The 1920s have long been touted as an age of female enlightenment, as women set a course of equality and cracked the foundations of women's sphere. Portraits were drawn of stereotypical '20s femmes; crimson-lipped, bob-haired and befringed flappers peering down their ivory cigarette holders at restrictive Victorian mores; stalwart, placard-toting suffragettes proclaiming the need for female political activism; fresh-faced college coeds donning crisp shirtwaists to tap out office memos on shiny modern typewriters. American women contested traditional views of the female as moral guardian and domestic servant and challenged the nation to accept their egalitarian beliefs.
But after the initial surge of support for women's rights with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, feminist fervor diminished throughout the latter '20s and all but disappeared during the Depression. And with that reduced support for women's rights came a renewed promotion of the traditional belief that women belonged in the home -- not in the workplace. Although the Equal Rights Amendment, which was first introduced to Congress in December, 1923, continued to be bandied about in Congressional committees, opinion magazines rarely gave the issue a positive mention, and it seemed far removed from public concern.
The 1930s brought apple-sellers to city street corners and breadlines to urban charity houses. In a depressed economy, unemployment figures escalated and federal forces concentrated on bringing Americans back to work. Or, more accurately, bringing American men back to work. For society viewed working women as un-American money grubbers, stealing jobs from men who needed them to support their families.
Those who were concerned with feminist issues were further divided on how to concentrate their efforts. Many believed that garnering the right to vote was all the legislative support they needed, so they turned their attention to other concerns, such as the peace and welfare improvement movements. Some demanded protective work legislation, while others remained adamant in pushing for equal treatment in the job market. And still others were swayed by the not-so-subtle proddings of government forces to forget the issue of feminist rights until economic hardship had ended. Gone were the "new women" of the '20s: the '30s women floundered in a decade devoid of significant gains in the struggle for sexual equality.
The League of Women Voters exemplified the notion that the fight for women's rights ended with the passage of the 19th Amendment. In 1931, the league's president went so far as to claim that "nearly all discriminations have been removed." But others noted that women failed to vote in a bloc, and that many failed to even consider women's issues when casting their ballots. Therefore, many issues concerning women or issues promoted by women reformers simply failed from lack of support. Ironically, the 1930s began with the tenth anniversary of woman's suffrage, but any attention to the matter revealed that in those ten years, women had had little effect on the political world. Josephine McGowan writes in the Commonweal:
The 19th Amendment has wrought no miracle in politics. It has neither brought about dire consequences foretold by the anti-suffragist nor yet produced the millennium of which the pioneers dreamed.
McGowan noted that while women gained the right to vote, many were indifferent to their new privilege and remained uninformed on current issues. Politics was still considered a man's concern, and most women did not have the motivation to challenge this view.
Lacking now the central issue of suffrage to rally around, many feminists turned from lobbying for women's rights to promote other reform efforts. Becoming locked into the "paradigm of morality" role, many women became staunch promoters of the peace movement. Others turned their attention to welfare issues, spurred by the same drive that encouraged...
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