Examining Women's Role in Society from the 1920s-1940s | Teen Ink

Examining Women's Role in Society from the 1920s-1940s

January 27, 2019
By jl637 DIAMOND, Livingston, New Jersey
jl637 DIAMOND, Livingston, New Jersey
72 articles 0 photos 16 comments

The progression of women’s rights in American society has been a complex and convoluted path -- the women’s rights movement of 1848-1920, along with the second-wave feminism movement of the late 1960s-70s, are often regarded as golden eras of female empowerment, whereas other decades in American history have been delegated to the sidelines. Overshadowed by destructive calamities such as The Great Depression and World War II, the 1920s to 1940s are rarely deemed as a period of progress for female rights. However, despite the reinforcement of traditional gender roles onset by The Great Depression, several extraordinary, depreciated milestones for women’s rights were achieved during the 1920s-1940s. From the eventual integration of women into politics to the shifting portrayal of women in popular media to the emergence of women in institutes of higher education and the workforce, the 1920s-1940s were a progressive -- but often disregarded -- period of time for women’s rights in the United States. The 1920s-1940s were a crucial point in American history that contributed significantly to the diverse roles women hold today, and they were an essential step in promoting gender equality across not just those particular decades - but for future generations of women across the United States and the global community as well.

In the aftermath of the 19th Amendment’s ratification in 1920, women slowly became immersed into the public sphere, most notably in the field of politics. In the 1920s, women were elected to political office in unprecedented numbers. By 1928, seven women were elected to the House of Representatives, and an influx of women were commissioned to positions in state-level politics, serving roles such as secretary of state and secretary of education. This sudden inpouring of women in politics was predominantly a result of women voting other women into political office, thanks to their newfound voting privileges (Lee). Moreover, by the late 1920s and 1930s, women’s voices had finally been heard through political office in widespread margins for the first time in American history. In turn, as the percentage of women voting and being appointed into positions of power increased, the turnout rate and overall interest in female politics increased in exponential numbers as well. Sarah Evans, Regents Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Michigan notes, “Women’s participation resulted in both political parties becoming interested in gaining women’s votes and lobbying for some of women’s causes, such as equal rights legislation. Democratic and Republican party leaders also opened up positions for women within their organizations (Evans).” An example of women using their voting rights to campaign for women’s causes is when in 1920, 14 women’s rights organizations joined together and lobbied passionately for federal-level social welfare legislation. Together, they established a mother’s pension program for poor women with children, child labor laws, and the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921 that gave federal funds to health programs for women and children (Dumenil 3).  In the 1920s to 1940s, women began to immerse themselves passionately in the field of politics, pioneering the way and inspiring other women as they lobbied for extensive social reforms for women and made their political voices heard.

In the 1920s to 1940s, a number of profound social and cultural reforms, particularly in popular film and media, resulted in a newfound definition of normal for women and their place in American society. The revolutionary portrayal of women in film in the 1920s illustrated the shifting liberal perspective of contemporary women. “Women in the movies of the 1920s were seen as progressive individuals with far more independence. For example, the movies depicted new freedoms for women such as drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes in public, dancing more provocatively, and going into the workforce (“Women, Films, and the 1920s”).”  From a historical perspective, the symbolic pattern of female liberalisation in movies released in the 1920s to 1940s brought women into an unprecedented light, portraying them as independent, unique individuals that in response, inspired women to seek and express individuality and happiness for themselves. Besides the fluid depiction of women in films and the media, a new generation of American women whose acts endorsed a degree of sexual freedom - prominently referred to as “flappers” - emerged into national presence in the “Roaring Twenties”. Perhaps Zelda Fitzgerald, one of the most infamous flappers of her time period, embodied the flapper spirit best when she stated in her 1922 piece “Eulogy on the Flapper”, “She awoke from her lethargy of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into the battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure, she covered her face with powder and paint because she didn’t need it and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. She was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do (Spivack).” The flapper movement of the 1920s was a historic battle cry for sexual independence that had been repressed by patriarchal hands in the 1800s through the eminence of the Victorian Era. This new age of women in the 1920s to 1940s - women who smoked cigarettes (a practice done almost exclusively by men), drank alcohol, cut their hair shoulder length, emerged in commercial films that broke the long-standing submissive housewife archetype,  and wore dresses cut at knee-length - was the first spark in an eventual revolution of sexual liberty for women in future decades to come.

Prior to the 1920s, the number of women attending universities was exceedingly low due to the long-ingrained societal notion that women were expected to become submissive housewives while men worked and provided for the family. However, especially in the 1930s, women began to involve themselves in institutes of higher education despite public opposition from both men and women alike. Statistically, by 1940, over 600,000 female students attended college, and 77,000 earned bachelor’s degrees. In comparison, in 1900, 85,338 women attended college (Romero). This rapid increase in female involvement in universities was largely due to the vastly changing social climate that emerged in the 1920s with the ratification of 19th Amendment and formation of female coalition groups that rallied aggressively for education reforms across the United States. In addition to increased involvement in educational programs, women also began to materialize in the workforce. The National Women’s History Museum observes, “Between 1930 and 1945, the Depression, the New Deal program of legislation, and World War II shaped women workers’ experiences in the labor force and in organized labor. The Depression and World War II pushed more women into the workforce than ever before and inspired increased organizational activity. The New Deal both improved working conditions for women, encouraged a high level of women’s participation in organized labor, and overcame some racial prejudices against non-white women workers (“The Depression and World War II”).” Therefore, the stigmatized conception that The Great Depression and World War II were historical events that caused women to retrograde into the traditional, subservient roles that they fought so hard to eradicate is inherently inaccurate. Although there was the generalized image of the aimless, lonely man seeking to survive, find work, and support his family that still thrives in history textbooks and historical literature today, the progression made in terms of female rights was significant as well. As seen through the integration of women into universities and the workforce, the 1920s to 1940s was a truly remarkable era of advancement for women because it had the distinction of being the first period in American history that women transcended from the servile domestic role, sought their own education, and provided for themselves instead of having their husbands provide for them.

The 1920s-1940s were a critical period of American history for women; despite the common misconception that women’s rights fell stagnant after 1920 due to the phenomenons of The Great Depression and World War II, a number of notable benchmarks were made that contributed considerably to the rights that women possess today. From the integration of women into politics, to the sexually empowering flapper movement and liberalised portrayal of women in film, popular culture, and the media, to the emergence of women in the workforce and universities, the 1920s to 1940s re-explored the definition of what it means to be a woman in a deeply patriarchal society. As Eleanor Roosevelt wisely stated in her memoir It’s Up to the Women, “The women know that life must go on and that the needs of life must be met and it is their courage and determination which, time and again, have pulled us through worse crises than the present one.” Over half a century later, reflecting back on the achievements made during the 1920s to 1940s, this statement could not ring more true. For the crises that women have faced for so many centuries of history is simply that - themselves. And it is their courageous, strong-willed, and resilient attitudes that have pulled through for each other against the prejudices of society, woman to woman, time and time again.

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