Flappers and Working Girls:
A History of Women in the Decade After Suffrage

 
 

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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 World War 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.

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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 governor.

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 Women’s Party (formed in 1916) began lobbying for the Equal Rights 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 this goal.

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 appointed sphere.

     
 

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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.

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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 the Roaring 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 behavior.

     
 

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Zest
(Doubleday, Doran, & Co., 1934)

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 speakeasy instigated 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 popular.

Searching the Collection for Related Materials

Click here for books from the 1920s whose bindings depict women.

Women's History Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online

Women's History K-5 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Women's History 6-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

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:
http://kclibrary.nhmccd.edu/decade20.html

American Vintage Blues History of Fashon, 1920-1930:
http://www.vintageblues.com/history2.htm

American Women's History: A Research Guide, Middle Tennessee State University:
http://frank.mtsu.edu/%7Ekmiddlet/history/women.html

The Attic: Advertising in 1920s Women's Magazines
http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug00/rekas/attic/main.htm

Cairns Collection of American Women Writers, University of Wisconsin-Madison:
http://memorial.library.wisc.edu/cairns.htm

National Women's History Project:
http://www.nwhp.org/about_nwhp/mission/mission.html

Pathfinder for Women's History, National Archives:
http://www.archives.gov/research/alic/reference/women.html

Women of the Century, 1920s, Discovery School:
http://school.discovery.com/schooladventures/womenofthecentury/decadebydecade/1920s.html

Women's History Month, The History Channel:
http://www.historychannel.com/exhibits/womenhist/

Suggested Readings

Brown, Dorothy M. Setting a Course: American Women in the 1920s. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

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, 2000.

Laver, James. Women's Dress in the Jazz Age. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1964.

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 States, 1900-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.


                       
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