The Roaring Twenties resulted in a myriad of changes in American society, but one prominent change was with respects to women – most specifically, the social phenomenon of the flapper.
Consider a few historical points. First, remember the flapper movement began after the Civil War. Unhappy with their clothing options, job prospects and the general comportment society required them to engage in, women began to agitate for change. The changes were superficial at first, as the requirement to wear floor-length dresses was a universal complaint shared by both liberal and conservative women. They wanted to be able to expose more skin and have more options for their hair. They also wanted to venture more outside the home for jobs. Once again, representing the privilege of American feminism.
The flapper bubble heated up during WWI, when women flocked to the factories to help out in the war effort. This source of serious independent income helped spark the movement’s explosion after the war. Also, the Spanish Flu epidemic broke out on the heels of the WWI, as the close quarters and diverse mix of cultures involved helped spread the disease. This put off the economic recovery for a few years, until 1920. In addition, the Temperance Movement had gotten Prohibition passed, thus setting up alcohol as illegal and taboo, thus increasing its appeal to young women. The creation of Fed lead to the creation of cheap credit, which helped fuel the economic and social bubble of the Roaring Twenties. Also, this was the same year the women gained the right to vote in the US. The economic independence gained by women during the war, coupled with the power to vote and toss in the fact that over 53,000 young men died in the war seriously increased the competition for men.
This era gave birth the flapper girl. This woman was a primitive modern woman. She still retained many feminine virtues, but still tried to defy sex stereotypes. What is most striking is her modified approach to fashion. The most identifiable feature of the flapper is the bobbed haircut.
As for women’s fashion, there was the desire to show off arms and shoulders, as well as knee-high skirts. The dresses of the era reflected that. Also, they desired less restrictive clothing – remember the corset? – so the dresses were looser and less form-fitting. They flirted with audacious jewelry and all manner of boyish haircuts. They also broke sex barriers by wearing all sorts of hats. They typically expressed their boyishness through their haircut. By and large, they considered wearing excessive amounts of makeup and bright, red lipstick to be a sign of empowerment.
The flapper approach to social comportment is also striking. Remember, alcohol was illegal, so speakeasies and all manner of back-alley bar reigned supreme – most Americans largely ignored Prohibition. However, the flapper went all-in on this. Previously, smoking, drinking and generally bar-going was a male endeavor. Men would work all day, go the bar and go home drunk. However, women wanted access to these places and so they went. Women were sometimes seen half naked, cigarette in one hand, drink in the other in a speakeasy. Women also began to participate in mass consumption as an individual, not a partner.
Consider evolving approaches to sexuality. Dating and casual sex mores were loosened for the flapper. Some solid research on effective birth control methods arose late in the 1800’s, but it was against the law to disseminate it. However, it trickled down to the general population and some birth control clinics opened – most famously the one by Margaret Sanger, who saw birth control as a way to reduce nonwhite populations. However, the flapper used these methods to allow her to exploit her hypergamy. She flirted shamelessly with men in bars and in public. She reveled in the positive attention she gained from men noticing her slender arms and exposed ankles. We would not get it today in 2013, but at the time, it probably blew men’s minds to see such skin exposed in open society.
Flappers saw manipulating men sexually through their looks to be the epitome of empowerment. They prided themselves on their use of makeup, fashion and open flirting with men. They also experimented with lesbianism; the book “The Well Of Loneliness,” was published in 1928. Such a book could not have hit publishers 20 years before. There were some high-profile lesbians in society, at this point. Places like Harlem were more accepting of homosexuality, but as usual, it was female homosexuality, not male.
Women saw freely hooking up as empowerment. However, this was not their only change in their relationships with men at large. They began to question the whole makeup of society. Flappers considered men to be privileged at the expense of women and sought to invert these roles. Magazines targeted at flappers continued to develop primitive feminist theory. As expected, there were beta males who identified with flappers – they were called flippers.
Women did not just seek access to venues to fuck men, they sought access to other places generally off limits to women. They sought to participate in sports, from hockey to baseball. Some wrote manifestos about how men and women are equals on the field; but women had those delusions ground up by reality when men allowed them to the take the field. They also increasingly sought access to college. Colleges became known for “necking parties” or “petting parties,” where emphasis was on kissing and touching, but no sex. Clearly, the lack of true, reliable birth control played a part in this, but it seems to be another way for women to feel out for sexually attractive men.
However, the most striking point of the flapper was their resistance to relevance. They emphasized fashion, flirting and fun. They despised the work ethic of their mothers and desired a world of nothing by good looks, sex and listening to music and watching movies. As such, they helped popularize the Charleston and jazz. Their lives were supremely superficial – which is exactly what they wanted. They did not want the real responsibilities of being a wife or mother. Part of this mindset might have been the hardship of the war, but they did not suffer in any way close to the women of Europe. They were just entitled, narcissistic women just waiting to burst out and had their chance in the Roaring Twenties.
Corporations took advantage of this. They helped popularize the look of the empowered woman smoking a cigarette. Women took to this as empowered, but really just lined the tobacco company’s pockets with silver. Women spent all of their wages on all sorts of new trappings; as such, they helped develop modern consumer culture. Government and corporations knew they had a new cash cow – women. It isn’t any surprise a federal income tax got laid in the 1910’s along with the creation of the Fed. It was all in the cards, as cheap money leads to cheap morals.
However, for all their supposed independence, gumption and empowerment, the stock market crash in 1929 ended the movement. The poverty most Americans were thrust into resulted in flappers really taking on a bad light – they were seen as petty and a burden. Only wealthy and productive societies can afford such privilege to a class of women.
The poverty that became the United States forced the flapper to face realities. One, is that female economic independence is rarely correlated with actual productivity, as women usually piggy-back on male productivity. War-time may force them into productive capacities, but when given the chance; they may rue the loss of income, but women prefer nonproductive jobs where they can self-aggrandize. Second, is that social stability, especially in times of hardship, is predicated not just on the nuclear family, but all members of the family supporting each other. Third, is the idea that superficiality is worthless for society. Not being a mother and wife, or at least being a productive worker, hurts society.
Of course, women went back into the house, being a wife and a mother. They did often work outside the home if they could, but as we already know, women are only interested in an independent income for themselves. However, these women are members of the Silent Generation. Their behaviors – although not universal, to be sure – laid the groundwork for the Sexual Revolution and second-wave feminism.