“Shameless, selfish and honest, she takes a man’s point of view as her mother never could.”
This is how the New York Time defined the flapper in an article of July 16, 1922.
In the Twenties, the flapper attracted a lot of attention from everyone, scared older people as well as excited young people, and created a new vision for all women. Everybody talked about her, and even back then she was glamorized and fantasized upon as much as we do today.
This was a woman who knew she could compete with men at the same level and took up many of men’s attitudes her mother would never dream of: smoking, drinking, dating, petting. She wasn’t afraid of her sexuality and lived it with joy, enjoying looking sexy, wearing dresses that showed rather than cover, a kind of dress that allowed her to be a companion to men in many activities that her mother couldn’t think to involve herself with.
When we think about flappers, this is what we think today. It is also what most people who talked about flappers in the Twenties thought. But was the flapper really an all-around, accurate representation of women in the 1920s?
To be a flapper, a woman had to have enough money and free time to play the part, so let’s see how women faired.
Having free time already restricted the possibility to be a flapper to mostly young women and especially college girls. This doesn’t mean other women didn’t try to go along. In fact, flapper fashion was taken on by most women. Their new freer way of presenting themselves was adopted even by their mothers – if they could afford it, because let’s face it, dressing like a flapper wasn’t cheap.
So you needed to be young (that is, not having the responsibility of a family) and have some money on your hands.
In the Twenties, after during WWI women took up jobs vacated by men gone to war, the idea of women working for wages started to become acceptable. So there were indeed many young women who worked, and they were extremely glamorized by films and magazines as the new, independent woman.
Still, the ideal life that even most women desired was still a family life. Young women dated and petted, but that was considered acceptable only if it ended up in marriage. Likewise, working women were accepted only as long as they would stop working once they got married and leave the business of earning money to their husbands. This led to women’s work to be considered temporary and never supposed to lead to a full-blown career. Enthused upon as they were, women professionals were still rare in the extreme.
Most women who worked in the Twenties weren’t young modern girls in search of independence, but daughters and wives of working-class families trying to make ends meet. These women invariably got lower jobs for the lower wages, and all of their earnings went straight into the family budget. There wasn’t much glamour about it, any way you looked at it.
As wild as flappers looked, and as true as it is that they broke with the past in many ways, their expectation for their future was still very similar to their mothers’: get a good marriage (although a more companionable one) and be a good mother and housekeeper.
In fact, there was great social pressure on this. Once again, the new ways and possibilities were greatly glamorized.
True, women who could afford it had a whole array of new appliances to help them keep their house clean and tidy, but this seldom translated into the advertised free time. Because standards of cleanliness, both personal and of the house, had risen too, a lot of the time spared by the new appliances went into doing more cleaning. There was a lot more attention to food and healthy practices. Society and magazines tended to represent the new housewife as a professional, someone who could keep pace with the new way of doing things and the knowledge necessary to do it, and because wives were generally the ones who managed the family budget, they became the preferred target of the new practice of advertising and the centre, both as young women and modern wives and mothers, of the new consumer life.
So yes, a new breed of women stepped on stage in the Twenties, but this was more of a mixed bag that it’s often considered.
Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977
Kyvig, David E., Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940. How Americans Lived Through the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the Great Depression. Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago, 2002