Military Intelligence Division, which had compiled information on the political activities of women, especially those of suffragists who had opposed World War I, and the groups to which they belonged. The chart labeled 15 women’s groups and leading women activists linked to the WJCC and the National Council for the Prevention of War as subversives and communists. Discrediting these women’s organizations served well the economic goals of business and manufacturing interests that objected to protective legislation.

Another organization that suffered from being targeted by the Spider Web Chart was the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), organizationally connected to the National Woman’s Peace Party. Pacifist women, reeling from the horror, destruction, and waste of the Great War, blamed the war on the greed of men in power. In their rhetoric urging peace, members of the WILPF promoted the League of Nations, a world court, greater involvement of women in international peacemaking, and outlawing war. Peace activism, however, provoked criticism, hostility, and merciless surveillance. Ultimately, the WILPF was condemned as antipatriotic. In response, the League cleansed itself of Crystal Eastman and other radical leaders, and shifted its emphasis from peace to the economic causes of war.

Other important women’s reform efforts also faltered, some failing entirely. For example, in spite of its popularity and the support of most women’s organizations, the Sheppard-Towner Act drew the censure of organizations such as the American Medical Association (AMA), which claimed it was a step in the direction of socialized medicine. Ultra-conservative women’s groups agreed, but also opposed the act on the basis of their disapproval of women holding posts in governmental agencies. The Woman Patriots, an organization that emerged from the remnants of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, helped lead the opposition to the efforts of the Children’s Bureau. Funding for Sheppard-Towner lapsed in June 1929, in spite of the fact that rural, working class, and middle-class women all over the United States had gratefully utilized the much-needed healthcare services it had provided.

The WJCC also encountered a great deal of resistance to its support of the Child Labor Amendment. Congress passed the amendment in 1924, limiting the labor of children under the age of 18. As the WJCC worked to assure the ratification of the amendment in the states, adversaries such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), backed by plenty of money, opposed it on the grounds that any regulation of child labor would lead to greater federal regulation of industry and severely limit industrial autonomy. Fears of radicalism and communism were strong enough to ensure the defeat of the amendment two years later.

The 1920s was a decade of challenges, contrasts, and changes for women as political actors. The sometimes-rampant conservatism of the era existed alongside the excitement generated by the innovativeness of the period. Although there was initial support for women to expand their political expertise and involvement, fears of change in the wider culture hampered the efforts of many reform-minded women. Furthermore, there was a general turning away from politics and a decline in voting rates overall as Americans increasingly embraced leisure and consumption. Finally, the controversy over protective legislation and equal rights sharply divided feminist and activist women. An organized women’s movement was thus seriously stymied during the 1920s by opposition from without and disagreements from within. Even so, many activist women managed to sustain their commitments both to women’s rights and to other social reform goals, thereby continuing the struggle for women to claim an equal role in the political life of the nation.

Working Women

As was the case with women’s experiences in politics and reform, women made some gains and faced ongoing challenges in their efforts to achieve greater economic opportunity and independence in the 1920s. The United States emerged from World War I relatively unscathed, with powerful capabilities for utilizing innovative technologies to produce all kinds of exciting consumer goods. Industrial production increased by 64 percent during the decade, up from a mere 12 percent increase in the previous decade. As a greater proportion of the population moved into urban areas, more people sought individual satisfaction through participation in a mass consumer culture. However, economic growth and prosperity remained unevenly distributed on the basis of geography, class, ethnicity, and race. The economic order of the 1920s enabled some women to claim a place for themselves in the predominantly male world of work, while simultaneously reinforcing expectations and experiences of female difference and dependence.

During World War I, women had competently filled all kinds of jobs, vacated by men away at war and in newly opened war factories. But when the war ended, many of those opportunities were closed to them. As a result, women made few advances toward eradicating the sex-segregation and gender-biased differentiations in the workplace. Nevertheless, in 1920, 23.7 percent of women over the age of 15 were employed; that number rose to 24.8 percent by the end of the decade. Married women constituted 9 percent of the women gainfully employed in 1920; that number rose to 11.7 percent by 1930. Daughters of European immigrants and middle-class white women alike eagerly sought jobs as stenographers, typists, clerks, and bookkeepers in corporate and government offices, seeing the jobs as more profitable and respectable than factory or domestic work. Because they naturally understood, supposedly, what female consumers wanted, women initially seemed ideal for the exciting new field of advertising, as it stimulated the massmarket economy. Relying on scientific ideas of behaviorists such as John B. Watson, advertising accounted for more than half of the output of printing presses during the decade. Racism kept black women from both clerical and advertising jobs. For all women, pay remained low and opportunities for advancement were limited, as office work formed part of an increasingly feminized job sector. Indeed, the office environment became an extension of the home, where women and men still maintained separate spheres.

A greater percentage of women attended college in the 1920s, and the numbers of women obtaining professional degrees steadily increased during the decade. For example, in 1920, 122 women obtained medical degrees; by 1930, that number had risen to 204. Women graduating from law schools increased from 177 in 1920 to 411 in 1930. Just 1,396 women earned graduate degrees in 1920; that number increased to 6,139 by 1930. Only 90 women received PhDs in 1920, whereas 311 received their doctorates in 1930. Still, as domestic values reemerged in the greater society, even some of the most rigorous women’s colleges relaxed their academic standards to include home economics in their curriculum.

With the greater availability of graduate training, a small but widely publicized number of women pursued professional careers. By 1920, no state except Delaware forbade women from practicing law, and women could practice as doctors in every state. Women worked as teachers, nurses, and in businesses such as banking and investment firms that sought female customers. Professionally trained social workers replaced settlement house reformers and moved out of immigrant communities. Yet men increasingly filled the administrative positions at the top of the social work bureaucracy. Even as more women entered a widening range of fields, their salaries remained lower than those of men in the same professions, and few of them rose through the ranks. Members of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, founded in 1919, sought to coordinate the needs of women working in the various professions. Lena Madesin Phillips, the first executive secretary, described the organization as formed of “women who individually had exercised so great an influence yet who were as a class non-gregarious” cooperating “to increase the value of the group to themselves, their respective communities, and society at large” (Cott 1987, 89).

Feminists pressed the argument that women needed to work to obtain economic independence from men. Doris Stevens, who wrote Jailed for Freedom (1920) about the NWP’s role in the suffrage movement, contended that activist women must concentrate on obtaining economic equality next. Even so, relatively few women expected to have a professional career, for the prevailing notion was that marriage was the ultimate goal for women, an idea reinforced by magazine articles and movies throughout the decade. According to the Secretary of Labor James Davis, working women violated the natural order and threatened familial and social stability. Woman, he argued, is “by her very nature … the standard of morality … the stabilizer of the home” (Cott 1987, 137). Nevertheless, the idea that women would spend a part of their lives in the workforce slowly gained acceptance. Some men and women conceded that women’s work was appropriate if it helped their current or future family and if they worked before marriage, or, at the most, before they bore children. Whatever any individual woman might have thought about the matter, though, it remained impossible for most working women to achieve economic independence. The average clerical worker earned $1,200 annually, when the average salary for all workers was $2,010.

African American women faced racism in office work and the professions, just as they did in other realms of life. Elizabeth Ross Haynes, the first black woman elected to the YWCA national board (serving 1924-1934), was the Domestic Service Secretary of the United States Employment Service from 1920 to 1922. Dominant in three types of occupations—domestic and personal service, agriculture, and manufacturing and mechanical industries—black women were “restricted in opportunities to get and hold jobs,” Haynes concluded, but remained optimistic that they, too, would find “economic independence” and “places in the ranks with other working women” (Lerner 1973, 260). Whatever her social status, the average African American woman worked outside her home as she struggled to meet the needs of her family and her community in racist and sexist surroundings.

Like black women, Mexican American women also faced the double burdens of racism and sexism in the workforce. Propelled by the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and World War I, 1.5 million Mexicans, usually in family groups, had moved to the United States by 1930. Many Mexican Americans worked in agribusiness, notorious for its low wages and heavy use of child labor. Women could contribute to the economic benefit of their families by bearing many children to help with wage labor. Although women also worked in agriculture, their husbands received their wages. Racism and sexism kept other Mexican women in domestic labor or unskilled factory work. Poor Mexican American families faced living conditions as appalling as their working conditions, placing additional heavy physical burdens on women.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and other industrial unions were not interested in improving working conditions for Mexican women, black women, or white women, although women’s locals, the WTUL and the Women’s Bureau all attempted to help women workers. While the Women’s Bureau advocated for government action to benefit working women, the WTUL sought to organize working women into trade unions, lobbied for legislation improving working hours and conditions, and educated workers on the benefits of organization and legislation. From 1921 to the mid-1930s, the Summer Schools for Women Workers created by M. Carey Thomas and Hilda Smith of Bryn Mawr College constituted one of the most intriguing worker education programs. As articulated in the 1923 mission statement, the schools would provide “young women in industry opportunities to study liberal subjects and to train themselves in clear thinking; to stimulate an active and continued interest in the problems of our economic order; to develop a desire for study as a means of understanding and of enjoyment in life” (Hollis 1994, 34). Benefiting from an innovative pedagogy, the participants took courses in labor organizing and negotiating. Some eventually assumed leadership roles in later labor struggles.

Social and Private Lives

Despite persistent hurdles, women made some significant advances toward greater equality and autonomy in the public spheres of politics and work during the 1920s. The changes women experienced in their private lives were as transformative and complex. Mass production and mass consumption stimulated new habits and ways of thinking for both women and men. Materialism and a desire for the good life replaced old ideas of thrift and moderation. People could now use credit to acquire goods of all types. Young women coming of age, and wives and mothers alike, shed the submissiveness, self-sacrifice, and purity required of the true woman and embraced a modern standard for femininity emphasizing personal pleasure, individual fulfillment, and sexual expression. Media voices exuberantly proclaimed that the liberation of the modern woman was at hand, even as they sent messages establishing limits on her freedom. Women strove to navigate this contradictory terrain and faced some hard lessons as they continued to struggle to achieve gender equality.

The icon of emancipated modern womanhood in the 1920s was the young single woman, or “flapper.” Cartoonist and illustrator John Held, Jr. specialized in drawing youthful, slender, long-legged girls with cropped hair and young men wearing galoshes and raccoon coats. His drawings of women sitting on men’s laps, drinking from flasks, smoking cigarettes, and dancing with abandon illustrate the fads and the fashions of the Jazz Age. In addition to cutting her hair, the flapper wore cosmetics, bound her breasts, wore loosely fitting blouses, shortened her skirts, rolled her stockings below her knees, and shocked her elders as she “flaunted her sexuality” (Evans 1989, 175). The flapper debuted on the Broadway stage in playwright Rachel Crothers’s comedy Nice People (1922). Later, actress Anita Loos characterized the flapper as rather empty-headed, but still charming in the popular play Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926).

The flapper exemplified young women’s newfound opportunities for sexual freedom, even as she reckoned with the persistent double standard.

Since the turn of the century, working-class youths, feminists, intellectuals, and scientists had posed challenges to the Victorian code of sexual restraint. During the 1920s, new behaviors and ideas moved into the mainstream as white middle-class young women embraced the ethic of heterosexual freedom. Young people from all social classes now regularly frequented amusement parks, dance halls, and movie theaters in pursuit of heterosocial interactions away from the watchful eyes of their parents. The prevalence of Ford’s Model T automobiles made it easy to find private places for what was called “petting.” On college campuses, more young women experimented with new forms of physical intimacy. Nevertheless, sexual expression usually stopped short of claiming a woman’s virginity; dating and petting meant marriage would soon follow. A 1925 article on the topic of petting on college campuses claimed that most girls drew a sharp line between petting and “actual illicit relations between the petters” (Wembridge 1925, 394). Young women remained responsible for keeping young men’s sexual urges in check and were expected to maintain their own sexual respectability. In addition to delineating heterosexual expression, the new sexual freedom of the 1920s did not condone lesbian relationships. In fact, the growing emphasis on heterosexual coupling made friendships between women increasingly suspect.

Expectations for marriage changed considerably during the 1920s, although most women continued to believe that true fulfillment would come from marriage and domesticity. Influenced by a spate of social-scientific literature touting the benefits of what was called “companionate marriage,” many women dreamed their marriages would be based on romance, sexual pleasure, and friendship, and less on patriarchy. As the old separate spheres ideas for women and men collapsed and more women had access to sexual and birth control information, expectations for personal satisfaction in marriage increased. At the same time, popular views rejected the same-sex relationships and the close extended-family ties typical of previous generations, resulting in the escalating importance of marital commitments.

Laborsaving devices for cleaning and cooking made housework less burdensome for many urban women and some rural women, as electricity and indoor plumbing reached a majority of homes in the 1920s. Electric devices replaced servants, as fewer women were available to hire for domestic work (except in the South, where black women had limited earning options). Vacuum cleaners, washing machines, refrigerators, electric stoves, irons, and coffeemakers became commonplace, and could be bought on credit. The modernized home and availability of all the new labor-saving devices raised expectations for cleanliness, with the result that women often spent more time engaged in household cleaning tasks. Modernization also set new standards for childbearing and childrearing. Women increasingly gave birth to their babies in hospitals, assisted by doctors, rather than at home, assisted by midwives. Advice columns encouraged women to give up club work and devote their lives to raising their children without too much emotional attachment, on a scientifically designed schedule. Proper motherhood necessitated trained professionals and relied less on simply doing what came naturally.

As mothers relied on doctors and psychologists to tell them how to raise their children, so they had to rely on physicians to distribute birth control. As a result, middle-and upper-class women had greater access to birth control than did poor women. While Margaret Sanger initially advocated birth control as a means for poor and working-class women to improve their lives, in the 1920s, birth control became more broadly accepted as a means to an ideal marriage. Birth control separated sex from reproduction and allowed for women’s sexual expression in marriage, free from the fear of pregnancy. It contributed to smaller families, which resulted in a lessening of some aspects of domestic work for women. Nevertheless, the association of birth control with the medical profession and marriage kept many poor and single women from realizing its promises of sexual and reproductive freedom.

The popular culture of the 1920s offered single and married women alike an abundance of images of female freedom to emulate, although messages women received from the consumer culture and the mass media remained ambivalent. The first Miss America pageant, held in Atlantic City in 1921, epitomizes this ambivalence. Although the pageant organizers tried to convey a message of female “athleticism rather than exhibitionism,” the display of the female body suggested immorality to some critics (Collins 2003, 346). Changing standards of fashion and female beauty allowed women expanded opportunities for self-expression and sexual expression, while narrowing definitions of beauty around a new set of norms and associating the acquisition of beauty with the purchase of consumer goods. Fashions changed during the decade from the tightly corseted Gibson Girl look to the boyish, straight-waist look, exposing women’s arms and legs. Where once only prostitutes would apply makeup to enhance their beauty, now women of all classes enthusiastically wore cosmetics. Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein sold face powder, rouge, and lipstick, making their fortunes in the cosmetic industry. The tobacco industry marketed cigarettes to women, as well, and by the end of the decade, smoking in public had become acceptable. Advertisers insinuated that women would only be free of the restrictions of past generations if they bought the products advertisers promoted. Movies, like advertisers, demonstrated the use of the new products and fashions, and especially targeted young people.

The immensely popular films of the era also sent conflicting messages about the modern woman. Sound films replaced silent films, as the movie industry became the fifth-largest industry in the country. About 100 million people attended movie theaters every week, and girls between the ages of 8 and 19 saw an average of 46 films a year as they idolized the movie stars. Stars like Gloria Swanson in Why Change Your Wife (1920) illustrated just how women could become properly modern, helping to transform social behavior. Many of the films explicitly informed women that they would have to become flappers to win happiness and husbands. Other films, such as Charge It(1921), Gimme (1923), and Ladies Must Dress (1927), not only encouraged women to be flappers, but to increase their consumerism. Sexuality was a favorite theme of the movies, and virtually every female star of the decade played a scene in lingerie. Bebe Daniels wore lingerie in Stranded in Paris(1926) and Clara Bow played a salesgirl selling lingerie in It (1927). Joan Crawford exuded sexual energy and joie de vivre as she danced the Charleston in Our Dancing Daughters (1928). Quite a few films, such as Bertha the Sewing Machine Girl (1926), depicted the progress of working women and legitimized their new roles. Films like Ankles Preferred (1927) and Soft Living (1928), however, showed the boredom and brevity of women’s typical jobs. In movies such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928), Five and Ten Cent Annie (1928), and The Girl in the Glass Cage (1929), women worked only until they could marry rich men.

The movie theater was not the only place where women enthralled spectators. Able to draw audiences like a movie star, the beautiful Aimee Semple McPherson founded the Angeles Temple in Los Angeles in 1923, and quickly made a fortune with her Four-Square Gospel. The temple held an audience of 5,300 for the Sunday night performances that included a band, choir, and religious extravaganzas. Through her popular radio show, McPherson gained a reputation as a faith healer across the United States. She skillfully used the media to claim a public voice, reflecting the increasing freedoms and influence women experienced in the larger society. McPherson lost most of her influence, however, when it was rumored that she had run off with a lover. McPherson thus represents many of the limits and contradictions experienced by the emancipated woman of the 1920s.

In their lives and work, women novelists and artists also contributed new and sometimes conflicting ideas about women’s liberation to the wider culture. In 1921, Edith Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for a novel with the publication of The Age of Innocence (1920). She published more than 40 volumes of writing, including novels, short stories, nonfiction, and poetry, often criticizing the limitations of a strict social code for upper-class women. Zona Gale was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama, also in 1921, for her play, Miss Lulu Betts (1920). With a Master of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin, the prolific Gale set many of her novels, plays, and short stories in Wisconsin and the Midwestern states. The prairie states and the southwest often formed the settings of Willa Cather’s stories, and in 1923, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, One of Ours (1922). In the novel, a mother is relieved that her son, a soldier during the Great War, died still believing in the glorious cause of war, which he would not have believed had he survived. Cather’s novels One of Ours, The Professor’s House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) all exemplify the postwar melancholy that many people of the decade felt. Other writers celebrated the exhilaration and new sexual freedom of the decade. Edna St. Vincent Millay exemplified the thoroughly modern woman in her life and writing. A 1917 graduate of Vassar College, she had already published several collections of poems and an antiwar play when she received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923 for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, A Few Figs from Thistles, and eight sonnets published in American Poetry, 1922, a Miscellany.

Authors and artists alike reflected excitement, modern ideas, and American dynamism. Georgia O’Keeffe painted cityscapes of New York, abstract landscapes, and gigantic, richly detailed flowers, which some critics saw as sexual allusions, making her the most controversial female artist of the decade. Less famous artists connected with the O’Keeffe circle included Marion Beckett, Katharine Rhoades, and Florine Stettheimer. These artists all challenged the male-dominated field of art, becoming worthy role models for future artists.

African American women artists re-imagined meanings of black womanhood, including black women’s sexuality, attempting to influence a broader public with their work. They were part of an effort “toward communal revitalization and self-determination,” as well as resistance to white racist stereotypes (Stavney 1998, 533). Most black women writers enjoyed connections with the nation’s dynamic center for black culture in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, and participated in the energetic and creative vitalization of African American artistic and intellectual expression known as the Harlem Renaissance. Nella Larson wrote Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), both exploring the struggles of mixed-race women seeking their place in society. Jessie Redmon Fauset worked as an editor of W.E.B. DuBois’s Crisis, from 1919 to 1926, continually encouraging the creativity of young black writers. Probably the first black woman to attend Cornell University (Fauset graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1905), she wrote novels such as Plum Bun (1929), about a young woman who abandons her darker sister to pass for white. In 1925, Zora Neale Hurston began her studies in anthropology at Barnard College. She collected valuable black folklore, some of which influenced the novels she would write in the next decade. It would take until the 1960s for the novels of these black women to receive the acclaim they deserved.

The Harlem Renaissance heavily influenced the kind of music people enjoyed during the 1920s. Women performed as musicians, orchestra conductors, and singers at clubs, cabarets, the integrated Savoy Ballroom, or the tremendously popular Cotton Club. Gertrude Pridgett “Ma” Rainey, who introduced “the blues” to the public, and Bessie Smith, who filled her songs with social protest and a “woman’s determination to protect herself and her self-respect,” expressed the culture of black America through their lyrics (Hine and Thompson 1999, 210). Ethel Waters also sang in clubs in Harlem, and by the end of the decade became a Broadway star with her performance in Africana(1927). Appealing to both black and white audiences, blues music is closely related to jazz, another type of music profoundly informed by black culture.

Exciting new music ushered in a new recreational craze—dancing. The shimmy and the toddle were dances left over from the war years, and as the decade progressed new dances included “the collegiate,” the Charleston, “the black bottom,” and the tango. People would travel 100 miles or more to dance to the music played by bands, and people in remote areas danced to music played on radios and records. Most college social functions included dancing, as did many high-school functions. Older enthusiasts danced at clubs and speakeasies. The craze for dancing continued through the decade, becoming increasingly energetic and stimulating. Women and men loved the sexual and social freedom popular dancing represented.

Women challenged the former limits to their physicality off the dance floor as well. The 1920s marked a period of increasing interest in sports. For example, in 1926, Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel, breaking the record by two hours. It was just one of 29 world and United States records she broke during the 1920s. Tad (Barbara Inez Barnes) Lucas became a professional cowgirl in 1922, winning major prizes for her trick riding, bronco riding, and relay racing in the U.S. and abroad. Many other young women performed on the rodeo circuit during the decade. Helen Wills Moody was at the top of women’s tennis, winning the national singles title six times, the Wimbledon singles three times, the French singles twice, and gold medals for both singles and doubles at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

Aviation was another popular sport in the 1920s, and many women trained as pilots in the years before men came to dominate aviation. Bessie Coleman had to get her pilot’s license at the French Fédération Aéronautique Internationale after American schools rejected her. At the time, she was the only licensed African American female pilot in the world, becoming famous for her aerial acrobatics. She refused to perform anywhere that discriminated against blacks. Coleman fell to her death during a practice flight in 1926. Her grieving friends fulfilled her life’s dream by founding an aviation school for blacks in Los Angeles. Amelia Earhart may have been the most famous woman aviator of the time, and she began setting world records in 1922. But she was only one of 99 licensed female pilots who met at Curtiss Field, Long Island, New York in November 1929 to found the Ninety-Nines, an organization of female pilots still in existence.


The 1920s represent a period of significant contrasts for women. While they gained the right to vote by federal amendment, their reform efforts were circumscribed by conflicts over the ERA, as well as by a conservative backlash. Although more women sought economic gains through employment, they were often relegated to low-paying jobs and faced criticism for working outside the home. Black women and Mexican American women additionally faced racism, which severely constrained their efforts for gainful employment. A newly ascendant mass and consumer culture promoted women’s social and sexual freedom, while reinforcing older double standards for behavior, and rendering women vulnerable to new forms of objectification and exploitation. Thus, many aspects of modern life promised women greater opportunities for equality, autonomy, and freedom than ever before. And yet, the ongoing revolution in women’s rights—to which Sara Bard Field referred at the dedication of the monument commemorating the suffrage pioneers—remained far from complete at decade’s end, even as the advent of modernity confronted women with a new set of challenges with which to wrestle as the 20th century continued to unfold.