Roaring: Flappers And Suffragettes
On Women In 1920s America
On May 10, 1920, “The Flapper” starring Olive Thomas premiered in cinemas across the United States. The film revolved around a young woman who broke from the norms of what was expected from women of the time and her lifestyle of breaking these rules. It had a perfect headlining star in Thomas, for she herself was a controversial figure known to have risen from being a simple illustrators’ model (some of her portraits were quite racy, maybe even by today’s standards) to one of Hollywood’s first ever true movie stars.
Thomas would pass from this world later that year from a mysterious and scandalous case of poisoning, but the film she starred in was the start of something. The lifestyle that her character would show onscreen would go on to be a portrait of the new norms women were creating for themselves in this new roaring decade. However, at that time, the term for which the film was titled wasn't widely known as the defining term for the American woman from the 1920s. Yet, not only would the term eventually achieve popularity, but the image it inscribed into one’s mind would be the quintessential symbol of the decade.
In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed. Women, after decades of fighting with every level of government — and with the help of many forgotten sympathetic male lawmakers — had finally earned the right to vote. The days of Susan B. Anthony being arrested for voting for President Ulysses S. Grant’s re-election in 1872 were lone gone. Before then, some states had begun to allow women the right to vote. Wyoming started the trend as far back as 1869. But as time passed and the suffragettes’ influence grew (along with the great help of their allies in the pro-Prohibition camp), the reality of giving the “fairer sex” just as much a say as men became law of the entire land.
Suffragettes won sympathy for their cause by aligning themselves with the ever growing popular prohibition movement. If they could keep alcoholic husbands from neglecting or abusing their wives through outlawing the bottle, they were prepared for those women to have a say on who would run the country as well. What both groups sought was a more pious and chivalrous nation, and this alliance was one of the most powerful and successful ones in American political history come the 1920s. It’s no wonder both Prohibition and the right for women to vote became law the same year entering a new decade.
Likewise, men figured out that women would likely vote about the same way they did — a trend that lasted for a good while until the gender gap began to show itself late into the 20th century. If their wives would agree with them anyways, what was the harm in letting them vote? And women were key in President Warren G. Harding’s 1920 landslide victory, giving him overwhelming support after being imprisoned for their protesting under President Woodrow Wilson.
But now that the suffragettes had achieved what they wanted at the start of the new decade in winning the right to vote, making Prohibition reality and helping elect a new president, they were left with questions as to what to do next. Suffragettes wanted to achieve a country where the Prohibitionists’ vision of a liquor-free and pious America was a reality while women were independent enough to have a say in things. Instead, what followed was something a good many suffragette may have not seen coming: a more revolutionary change for women in 1920s America.
The term “Flapper” can be traced as far back as the 1600s, used as a term for a prostitute. Flappers were nothing of the sort — but they did use something prostitutes used and brought it into the mainstream for women: makeup. Well, excessive makeup. Before the 1920s, a woman would have her fancy dresses and stylized hair, but makeup was seen as a tool by prostitutes to attract clientele, so women who did apply it made sure to use very little of it. Any woman seen walking around with too much makeup would be known to be a “lady of the night.”
American women in the roaring decade brought makeup from its awful reputation to just another tool for a woman to look her best at a party or for a night out on the town. Suddenly, young women were applying more makeup and weren’t afraid to be seen out in public with it.
Likewise, they threw away the corset and pantaloons for what were referred to as “step-in” panties. That type of lingerie is nothing scandalous nowadays, but back then it was a huge change to how women dressed. On top of this, with the corsets no longer there to accent the hips and waist, women began to have more straight up and down appearances. Because of this look, unlike in other eras, flat chests were considered better for the stylish look than a woman with a larger bra size. Thus, what you got was women looking more straight and loose with their clothing, and more parts of their body being shown in public.
Boyish cuts became the hair style for women. Shorter hair became fashionable among them, and suddenly the tradition of long hair went out the window. Women even changed it up with hats, accepting such hat styles as the newsboy cap or the popular cloche hat of the time. Art Deco jewelry became more popular as well.
In this era of sudden new fashion styles for women, Coco Chanel emerged as one of the most prominent fashion designers. She was so influential that just her showing off a tan led to women tanning their skin becoming more popular, tossing away the previous pale skin look, a change that arguably has never been turned back since.
But changes in fashion, hair and jewelry aren’t the only things that changed for women in the 1920s. It would take more than that for the term “Flapper” to be applied to them. The more loose clothing made walking around more comfortable for women, and getting out of the house was suddenly a more common exercise for them.
Ironically, the movement that helped women gain the right to vote — the same movement that had partnered up with allies to make Prohibition law — could not stop women from suddenly finding themselves free to visit “speakeasies,” illegal bars and dance clubs that catered to those desperate enough to risk prison time for a good night out with alcohol involved. Women, the sex that previous to Prohibition wouldn’t be seen stepping into a saloon unless they were part of a brothel, became regular visitors to these bars. Many famous mixed drinks we know of today were first created for the ladies of this time. This led to women breaking with the Prohibition movement, leading to Prohibition’s defeat later on.
On top of this, women began to take the risks of premarital sex more often. With this came the beginning of the mainstream use of contraceptives. They also began to smoke, something thought to be only for men before then. Cursing, something seen so unladylike before that men would ask women to leave a room if cursing was happening in a conversation, became more common for women.
Finally, women began to look into working for themselves, no longer just waiting for a man to marry them and be the one solely providing for the two of them. This led to women starting to enter the workplace more and competing with men in the business world. It has been noted that perhaps the popularity of consumerism at the time may have also helped to motivate women to go out and make their own living more often.
For whatever reason, the feminist movement and the image of a more independent woman seems to be attributed to as being begun after World War II, particularly during the “free love” stage of the 1960s for America. But in reality, the decades of sacrifice and hard work of the women’s suffrage movement was the true start, followed by the norms that “The Flapper” broke in the 1920s.
Suffragettes envisioned a world where they had more of a say on political matters, while working with Prohibitionists on a vision of a more moral America. Instead they opened the gate for women to have more independence, to see themselves as more equal to men to the point that they began to break their previous norms, to change their lifestyle norms, to be more sexually independent and sow the seeds for the more modern feminism.
Eventually, the Great Depression and the hardships that it brought, along with the end of the speakeasy when Prohibition would come to the end, was the death nail for “The Flapper.” Women suddenly had to take care of their families during tough economic times. The lifestyle and lavish fashion wasn’t affordable any longer. Some states began to combat the higher hemlines, and women began to scale back their expression through clothing a bit. By the mid-30s, “The Flapper” had become a thing of the past.
But the legacy of these women did not end there. Still today, women seek the question of what would be equality for their sex. They protest and debate among themselves what norms they want to break now, and how to present themselves publicly as new fashion styles come and go. American women in the 1920s began a revolution that arguably still rages on to this day.