The position of blueswomen in the 1920s was extremely defining of the time and its contradictions. These women found themselves squeezed between the aspiration to new independence – which the flapper was also exploring – and a quieter, almost obscure support position to the race, which was prominent in the 1920s New Negro’s discourse.
The New Woman exploration of the self
The role of women in Western society started to change at the end of the 19th century. Dramatically.
Women began to take part in social activities more often. They went to college in bigger numbers and took up jobs outside the house, seeking independence at least until it was time to get married.
They called her the New Woman because she did things her ancestors didn’t dream of doing, and yet society was now begrudgingly accepting that she could.
This New Woman went through the suffrage movent, which granted her the right to vote for the first time in the modern age. She involved herself with the new ideal of feminism. She revolutionalised the way she dressed and appeared. She actively participated in the first worldwide conflict.
Slowly but surely, she appropriated activities that had been exclusively male for a very long time.
Her trajectory came to the apex during the 1920s when the flapper became the epitome of the New Woman.
This was a woman who worked, who studied, who had fun. She was also a woman who wasn’t afraid to show her body or explore her sexuality. She was not afraid to be attractive. She participated in the consumer market with her own earned money.
It was a revolution, and it was exciting.
The New Negro Woman and the culture of dissemblance
But it was not the same experience for all women.
In the United States, another huge social change was taking place, and the role women were playing in it was supposed to be very different.
The 1920s was the decade of the rise of the New Negro.
The beginning of the 20th century created many opportunities for African American men to become more mobile and visible in American society. Many migrated from the South to the northern cities, where they found opportunities for employment unthinkable in their native states.
A significant number of them took part in WWI, offering their lives and their strength for their country, willingly choosing to do so, an experience that greatly changed these men’s sense of belongings and expectation.
African American regiments proved to be particularly fierce and brave during the war – as was the case of the famous Harlem Hellfighters. True, these were segregated regiments, yet this very situation made it harder to deny African Americans’ achievements. It was a duality that became commonplace in the interwar years, especially in the 1920s.
Prohibition unexpectedly gave African Americans the opportunity to show their culture, especially in the show business. Previous to Prohibition, only African Americans played and listened to jazz. But the pass of the 18th Amendment opened up the underground bars where jazzmen played to the general public, and suddenly, everyone was exposed to jazz and found they liked it.
It was a form of expression that spoke of the African American experience of liberation but resonated with the entire American society – and even beyond it – in a time when people wanted freedom and rejuvenation after the terrible experience of war.
The popularity of jazz opened the way to more avenues of expression for African American artists, who became generally acclaimed.
African Americans had been part of the American experience for centuries, but now they were being ‘discovered’ and deemed ‘new’.
This didn’t mean that everything was nice and good.
African Americans still had to face widespread racism and racial stereotyping. As they became more visible in American society, they were still described and represented with old racial stereotypes, which – to a certain point – they managed to use at their advantage.
Here’s where the position of African American women became very, very tricky and hard to navigate.
The New Negro man was expected to be proactive. He was expected to become visible, respectable and to ‘advance the race’ in any way he could, especially with his work and his voice.
But a very pernicious racial stereotype made African American men look small and effeminated in the shadow of overbearing, over-sexualised, overpowering women. Therefore, African American women had been expected to become almost invisible for a long time. They would support ‘race advancement’ by supporting their men. They would raise their children in the affirmation of themselves. They would educate them with their love and knowledge and support their men with their work and ladylike behaviours – but always a step back. Because if they became visible, their presence would shadow and belittle their men’s actions, according to the prevalent racial stereotypes.
Therefore, African American women – especially those belonging to the middle and upper classes – had long adhered to a culture of dissemblance, where their actions happened but were not acknowledged. Many African American women still adhered to this ideal in the 1920s, even hugely successful ones like Mme. Walker, who had created an economic empire off her beauty products and certainly had nothing to envy – and might have had something to teach – to any man.
The blueswoman and her cultural visibility
This culture of dissemblance started to crumble under the 1920s zeitgeist.
Women were getting access to new opportunities and appearing in places they had never been. They were doing things they had never done. They were becoming more attractive.
In short, their behaviours and looks were making them move visible.
Why would African American women want to stay out of all this?
Indeed. They didn’t.
But their delicate social position made participation in the New Woman revolution a very thorny matter for them.
Some of them choose to still adhere to the culture of dissemblance. They chose to strive to show a very respectable, very ladylike and very unobtrusive image of the African American woman.
But some others chose to participate in the New Woman revolution openly and embraced ‘flapperism’ at its fullest.
Blueswomen fell somewhat in the middle.
Although blues was an older form of music than jazz, the two raised to mainstream attention more or less at the same time during Prohibition.
And yet, while the general public slowly appropriated jazz, blues always remained a form of expression deeply connected to African American culture. Rooted in these people’s historical experience in America, it was difficult to transfer to a different cultural environment.
Where jazz was about evolution, the seeking for new ways, exploration and experimentation – which is what resonated with a larger public in that time – the blues spoke specifically of the African American experience.
Although blues spoke of freedom and liberation just like jazz, the African American’s historical experience of transition from slavery to freedom was always between the lines.
Yet, in the very early 20th century, many blueswomen started to meet recognition, becoming very popular in the vaudeville circuits. This had less to do with their art than it had with their visible presence. These African American women showed themselves on the stage and often already embraced the New Women’s ideal. Like their male counterparts, they were perceived as ‘new’, exotic and not least, erotic, and therefore the public started to seek them out.
It is not difficult to see why these women didn’t find the approval of their community. There was nothing of the culture of dissemblance in them. On the contrary, they show themselves off and make that the centre of their lives.
Not only that, but they accepted prevalent racial stereotyping, which made them exotic, sexualised queens with all the trappings of primitivism.
Blueswomen were well aware of this. They were not passive objects of the show business. Most of them were shrewd businesswomen themselves who knew that, even if they didn’t have total control of their images, they still had the opportunity to harness it. Even when racially stereotyped, they found a way to make their voice heard. Literally.
Some of them – like Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith – became hugely popular. Many wrote their own songs, speaking of freedom in life and love (even queer love found space in those songs). Their very popularity put them in a position to speak and be heard. And many of them did speak in favour of their people. Their preeminence and visibility allowed them to change how the larger public perceived African Americans.
We acknowledge it today. But in the 1920s, everyone criticised blueswomen. Their people thought they were too showy, too loose, too willing to be stereotyped for the sake of money and success, and therefore they were ostracised and pointed at as lost women.
The larger public considered them sexy, objectified dolls that looked exotic and challenging but not really threatening.
Everyone belittled them.
Them, who were such a strong, loud voice speaking of the freedom of their people and of every human being.
Chapman, Erin D., Prove It on Me. New Negroes, Sex, and Popular Culture in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 2012
Blues Women: First Civil Rights Workers by Dr Joan Cartwright (PDF)