Shameless, Selfish and Honest: the new breed of woman who dominated the XX Century (The New Woman’s New Look Series)

In many respect, the XX century started with WWI. It was a time that brought so much change in life and society and it can be said that WWI (the Great War, as it was called throughout the first half of the century) truly destroyed many ways of thinking and behaving that still belonged to the XIX century.

From its ashes, a new way of living and thinking was born and the 1920s — The Roaring Twenties as they were known in the US — was the first place where that change became apparent. Nowhere more so than on people’s personal life.

A New Era

It didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t even happen during the four years of war. The way people perceived themselves and their lives had already started to change in the XIX century. People had long tried to gain control over their lives so to mould it in the way that most satisfied them. Middle class family were particularly sensitive to this matter. Already in the XIX century, these families had started using birth control (whatever it was available at the time) to become smaller units and to gain the time necessary to pursue personal goals. But at that time effective birth control was very limited, so couples had to resort to avoidance in order to limit births. This accounts for both the wide-spread practice of late marriages in the middle class and the Victorian obsession with avoiding any sexual thought or hint.

At the beginning of the XX century, contraception became more reliable, more common, and especially more widely accepted. Couples now had the means to decide when they wanted to have children and how many of them they wanted. This produced the hoped-for obligation-free time necessary to pursue personal aspirations. It also produced an unexpected effect, one that proved to be the biggest social earthquake the Western World had ever known.

The New Youth

The family, this most important staple of society, changed completely. Because families became smaller, all their members had more manoeuvring space inside it, more quality time to spend with each other. Where the Victorian family — numerous as it tended to be — needed to be managed and so every member had — first and foremost — a role to perform, the new smaller family would afford to care about its few members. Relationships inside it hinged not on roles but on affection. And this cause an epochal change in the relationship between husband and wife and between parents and children.

Freed of the preoccupation of having children when they were still not ready for it, and given the possibility to plan when to have their children, couples could get together at a younger age, create a companionable relationship, get in the desired economical position and even finish pursuing an education before they actually build a family.
 Having time for themselves allowed these couples to give more attention to the partner’s personality and desires, and when they had the children they wanted (rarely more than three), they could give these children the same kind of attention and affection.

Garveyite Family — Harlem — 1924

These parents, who had sought their own personal fulfilment, were just as willing to give their children a chance to get their fulfilment before life started becoming demanding. They were willing to sustain the cost of child-rearing longer than any generation before them, thus affording their children to be young and free of adult responsibility for a longer time.
 On the other hand, these children — who came of age in the 1920s — were willing to remain dependent from their parents for a longer time, which was a result of the desire to pursue their own desires as well as of the new affectionate family.

This is how the concept of youth as we conceive it today was born.

The New Woman

The new, affectionate family who planned their life and when to have their children brought about a huge changed especially in the life of women.

Up to this moment, intercourse with a man was likely to get a woman pregnant even when she (or they) didn’t want to. Especially in the Victorian Age, when the need to plan a family became relevant but the means to do it were still few and ineffective, a woman’s sexuality had simply been denied. Women were seen as pure and free from the sexual impulses that characterised men and were even expected not to take pleasure from sex.

When reliable contraception gave couples the possibility to have intercourse without a pregnancy, if they so decided, it was women who were liberated first and foremost. Now they could live their sexuality in a freer, more joyous way, not unlike men. Physical attraction as well as spiritual affinity became very important in the formation of couples. Women were no more expected to be merely mothers, but companions, lovers, wives and mothers. The search for the perfect partner who would be a mate, but also a life companion, led to the practice of dating, that brought men and women together for a time without the pressure of marriage. This is where personal attraction became most important. On the part of women, this meant displaying their sexuality and sex-appeal in a free way that was — for the first time — socially acceptable.
 In response to this, her social position also changed. Becoming a companion for her man, the New Woman needed to gain all the characteristics a shared life demanded, in everyday life as well as couple life. Men no more looked merely for a mother for their children, they also wanted a companion to share their life experience and women were ready to be just that.

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Because the change was so shocking on the women’s side, we tend to think that’s the only change that happened.
 We should remember that the shift in thinking and accepted social behaviour that allowed the New Woman to be born actually started with her parents. That the inner drive that moved the New Woman was the same for her male counterpart: expressing themselves freely, be free to do their own choices.
 We should also remember that in spite of the great, sometimes loud controversy surrounding the New Woman, some of her behaviour were accepted by all women, including their mothers, and that their male counterparts accepted they behaviour because it matched young men’s behaviour and desires.

The New Woman wanted to be free to express herself, to choose a partner for her life, to pursue her desires both in terms of personal and career life. These were the same things young men wanted.

Madge Bellamy in Summer Bachelors (1926)
Evelyn Brent

The New Look

The New Woman’s new look isn’t just the expression of a woman’s newfound freedom and it certainly isn’t just a matter of fashion. It’s the expression of a change that involved an entire society, regardless of gender and age.

In the way the body of the New Woman changed and the ways she used that body, we can trace values and behaviour of an entire society and age.

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Originally published at on October 16, 2015.

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