In many respect, the XX century started with WWI. It was a time that brought incredible change in life and society. It can be said that WWI (the Great War, as it was called throughout the first half of the century) truly destroyed many ways of thinking and behaving that still belonged to the XIX century.
From its ashes, a new way of living and thinking was born. The 1920s – The Roaring Twenties as they were known in the US – was the first place where that change became apparent. Nowhere more so than on people’s personal life. Especially that of the New Woman.
A New Era
It didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t even happen during the four years of war. The way people perceived themselves and their lives had already started to change in the XIX century. People had long tried to gain control over their lives to mould it in the way that most satisfied them. Middle-class families were particularly sensitive to this matter. Already in the XIX century, these families had started using birth control (whatever was available at the time) to become smaller units and to gain the time necessary to pursue personal goals. But at that time, effective birth control was very limited, so couples had to resort to avoidance to limit births. This accounts for both the widespread practice of late marriages in the middle class and the Victorian obsession with avoiding any sexual thought or hint.
At the beginning of the XX century, contraception became more reliable, more common, and especially more widely accepted. Couples now had the means to decide when they wanted to have children and how many of them they wanted. This produced the hoped-for obligation-free time necessary to pursue personal aspirations. It also produced an unexpected effect that proved to be among the biggest social earthquakes the Western World had ever known.
The New Youth
The family, this most important staple of society, changed completely. Because families became smaller, all their members had more manoeuvring space inside it, more quality time to spend with each other. Where the Victorian family – numerous as it tended to be – needed to be managed and so every member had – first and foremost – a role to perform, the new smaller family would afford to care about its few members. Relationships inside it hinged not on roles but on affection. And this caused an epochal change in the relationship between husband and wife and between parents and children.
Freed from the preoccupation of having children when they were still not ready for it and given the opportunity to plan when to have them, couples could get together at a younger age. They could then create a companionable relationship, get in the desired economic position and even finish pursuing an education before they actually build a family.
Having time for themselves allowed these couples to give more attention to their partner’s personality and desires. When they had the children they wanted (rarely more than three), they could give these children the same kind of attention and affection.
These parents, who had sought their own personal fulfilment, were just as eager to give their children a chance to get their fulfilment before life started becoming demanding. They were willing to sustain the cost of child-rearing longer than any generation before them, thus affording their children to be young and free of adult responsibilities for a longer time.
On the other hand, these children – who came of age in the 1920s – were willing to remain dependent on their parents for a longer time, a result of the desire to pursue their own desires as well as of the new affectionate family.
This is how the concept of youth as we conceive it today was born.
The New Woman
The new, affectionate family who planned their life and when to have their children brought about a huge change, especially in women’s lives.
Intercourse with a man had always been likely to get a woman pregnant whether she (or they) wanted it or not. Especially in the Victorian Age, when the need to plan a family became relevant, but the means to do it were still few and ineffective, a woman’s sexuality had simply been denied. Women were seen as pure and free from the sexual impulses that characterised men and were even expected not to take pleasure from sex.
When reliable contraception allowed couples to have intercourse without a pregnancy, if they so decided, it was women who were liberated first and foremost. Now they could live their sexuality in a freer, more joyous way, not unlike men. Physical attraction, as well as spiritual affinity, became very important in the formation of couples. Women were no more expected to be merely mothers. They became companions, lovers, wives and mothers. The search for the perfect partner who would be a mate and a life companion led to the practice of dating. Men and women got together for a time without the pressure of marriage. Personal attraction increased in importance. For women, this meant displaying their sexuality and sex appeal freely in a way that was socially acceptable for the first time in centuries.
In response to this, women’s social position also changed. To become a companion for her man, the New Woman needed to gain all the characteristics a shared life demanded in everyday and couple life. Men no more looked merely for a mother for their children, they also wanted a companion to share their life experience, and women were ready to be just that.Shameless, Selfish and Honest (The New Woman's New Look Series) In the #1920s a new breed of woman appeared who would dominate the XX century #women #history Click To Tweet
Because the change was so shocking on the women’s side, we tend to think that’s the only change that happened.
But the shift in thinking and accepted social behaviour that allowed the New Woman to be born actually started with her parents. Also, the inner drive that moved the New Woman was the same for her male counterpart. They wanted to express themselves freely and be free to make their own choices.
Sure, there was great, sometimes loud controversy surrounding the New Woman. Yet, some of her behaviours were accepted by all women, including their mothers.
Their male counterparts accepted their behaviour because it matched young men’s behaviour and desires. The New Woman wanted to be free to express herself, choose a partner for her life, and pursue her desires both in terms of personal and career life. These were the same things young men wanted.
The New Look
The New Woman’s new look isn’t just the expression of a woman’s newfound freedom, and it certainly isn’t just a matter of fashion. It’s the expression of a change that involved an entire society, regardless of gender and age.
In the ways the New Woman’s body changed and the ways she used that body, we can trace the values and behaviours of an entire society and age.
- Shameless, Selfish and Honest – The changes in society that allowed the coming of the New Woman
- The New Woman Appropriates the New Makeup – Women appropriate their sensuality
- Flapper Jane Goes Shopping for Makeup – What’s inside a 1920s beautycase
- Cut It and Bob It – Flapper Jane Seeks the Boyish Look
- Flapper: The Boyish Look of the Sexy Vamp
I’m so excited! I’ve promised this series for months, I know, but now, here it is! It wasn’t an easy job, and I’m still not done writing, but I so hope you people will enjoy the ride and find the wait worthwhile.
I really enjoyed researching this subject. It’s a lot more complex than people normally seem to think. I hope I’ll be able to pass on at least a hint of that complexity and of how what happened nearly one hundred years ago has shaped society as we know it today.
Enjoy the ride!
Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977
Roaring Twenties / Flapper Overview (PDF)
New Republic – Flapper Jane by Bruce Bliven – September 9, 1925
JazzFeathers on Pinterest – FLAPPER, New Woman of the Roaring Twenties
The Guardian – When Flappers Ruled the Earth: how dance helped women’s liberation