and Working Girls:
A History of Women in the Decade After
The One Woman
(Garden City Publishing, 1926)
The status of women changed dramatically
after 1920. Not only did women win suffrage, allowing
them official participation in the political process,
but they also broke into the world of work and
education. Furthermore, the 1920s marked a sexual
revolution of sorts, as women adopted scandalous
fashions and even more scandalous behaviors.
Flappers emerged as the iconic image of 1920s
women, with their androgynous dresses, short hair,
makeup, smoking, drinking, and dancing. These women
were products not only of the Jazz
Age but also
of the political and social atmosphere following
I. Having earned the right to vote and
supported a nation in crisis, women were poised
to claim their equality with men on all fronts – and
to break free from the restraints of Victorian
fashion and society.
Pots, Pans and Millions: A Study
of Woman's Right to be in Business;
Her Proclivities and Capacity for Success
(National School of Business Science
for Women, 1929)
After the Nineteenth
Amendment was passed, men
honored women’s right to vote and were eager
to let them serve on juries and hold public office.
Even before suffrage, Jeanette
Rankin of Montana
had become the first woman to serve on the U.S.
House of Representatives (1916). In 1925, Nellie
Tayloe Ross of Wyoming became the first woman elected
With suffrage conquered, suffragists turned their
attention to other causes. The National
American Woman Suffrage Association became the League
of Women Voters, encouraging women to exercise
their newly-awarded right. Meanwhile, the National
Party (formed in 1916) began lobbying for the Equal
Amendment. Introduced in 1923, the measure aimed
to eliminate all discrimination on the basis of
gender. It never has been ratified. Women worked
everyday, however, to achieve equality in the public
and private spheres. World War I helped them reach
During the war, women had assumed roles that
previously had been relegated to men, taking over
jobs that departing soldiers left behind. Women
enjoyed the independence they experienced in wartime
and refused to relinquish it when the war ended.
They no longer considered the home to be their
Marjorie Dean, college freshman
(A. L. Burt, 1922)
The war also had removed domesticity
as an option for many women. So many young men
perished in battle that potential suitors were
limited. The taste of independence combined with
the dearth of possible mates caused many women to
remain single, obtain an education, and go to work.
Women’s wages remained well below men’s – even
for the same jobs, and women typically held jobs
such as nurses and teachers that generally were
considered “female occupations.” Nonetheless,
one in four women ages sixteen and older worked
outside the home during the 1920s. More than a
fourth of all working women held clerical positions.
These middle to upper class working girls fit the
mold of 1920s women, who were fun-loving and resourceful.
Lower class women generally found work as domestic
servants and in factories. Many of these women
eventually settled and gave up work to start a
family, but more women than ever chose instead
to support themselves and live on their own.
Money, love and Kate: together with
the story of a nickel
(A. L. Burt, 1923)
Independent womanhood was the basis for the term
flapper that emerged during the war era, coined
to describe a fledgling gender aiming to flee the
nest. It’s only fitting that flapper fashion
encapsulated the desire for equality extended to
women’s dress. The flapper
style that pervaded
Twenties was androgynous, making women
look young and boyish. Hairstyles were short, often
slicked down and curled around to cover the ears,
and generally hidden under a cloche hat. Women
began flattening their busts with tightly-wound
cloth and wore short, shapeless dresses.
They differentiated themselves from their male
counterparts, however, with the application of
makeup. Prior to 1920, only actresses and prostitutes
wore makeup. The bright rouge and lipstick of the
flapper era could be seen as an effort to break
from the Victorian mold of acceptable, lady-like
(Doubleday, Doran, & Co.,
Much of the flapper behavior was equally un-ladylike.
Women rode bicycles and drove cars. They also participated
in the activities typical of the Jazz Age. The
nationwide economic prosperity that followed the
war’s end combined with the emergence of
by prohibition and the rising popularity of jazz
music to create a youth culture
characterized by drinking, smoking, and dances
such as the Charleston.
Shunning of ladylike behavior extended into the
sexual liberation of women during the 1920s. A
middle ground between prostitution and celibacy
emerged for unmarried women, who could flirt and
date in a way that their predecessors had not.
Intimacy among youth frequently elevated to heavy
petting, so much so that “petting parties” became
Searching the Collection
for Related Materials
Click here for books from
the 1920s whose bindings depict women.
Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online
History K-5 lesson plan: Word
document or PDF
Women's History 6-12 lesson
document or PDF
More on Women's History
on the PBO Site
From Domestic Goddesses to
Suffragists: The Story of Women Told on Bookbindings, 1820-1920
Related Online Resources
American Cultural History,
1920-1929, Kingwood College Library:
American Vintage Blues History
of Fashon, 1920-1930:
American Women's History:
A Research Guide, Middle Tennessee State University:
The Attic: Advertising in
1920s Women's Magazines
Cairns Collection of American
Women Writers, University of Wisconsin-Madison:
National Women's History
Pathfinder for Women's History,
Women of the Century, 1920s,
Women's History Month, The
Brown, Dorothy M. Setting
a Course: American Women in the 1920s. Boston: Twayne,
Chafe, William Henry. American
Woman; Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles,
1920-1970. New York, Oxford University Press, 1972.
Evans, Sara M. Born for
Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York:
Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.
Latham, Angela J. Posing
a Threat: Flappers, Chorus Girls, and Other Transgressive
Performers of the
American 1920s. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England,
Laver, James. Women's
Dress in the Jazz Age. London: Hamish Hamilton,
Scharf, Lois, and Joan M.
Jensen, eds. Decades
of Discontent: The Women’s Movement, 1920-1940. Westport,
Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.
Sochen, June. Herstory:
A Record of the American Woman's Past. Sherman Oaks,
Calif. : Alfred Pub. Co., 1981.
Tentler, Leslie Woodcock. Wage-earning
Women: Industrial Work and Family Life in the United
1900-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.