1920s Women

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"I hope she'll be a fool--that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool... You see, I think everything's terrible anyhow... And I know. I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything."

The flapper is an iconic image in United States cultural history. She defined a decade and she symbolized the country’s reaction to a major war. At the end of World War I in 1918, both social and political foundations in American took a dramatic turn. From these changes, women of the twenties began to defy social norms and distinguish themselves from women in the 1910s and 1930s. The women of this decade had a newfound social liberty, as it was a major period of change. Conservatives and liberals were battling each other on every major front of society. Thus, these major changes in society along with heightened internal rivalries caused the “new woman” to emerge in America. Historians would not be so steadfast to label the 1920s and its new culture if it was not so divergent from the decades that preceded and followed it. The women of the 1910s upheld the traditional values set forth by earlier Americans, while the women of the 1930s matured as the Roaring Twenties came crashing down.

The women of the 1910s were part of the Progressive Era, which lasted from 1895 to World War I. Labor unions continued to form in a middle class plagued by unrest. Women, while breaking traditional molds, were still constricted compared to their counterparts in the 1920s. Compared to the flapper, the prominent women of the previous decade possessed more traditional, physically “ideal” beauty. However, events that took place in the 1910s were a precursor for the liberty that women lived in the twenties. The Woman’s Peace Party, founded in 1915, was the first major peace organization run by and consisting of women. In 1919 The League of Women Voters was founded in order to ensure suffrage for women and to eliminate legal sexism. The 19th amendment was in fact ratified in 1919 as well. This decade marked major gains for women, but did not usher in as untraditional of women as the flappers.

At the same time, the United States was quickly becoming one of the most industrialized nations in the world. The nation was prospering, much to the credit of the flourishing automobile industry. America was said to be at a crossroads during the 1910s, as society gradually shifted from rural to urban. The turn to industrialization was compounded by immigration as a means to acquire cheap and reliable labor. The 1910s were the beginning of a time when America focused on becoming a modern nation, and securing economic prosperity and stability. Women in the lower and middle classes took their part in working, primarily in textile mills, to promote this centralized goal. As the Great War approached many changes to society occurred. With the majority of men overseas, it was a question as to what role women would serve in the late 1910s. Some women filled formerly unavailable occupations, while others held on to their domestic duties. Those who worked benefited because they received higher wages than under normal conditions. Women also gained a sense of autonomy while the men were away from home. Women actively participated in unions as some hostile employers refused to hire women or treat them equally. Because the war shone light on the sexism that still remained even in a progressive society, women became more independent and vocal for change. Suffragists were the leading example of this altering society in which women were serious, and women were involved.

Workingwomen symbolize the shift the United States underwent in the 1910s and in the years leading up to the decade. In several facets of the working nation, such as communications, manufacturing, and sales, the number of women employed spiked dramatically. As department stores gained momentum in the economy, they employed women to work in sales and...
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