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Duke Ellington'sSophisticated Ladies

Sophisticated Ladies: Women of the 1920's


The 1920s was a decade that saw many changes in the status of women, legally and socially. They began to vote, work in nontraditional professions, and challenge the strictures placed on women's behavior.


In August 1920, the decades of labor by suffragists who dedicated their lives to the goal of women's enfranchisement were honored with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, finally giving American women the right to vote. However, while attaining suffrage was a triumph for women's rights activists, it did not produce the anticipated sweeping victory for progressive politics. In fact, it did not even enfranchise all American women. Voting continued as a middle- and upper-class activity, so the majority of working-class women were still unrepresented. And with the Jim Crow laws imposed by many Southern states barring them from the polls, the voices of African-American women were difficult to hear.

Despite the Nineteenth Amendment's shortcomings, its ratification did allow women to focus their energies on other issues. The National Women's Party, an organization instrumental in achieving suffrage, continued to concentrate on politics, and in 1923 proposed an Equal Rights Amendment to eliminate sex discrimination. However, most women shifted their attention from politics and focused on challenging traditional gender roles.

One of the most common ways that women in the 1920s defied the boundaries of accepted female behavior was by entering the workforce. During the Great War, the deployment of fighting men to Europe created the necessity of employing women in hospitals, factories, and offices. However, it was assumed these women would return to the home or to the handful of jobs traditionally open to them (like teaching, domestic service, and shop work) when the war ended. Men returning from war were surprised when many women were unwilling to give up their new employment opportunities. In fact, throughout the 1920s more and more women joined the workforce as typists, telephone operators, and sales representatives, increasing the number of women in the workforce from 7 million in 1919 to almost 11 million in 1929. Nevertheless, sex discrimination in the workplace persisted and women's salaries continuously stayed below those earned by their male counterparts.


Perhaps the most iconic figure of the 1920s, the flapper became the symbol of a youth movement that championed new ideas about womanhood and appropriate female behavior. After the Great War, young women were unwilling to return to traditional female roles and resubmit to strict Victorian morality. Instead, they attempted to change the social status of women by embracing modernity and transforming the concept of the ideal woman.

In previous decades, the Gibson Girl, with her long luxurious hair, her hourglass figure, and elegant tailored gowns, had been the model of femininity. She was educated and accomplished at every activity (including the occasional genteel sport) in a ladylike manner. No matter her interests, finding a husband and starting a family were always her first priorities. The Gibson Girl used flirtation and natural femininity to achieve these ends but was never explicit or crude. It was against this model of womanhood that flappers rebelled.

Flappers cut off the long hair their mothers had prized, favoring instead the short "bob" or "shingle" cut. They rejected the waist-constricting corset, and the hourglass figure it created, and adopted a more androgynous look called "garçonne." Their loose-fitting dresses, with drop waists and knee-length skirts, created a more boyish silhouette, which some women enhanced by binding their breasts. Flappers also began to wear makeup, which had previously been associated only with prostitution. Make-up's new popularity also changed the way it was used; instead of attempting to imitate nature, flappers used cosmetics to create a deliberately unnatural appearance, using lipstick and powder to create small bow mouths and ghostly-pale skin. This was a stark contrast to the pale but healthy and rosy look their mothers had prized. However, young women in the 1920s did not just want to look different from their mothers, they wanted to act differently too.

Flappers rejected traditional rules of propriety in favor of a more modern, fast-paced lifestyle. They were frank, socially liberated, hedonistic, and reckless, often acting in ways that shocked their elders. Young women began to engage in activities previously limited to men, such as smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol – even though Prohibition had made drinking illegal. They listened to jazz music and did new, energetic dances, like the Charleston and the Black Bottom, despite objections that these dances were wild and obscene. They loved automobiles, their speed and risk a perfect fit for the flapper outlook, and insisted on being drivers as well as passengers.

One of the most significant ways that young women in the 1920s distinguished themselves from their Victorian counterparts was in their attitudes about sex. Flappers were educated about sex and had no qualms about discussing it openly in mixed company. They were followers of Freud and believed that both women and men had sexual desires that were natural, not shameful, and that there was nothing wrong with expressing those desires. Therefore, they had no qualms about dancing close, necking in the backseats of cars, attending petting parties, or even having premarital sex. Older generations found this interest in sex as immodest, but flappers saw it as an expression of women's right to a full life. They criticized Victorian ideas about sexuality and gender roles, perceiving them as impediments to women gaining social equality with men.
Unfortunately, while flapper culture did instigate some steps towards a more liberal society, many of the attempts to make radical changes in acceptable behavior and gender roles were unsuccessful. Indeed, even young women who cut their hair and dressed like flappers often did not go to the extremes of flapper behavior. This made flapper culture more acceptable to a broader population but watered down its message of social change.

Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.

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