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Dating as a Sign of Women’s Shifting Social Position in the 1920s

Women’s social role had started to change at the end of the 1800s already, but it was only at the turn of the century that this change started to become visible. WWI gave women an unexpected control over their lives and the opportunity to prove (to others and themselves) what they were capable of. When the war was over and a new – if brief – time of peace began, the way the western world perceived women had changed forever. Many different practises marked this shift in women’s role, and dating, funnily enough, was one of the most visible, most powerful and most feared. 

The Gibson Girl gets the change rolling

Victorian women lived in a world that tried to limit them in many ways. They were permitted limited activity outside the house, they were permitted only certain and very controlled ways to meet people – let alone strangers. They had limited opportunities for education and managing their money – let alone a business. Some women did all of this anyway, no matter how unladylike some activities were considered. 

The Gibson Girl - At the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s for the first time she stepped away from her traditional role of 'angel of the house'

Some activities – in sports, for example, or in working situations -required women to change the way they dressed. The woman’s Victorian dress was maybe the best representation of the limitations she was submitted to. And the way it progressively lightened and lost layers as the century drew to a close, also speaks of a larger change the role of women was going through. 

Yet, as the XX century opened, women were still ideally seen as the ‘angel of the house’. An angel, because she needed to be pure and innocent, the upholder of morality, and of the house, because the house was considered a woman’s ‘natural’ environment. 

At the turn of the century, the changing expectation of the bourgeoisie regarding family, children and personal achievements, opened new spaces and therefore new opportunities to women. Marriage had long been a family affair, but now it slowly gets into the hands of the two young people involved. Young men and women gain a larger opportunity to chose each other. They are also looking – and finding – ways to control the number of children they have and when they want to have them. This allows parents to seek their personal achievements before settling into family life and their children to fully exploit their own opportunities since families are now smaller and more resources can be spent on every child. 

In the 1890s, this trend was still an undercurrent, but it emerged in the open at the turn of the century. Its herald is the Gibson Girl. 

At the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s for the first time the Gibson Girl stepped away from her traditional role of 'angel of the house' Share on X

She’s a more independent woman who does things differently and has much higher expectations regarding her life than her mothers and grandmothers ever had. She pursues her desires with more intent, works outside the house more often, and even enters male professions and spaces more frequently. 

Because she is a more busy woman, she starts to dress in a more comfortable way.

Women’s relationship with men changes too. They are still considered ‘the angel of the house’ and expected to be the upholders of morality. Yet, they are gaining ground, and courtship is where this is more visible. Couples now meet outside the house, in an environment of their choice rather than their families’. Even if it’s still gentlemen who ‘call’ upon ladies, these young people tend to decide together where to go and what to do. 

Women’s quest for more independence gains visibility, but it is almost endearing at this early stage. They look like cute little creatures who do amusing things. The change is there, but it is not considered dangerous. Women still accept their role as ‘keepers of family and morality’, and as long as they don’t question this, they may have all the fun they want. It won’t last long. They can work and do sports and enjoy social events with their men while they’re young, but soon they will marry and go back to a women’s proper role. 

WWI: destructor of lives, creator of opportunities

When WWI brakes out, nobody expects what it turned out to be. In so many ways.

It was supposed to be over in a few months, to clean the world and renovate ideas and relationships. Which is exactly what it did – eventually. But before it came to that, the world had to go through hell. 

For women, especially in the Western World, WWI opened up unexpected opportunities, which maybe didn’t really look like that at the beginning. 

Most of the European young male population took part in the war, with a staggering death toll that lasted for many years. As the men gathered on the battlefields, only women, old people, and children remained in the continent’s cities and town. Whatever needed to be done, mostly fell on the shoulders of adult women. 

The Gibson Girls then proved that they were far more than cute little creatures. Their independence, which had been considered temporary and unimportant, became the very core of their existence. They could make for themselves and for the people they cared for. They could work in place of men. They could be leaders of their community. They could care for family businesses. And eventually, they could take part in the war and join the battlefields just like men. 

After the war, everybody knew that there was no going back. What women had proved during the war could not be erased from anyone’s awareness. 

The Gibson Girl had grown into the New Woman.

Dating: the Herald of the Ruin

In no field this was more apparent than in the relations between men and women and how they handle the time between getting together and getting married. 

In her book Labor of Love: the Invention of Dating, Moira Weigel tells how the word ‘dating’ was probably born. Chicago Record’s columnist George Ade reported in 1896 how a clerk lamented his girlfriend’s loss of interest as she started to neglect him and see other men socially. The clerk complained that “I s’pose the other boy’s fillin’ all my dates?”

What was starting to happen in the late 1890s became the norm after WWI. The figure of the ‘calling gentleman’ faded. The companionate couple arose.

1920s new woman

Sometimes – horror of horrors! – women would even take the initiative. No longer a passive figure in the courting game, women started to mould their look so to attract the kind of men they wanted. As dresses lost layers of fabric and became lighter and shorter, larger part of skin became visible, especially arms, back and – the shock! – legs. Not satiated with this, women even turned to make-up, which previous to WWI only disreputable women had used.

All of this to attract the right partner with a faster process. The New Woman didn’t just frequent one man at a time, she met and frequented many socially, so to find the right one faster. 
In the post-war world, this time of disillusions and uncertainties, young people wanted to enjoy life and its fullest as soon as possible, lest something horrible happened again. And they wanted to explore, to experience. They wanted to feel they could control their lives, even if it may only be for a short time. 

In a more prosperous economic situational, more young people could go to college. Away from the traditional social control of the family and their community, young people created their own ‘society’. They made up their own ways and rules, where dating, sex-appeal, personality, sensual exploration might have not been the absolute norm, but it was certainly accepted.

By the 1920s, women acting differently ceased to be cute little things. The young woman who dated men was a dangerous creature.  Share on X
A 1920s couple's moment of intimcy

College life gave students many occasions to be together, whether at a sporting event, a ball, a party, going out to the cinema, spending a day at the beach, or simply going for a walk. These young people could choose in autonomy what to do and when. They could meet how many people they wanted in great freedom. Although in the checked practice of petting and necking, physical exploration became a common occurrence among couples at parties and in the dark of the movie theatre. 

It didn’t take long for society at large to start worrying. While it had always been expected that men be experienced in what concerned sex and pleasure, women were expected to be pure and innocence – that is, ignorant of such things. This was what it meant to be the upholder of morality. If they kept themselves ‘pure’, everyone was ‘pure’. 

But now women wanted to become experienced too, and before marriage, not after – though still within limits that the older generations often failed to acknowledge. This meant that she was not ‘pure’ anymore. She failed to be the ‘upholder of morality’. And if women refused that role, it could only mean that all of society was doomed. 

Not just girls anymore

This is when women acting differently ceased to be cute little things. The dating young woman was a dangerous creature. 

They were usually called flappers, a name of uncertain origin, but that in itself seems to suggest something flitting and hardly serious. But they had many other names, and it is interesting to look at them a bit more closely. These names reveal an acknowledgement of this women’s new attitudes, and a certain, almost begrudging admission to their rising independence. They also seem to suggest something not totally clean. 

‘New’ seemed to equate ‘not wholesome’, and that’s how the New Woman was often perceived. 

According to her dominant characteristics, the New Woman could be called in different ways. Each name corresponds to a stereotype that virtually anyone appropriated, from films to novels, to magazines. 

Charity Girl

Basically, the Charity Girl was the girl who dated boys. She would go places with him, enjoy different activities, and was often not afraid to show a certain level of intimacy with him even in public. They could hold hands, for example.

From the society at large, she was perceived as ‘giving him her favours’, though, in exchange, she didn’t ask for money. She just asked for a day out, for the ticket of a show, maybe for dinner. In short, she did it for charity, no for money. 

In her book, Weigel tells of how for a time (mostly between the 1910s and the 1920s), the police would monitor these young women, because they might be committing a crime.

Shopgirl

Even if their behaviour looked daring and shocking to their elders, the values young people were after were still mostly the same. Even if they came to it from a very different path, ultimately young men still wanted to be economically successful, and young women still wanted to create a happy family. 

While the way young men pursued their goal was mostly the same as their fathers, women became active in creating their family – and by many, this was perceived as aggressive. 

Because now they wanted to choose, women were seen as calculating. A girl might never become a store director, but she could marry the director. And she could do this with initiative and dare. 

Clara Bow - It (1927)

Shopgirls mostly belonged to the middle-class. Acceptable occupation as it was, they were still expected to quit it once they married. She was also in the position to find the best husband because, on the one hand, she worked in a place that generally catered to people in a higher social position and with more money on their hands. She could, therefore study these wealthier people and imitate their manners and attitude. In addition to this, the new consumer market allowed the shopgirl to purchase clothes and accessories that, while not of the same quality as the more costly ones, still did the job. In short, by imitating her customers, the shopgirl could feign a position and education she might not really have, attracting men in higher position who frequented or directed the place where she worked. 

It can be argued that this in part, acknowledged the entrepreneurial ability of the New Woman, which hinted at her independence. Yet, at the same time, she was given a predatorial character that was not too favourable. 

The ‘It’ Girl

Before WWI, a woman was judged by her adherence to the ‘angel of the house’ ideal. Morality and purity of ways were the most important characteristics. Inner characteristics, it could be said. But as the New Woman and her sex-appeal became ever more present, ‘personality’ turned into an important factor, especially when that personality became very visible. 

A vivacious girl, who knew how to dress and make herself up to look attractive, was generally thought to have ‘it’. 

Once again, at the same time when the stereotype might acknowledge that a woman distinguished herself by these characteristics, it also suggests her personality is a superficial characteristic and certainly not as valuable as the old good homey traits. 

All the world focuses on the New Woman

We talk a lot about the New Woman today, but contemporaries were no less talkative. The woman who was appropriating spaces traditionally occupied by men caused a lot of discussion and in many different circles. 

It was not all bad, too, depending on who was looking at her.

Critics: were normally alarmed. They saw the young people’s indifference for the traditional roles – and the indifference of young women in particular – as a danger for the society at large and often spoke about the death of the world they knew (they were not totally wrong there, either). They often harshly criticised the youths’ carelessness and their excessive interest in sensuality and physical attraction. This transferred on their criticism of most films and novels aimed at young people, which were often criticised too. 

Educators: it is interesting to notice that many educators, who were in close contact with young people in colleges and schools, often took their part. They argued that young people were doing what young people always do: look for their own way. The way the did things might have been different from their parents, but the urge to discover and explore was the same. Society was probably not in danger. 

Market: The consumer market was unexpectedly protagonist in this discourse about young people and young women in particular. It was the market that produced the films and novels critics were frowning upon. It intercepted what young people were doing, reproduced it in the medium, and propagated it. In this way, while films and novels mimicked what young people were already doing, they also allowed more people to learn the new behaviours and ideals. 

Renee Adoree 1920s makeup

On the other hand, the appearance on the scene of a more independent woman who knew what she wanted and often had her own money to spend, created a market sector that didn’t exist before. A sector that, by propagating the idea of the New Woman with adds and goods specifically created for her, helped to let ever more young women approach this new model.

It was the market, for example, that invented the term ‘make-up’ for what it was previously called ‘paint’. ‘Paint’ certainly had a disreputable ring to it, and women might be resistant to try it, but ‘make-up’ suggested attractiveness and beauty. Just what the New Woman wanted on Saint Valentine Day. 


RESOURCES

Moira Weigel, Labor of Love: the Invention of Dating. Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York, 2016

The Sexual Revolution of the “Roaring Twenties”: Practice of Perseption? by Shellie Clark (pdf)

The Dream Book Show – More Than Just a Gibson Girl: a New Woman
New York Post – The Fashinating History of How Courtship Became ‘Dating’


Dating in the 1920s - Many different practises marked the shift in women's role in the 1920s, and dating, funnily enough, was one of the most visible, most powerful and most feared.

2 Comments

  • Kristin
    Posted February 14, 2021 at 22:10

    Something to think about here.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted February 19, 2021 at 11:40

      Indeed. I didn’t know anything about Charity Girls, and really…

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