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Living the Twenties: V,W,X

By Sarah Zama

Sarah Zama, @jazzfeathers on twitter and a writer of historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s, did 26 blog posts in 2020 as an A-Z challenge on the cultural and political aspects of the 1920s over on her blog The Old Shelter. We're reposting these here as they talk about an area of History ripe for AH. Today we have the entries for A, B and C.

It is worth noting that an extended version of this series is available to buy.

Suffrage movements were familiar sights by the 1920s. Movements and demonstrations for the women’s right to vote had started as far back as the beginning of the 1800s and during that century the fight had got much fiercer.

The suffrage movements were particularly strong in all English speaking countries, but it was in the US and the United Kingdom that the fight became most violent.

And, in those countries though not in the likes of New Zealand or Norway, it was only after WWI that the first results came.

Victorian Age Suffragettes

During the 18th century, the role of women in Western society was officially primarily that of child raisers and house managers. Women were not ‘political beings’, therefore the idea that they could vote – let alone being voted for – was not a remotely mainstream idea. The short lived Corsican Republic from 1755 to 1769 did allow votes for women but only for widows with no adult sons, the idea being that each household had earned a vote and in this case the woman would vote for her family as the man would have done it. It was less a strike for equality and more a clan based viewpoint unwilling to strip votes from bloodlines due to the lack of male voters (given how high the murder rate was due to clan based vendettas, there was also probably worries that without that law, male voters would be killed to remove that family's influence.)

The French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution changed things considerably. The French Revolution verbalised for the first time that all citizens are equal and have the same rights and duties. This meant, in theory at least, that women had the same duties toward the republic as men, and therefore were entitled to aspire to the same rights.

The Industrial Revolution was another real shock to the role of women. Working outside the house became more common, especially for lower-class women. This had always happened but while previously they had found work mostly in the domestic services, or by running domestic industries, now they entered the factories as the industry became hungry for workers. In these factories, women did jobs that didn’t differentiate much from those of men. It was in this environment that different movements for workers’ right arose and among these workers were also women. Many women became union leaders or led rent strikes in places like Glasgow during the 1910s.

In these new conditions, there was no reason why women shouldn't fight both for the rights of every worker and for their own right to take part in political life, a struggle that was also taken up by the middle classes thanks to increasingly liberalism. Suffrage movements started to appear in the US and the UK, where the Industrial Revolution first hit. This struggle was complicated by the fact that property and wealth based restrictions meant many poor men also couldn't vote. The suffrage movement was divided between those who wanted universal suffrage, those who wanted universal male suffrage and those who wanted universal suffrage for all those who met the property and wealth based restrictions regardless of gender, three different but intertwined ambitions.

Suffragettes met great social resistance. A society accustomed to having their women relegated to the house wasn’t prepared to see them getting involved in the political sphere, where decisions were made. Many men and elite women thought that women were unstable and uncontrollable, therefore unreliable, inherently incapable of sustaining the stress of political life and treat the suffragette movement with open scorn. Opposition to this way of thinking required particular passion and devotion, which was what suffragettes were often prepared to give.

It was a harsh clash and one that by the early 1910s was increasingly growing violent. Assaults on properties and arrests of Suffragettes weren’t uncommon. Many of these arrested women chose to keep protesting from prison, going on hunger strikes which sometimes resulted in their death or on forced feeding.

Things still stood like this when WWI broke out.

WWI, a turning point

WWI changed the cards for everyone, though in different ways depending on the country. But once again, the common cause was that women entered new spaces because of the war. With many men off at war (most of the male population in Europe) women took up their jobs, whatever they were, and during the war, they conducted them just as well as men.

Many women also joined the war effort. Sometimes they worked from home, producing items and materials for the men and for the war. Many worked in the munitions factories, which was previously considered a most unwomanly job. Sometimes they operated on the very war fields across Europe, mostly as nurses and ambulance drivers, exposed to the same dangers as soldiers.

When the Great War was over, it was very difficult to convince these women that there was nothing for them but to go back to the house and family life. Although many lost their jobs and part of the independence they had achieved during the war years, nobody could take from them the knowledge that life could be different.

After the war, many countries granted (some) women the right to vote. In the United Kingdom in 1918. In Germany in 1919. In the US in 1920. Other countries, such as France and Italy, would resist for another few decades.

The 1920s would be the first decade of women voters in a lot of the West, but it would also show the early limitations of this achievement. The number of women who chose to exercise their right to vote was often discouragingly low for the women who had fought for it, and in the UK there was still age and property based restrictions at first. But it was the first step—the most important one.

In many respects, having gained the vote, the 1920s was the decade of the woman. Women’s behaviour and opportunities changed and advanced, but also, more importantly, the perception of women and what they could and should do changed in the mind of both men and women.

Flapper: The New Woman

The flapper is one of the icons of the 1920s. The young, modern girl who challenged all the traditional roles of women, who dressed daringly, wore makeup, dated boys, and even dared to work and dream of a professional career.

The phenomenon of the flapper is more interesting for what it says about the social reaction to it then the actual occurrence. They were indeed some real girls who challenged traditional roles, but mostly unintentionally. By this, I mean that they were not trying to make any social statement. They were just a group of middle class girls who wanted to have fun in all ways their world made available to them.

But they were in sufficient numbers to attract the attention of social commentators, who appeared to be quite alarmed by the flapper’s attitude. The flapper, they breathlessly complained about, sought fun over propriety. With her inclination to male attention outside of marriage, and her obvious interest in sex-appeal, she disregarded (or appeared to disregard) the marital life. Not to mention her excessive interest in professional life, and her involvement in activities that previously only engaged men.

A lot of elders thought flappers would cause the downfall of society.

The number of girls living this new, freer life was never huge thanks to the fact the majority of women were married or poor and certainly too few to endanger society. The Flapper girls did try to create and enjoy new social possibilities. But alongside them, a far greater number of girls were not flappers but aspired to that same freedom and opportunities. Even today, we tend to think that all girls were flappers in the 1920s. This was not remotely the case, but it is certainly what the marketers wanted 1920s girls to believe, and what 1920s commentators feared it was. This made the idea of the flapper more powerful and allowed it to reach a lot further than it may have done on its own.

Magazines talked about flappers. Commentators criticised them. Ads addressed and featured them. Soon, entertainment caught up the trend and started featuring flappers in novels and films, making them glamorous. And ubiquitous.

All these media coverage gave the impression that flappers were far more numerous than they actually were. It also allowed the new ideas about the flapper to have a far greater reach. Indeed more and more girls, even those who could not afford to be real flappers, started to try and adhere to that idea with their own means.

Flappers may not have been numerous, but their idea of freedom of expression and new life expectation did change the mind of a lot of people.

The Atarashii Onna: the Japanese New Woman

In the same years after WWI, a similar phenomenon to the flapper was happening in Japan.

Japan had isolated itself for a long time, but in the 1860s, during the Edo Period, the US forced it to open up to the world. The Meiji Era (1868-1912) was one of great innovation, which came to fruition in the Taisho Era (1912-26), the Jazz Age of Japan. As Europe bent under the weight of the aftermath of WWI, Japan rose, looking to fill the gaps left by Europe in the world economy. At that time, many Japanese took up the American way of life, at least in the big cities.

It was in this time that the mobo and his sister (or more likely, lover) moga — modern boy and modern girl respectively — came into their own. They dressed in Western fashion, frequented Western places, like the European-style cafes that were springing up everywhere and especially in the Ginza, Tokyo’s European quarter. They wanted to have fun and explored their sexuality unashamedly. And like their western counterparts, they didn’t seem to care much for the future.

Women once again received the most concern. They cut their hair, dressed in Western clothes, read Western authors. They were consumers, especially of magazines, which taught them how to use their time to make some money on the side and dream about a professional career.

Like the flappers, they were dubbed as superficial and pleasure-seekers. Like the German garçons, they were considered unpatriotic.

And like their Western counterparts, they would disappear in the dark times of the 1930s.

The New Woman in Russia

In the newly formed Soviet Union, the idea of the New Woman also emerged in the 1920s, especially because of the ideas of Aleksandra Kollontaj, a Russian revolutionary and later, a diplomat.

Kollontaj thought that the new nation should take care of most of the education of children. It should take care of collective housing and of foster care. In this way, it would take on itself the traditional work of a woman and effectively liberate her. Free love should be the norm, with civil partnership supplanting the traditional marriage. Legislation legalizing abortions and the increasing use of contraception were also introduced as soviet women began to work more and give birth less. For a time, the radicals ran Bolshevik policy about family, built around freeing lower class Women from domestic concerns and getting their voice heard in professional and political matters in a way that wouldn’t be seen in most Western countries for a few more decades.

But these radical notions didn’t last long. In the 1930s, as Soviet birth rates fell, the Russian government started to introduce more and more limitation to the life and education of women, wanting them to go back to their traditional role of mothers and wives. Stalin's new Soviet Woman emphasised women’s roles as workers and mothers within the home with the aim of mobilizing women mainly for economic development and military preparation rather than breaking up the family units entirely. At that point, the free New Russian Woman disappeared from the country for a long, long time.

Rising from the ruins of WWI, fated to end in the looming shadows of the Great Depression and then of WWII, the 1920s have a vitality that is not totally explainable. That X-factor that made them a time of excitement even in among terrible events.

The 1920s and the 1930s are often considered anxious decades. They were times of great change, of advancement for both people, technology and science, and still, there was always a sense of finality to them. Decades of movements and shifting, they never found real stability.

The 1930s, marked by the harsh times of the Great Depression and then by the Second World War, were undoubtedly times of trial and darkness.

But what about the 1920s?

A time of opposites

When we think about the 1920s today, we often think of prosperity and fun.

Things were getting better for workers. The middle class was expanding and generally becoming more affluent. More and more families could afford to have their children go to school rather than work.

Women were winning a different place in the world. Life was getting easier. At least this was the perception in the big cities and among the emerging middle classes.

The situation was quite different in the country and in the slums. Where the cities projected themselves toward a future that didn’t seem too far away, the countryside seemed to leg behind in the previous century. In the US, the countryside knew the first Depression in the 1920s and it was, in many ways, the nadir of American race relations. In Europe, the countryside was often the place of the most vigorous nationalism, which was bent to keep things as they always had been.

Why, then, do we call them the roaring twenties and seem to see only the positive, lively, advancing face of the decade and not the stagnation or repression? Because it did happen.

Even if not in as widespread a manner as we sometimes think, things were indeed changing, sometimes dramatically. In the aftermath of a terrible war, people were hungry for life and for experimentation. Especially young people were anxious to live now, in case something terrible happened again. And the anxiety let down barriers that had always been in place. Exploring was imperative. Experimenting was the most exciting and the most sensible thing to do.

It was so important that not even harsh criticism slowed down the need to explore.

It was too great a need. Live. Be alive. Have fun. And run as fast as possible towards a future that might not be there for long.

Unfulfilled promises

In many respect, the 1920s did not fulfil its promises, as the 1930s soon showed.

Prosperity, which was maybe the greatest illusion, collapsed on itself when the stock market crashed on 29 October 1929. That was when the future the 1920s had imagined died. The flourishing of the arts, the advancement of women, the great mirage of fashion and of technology, all seemed to vanish. Making ends meet became the single most important activity of the majority of people.

Whatever was the X-factor that made the 1920s the incredibly sparkling decade that it was, by the opening of the 1930s it was no more.

It would take decades for some things to pick up the threads.

But it wasn’t for nothing. What the 1920s had created, especially in the minds and hearts of people, didn’t vanish in the ashes of the Great Depression. It slept, maybe. But never totally disappeared.


Sarah Zama writes historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s and blogs about the culture of that time period at The Old Shelter. An extended version of this series can be bought here.


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