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Shameless, Selfish and Honest: the new breed of woman who dominated the XX Century

In many respect, the XX century started with WWI. It was a time that brought incredible change in life and society. WWI (the Great War, as it was called throughout the first half of the century) 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.

The Gibson Girl began appearing in the 1890s and was the personification of the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness portrayed by the satirical pen-and-ink illustrations of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson during a 20-year period that spanned the late 19th and early 20th century in the United States and Canada.
Gibson Girl of the 1910s

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. 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 Squires Family 1910
The Squires Family 1910

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

Where She Came From (The New Woman's New Look Series)

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 Share on X

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.

Anita Page was an American film actress who reached stardom in the last years of the silent film era. Page became a highly popular young star, reportedly receiving the most fan mail of anyone on the MGM lot
Flapper Jane of the 1920s

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.

The New Woman's New Look Logo - The new fashion of the 1920s wasn't just a matter of fashion. It spoke of women's newfound freedom of expression as well as a larger revolution in the society at large
  1. Shameless, Selfish and Honest – The changes in society that allowed the coming of the New Woman
  2. The New Woman Appropriates the New Makeup – Women appropriate their sensuality
  3. Flapper Jane Goes Shopping for Makeup – What’s inside a 1920s beautycase
  4. Cut It and Bob It – Flapper Jane Seeks the Boyish Look
  5. Flapper: The Boyish Look of the Sexy Vamp

Shameless Selfish and Honest (The New Woman's New Look) In the 1920s a new breed of woman appeared who would dominate the XX century
SHAMELESS, SELFISH AND HONEST (The New Woman's New Look Series) In the 1920s, a New woman emerged who wasn't afraid to be who she was and do what she felt like doing. She would upset the balance of society for the entire decade.

Post Scriptum

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

NOTE: This blog contains affiliate links (including Amazon links) to the book I independently review. When you click on a link and make a purchase, I may receive a commission for advertising the product (at no extra cost to you).


  • Mee Magnum
    Posted October 16, 2015 at 12:34

    Thank you… that was a really great read… and very enlightening. What an exciting period of change and for personal revelation.

    • Post Author
      Posted October 16, 2015 at 20:54

      Happy you liked it. I’m very fond of this project, I hope you guys will like it :-)

  • Federica
    Posted October 16, 2015 at 16:17

    Very interesting! And long. I expected a concise article but … Keep it up!

    • Post Author
      Posted October 17, 2015 at 20:09

      It’s a complex matter :-)
      Thanks for stopping by.

  • Anabel
    Posted October 16, 2015 at 17:30

    Fascinating! Glad your series has started at last. And wonderful images – those women are all SO beautiful.

    • Post Author
      Posted October 16, 2015 at 20:56

      I’m so excited to be finally able to start posting. It’s been a demanding prject. It’s a bit like finally publishing a book… well… sort of ;-)

  • Crispian Thurlborn
    Posted October 17, 2015 at 07:20

    You put a lot of effort into that, Sarah.

    Still, the Victorian ear in America was only really an offshoot as the wealthy classes from the ‘old colonies’ sought to replicate the mannerisms current in the ‘old world’.

    I would say, however, that the concept that Victorians avoided sex is a myth. It was rampant – just not on public display. Social appearances and behaviour repressed the sexual urge, but it came out in the underworld that supported society. Think of the books of the age. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” for instance.

    Are you going to cover the working classes, Sarah? It was the death of so many of the working class in the trenches of WWI that the movement for change began. Unfortunately, the change was slow compared to those with wealth or ‘new money’ to support them. Family sizes in the UK continued to be large well beyond the Victorian era. Religion also played a factor.

    I look forward to seeing more of your series.

    • Post Author
      Posted October 17, 2015 at 07:36

      Thanks for commenting Crispian :-)

      I’m covering the American experience in particular (that’s what I know best, because of my research for the trilogy) and to be honest, while I was writing this, it kept nugging at me that a lot of women had a very different experience, not only outside of America, but even witin America itslef.

      Still, I think the experience of flappers was relevant to a lot of women all over the world and across classes.
      In America, even women who for many reasons (class, finantial situation, culture, race) couldn’t afford to be flapper, were still touched by the ‘flapper movement’, as it is sometimes known, in a way that still changed their thinking and feelings even if it didn’t really changed their life.
      Or for example, here in Italy women achieved the kind of freedom flappers had decades later, after WWII. Still, many women (especially of the upper class) dressed and acted like flappers even during the Fascims (which, as it is well-known, wasn’t exactly women-friendly… among other nice things ;-) ). It would be intersting to know what kind of infuelce the flapper movement in America had of these Italian women living a very different time. In fact, I’d like to explore that.

      I’ll tell you the truth, I’m planning a series of stories set in the Twenties, but in Europe. Researching Europe in the Twenties is like hell, as you may imagine, but I’m really interested in doing it… and I’m not in a hurry ;-)

      I am well aware that sex wasn’t really avoided in Victorian Age… but it was in Victorian Age culture. I think the flapper movement is relevant because it wasn’t an underground movement, but a social-changing movement. It changed what was acceptable to sociaty, that’s why I find it so intersting. And I think that, though referred to American middle-class, the changing in roles and attitude inside the family is applicable to most of the Western World, because that’s what eventually happened throughout it.
      Isn’t it intersting how the world has actually always being globalised? ;-)

      • lupachi1927
        Posted October 17, 2015 at 20:42

        You’re planning to write stories set in Europe in the 1920s? I think Italy at that time would be particularly fascinating, given all the political upheaval. Most stories and books here in America, if writing about Europe in the 1920s, tend to focus on England. I think it’d be really cool to see some stuff set in other parts of Europe, like say the Wiemar Republic in Germany (hooray for Max Raabe). Either way, that sounds awesome. And I hope it’s a little easier for you to research, too, since you won’t have to send away for so many books (hopefully).

        • Post Author
          Posted October 18, 2015 at 06:38

          I will certanly write about Italy (guess what! ;-) ) and I’m fascinated with the Weimar Republic, I’m not even sure why. But those are my starting points.

          My problem at the moment is deciding who Ombretta is. I want her to be a professional involved with museum and reserch, especially with ancient myths and lengends. I thought to an ethnographer at first, but it looks like women weren’t really in the field, and anyway, ethnographers weren’t likely to work on European populations.
          So right now I’m trying to wrap my head around this…

  • lupachi1927
    Posted October 17, 2015 at 20:36

    Hey there! I’ve been waiting for your 20s women series, and I must say it was worth the wait :). I really enjoyed your article. You’ve got a lot of great info here, nice, clear writing, and some really great photos. It’s interesting that you suggest that the Victorian Age’s attitude in sex comes in part of a desire for birth control. I’ve never thought of it that way but it makes a lot of sense. Can’t wait to see the rest of your series! Would you mind if I linked to this post on my blog?

    • Post Author
      Posted October 18, 2015 at 06:41

      The Vistorian attitude was actually suggested in Fass’s book. I’ve long wondered how it was that in that time public affection (not to mention sensual beaviours) were so taboo. Fass’s analyses seem realistic to me. It makes sense.

      Go right ahead, I’m happy that you want to share my post! :-)

  • Alex Hurst
    Posted October 18, 2015 at 04:32

    One of your best posts in a while, Sara. Thank you so much for sharing. I found the whole idea of family planning and how it changed women’s lives really fascinating.

    Incidentally, I can’t look at a picture of a “flapper” woman and not think of the youngest sister in Makioka Sisters, a Japanese novel set in the time when these sorts of ideal were going into Japan, as well. It’s a bit long of a read, but I think you’d enjoy it!

    • Post Author
      Posted October 18, 2015 at 06:48

      Thanks Alex, I’m so happy you guys seem to like the post. This is a project I’m very fond of and I’ve poured a lot of effort into it… but you guys are making it worthwile :-)

      Hey, that novel sounds so intersting. Thanks so much for mentioning it.
      As I mentioned in replying to Crispian, I did wonder about the rest of the world while writing this. I know experiences were different in different part of the world, or even in different circumstances in the same part of the world, but I do think the flapper movement was revolutionaly in a sense. It was a first questioning of things as they had always been and even if it gave its fruits years after the Twenties, it did plant that seed.
      I also think it reached out very far, as the book you mention seems to confirm.

      Thanks so much for stopping by :-)

  • Celine Jeanjean
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 01:39

    This is absolutely fascinating Sara! And it was SO worth the wait! I had no idea of the ramifications of contraception and how big an impact it ended up having. I mean I realised it would have had an impact, but I hadn’t realised the chain of reactions and changes that rose up as a result. And likewise, I had no idea that Victorian repressed sexuality was as a result of a desire to control family size. It makes perfect sense and it really casts a new light on aspects of that era.

    Also I love all the old photos, especially the rightmost one of the flapper with the black and white coat.

    Can’t wait for the rest of the series, the amount of work and research you’ve put in really shows and I thought this was possibly your best post yet :-) Hope you’ll have more to share with us!!

    • Post Author
      Posted October 26, 2015 at 21:49

      Thanks so much Celine. I’m so happy you guys seem to like the series. It makes it all worth it.

      I had no idea of the ramification of contraception either. I discovered it in the book by Fass. But as you say, it does make sense. I’m always fascinated with the way history creats itself. Nothing happenes by chance, there is always a reason for everything. I like iscovering those reasons :-)

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted October 21, 2015 at 15:12

    I really enjoyed reading this post, and look forward to the rest of the series. Normally I think of sexual liberation as beginning with the Pill in the early Sixties, but I suppose it began in a different way in a previous generation. The post-WWII era really was a historical anomaly in so many ways, erasing a lot of progress which had been made during the last few decades. Women, and society, did become more open and modern after WWI, and then a lot of progress was erased or diminished in the post-WWII era, not to return in a major or open way until the Sixties.

    • Post Author
      Posted October 26, 2015 at 21:52

      That is so true.
      I’ve said this before, but when I started researching the Twenties, I was shocked how modern those people were. A lot more modern and like us then people from a few subsequent decades, just as you say.

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  • Brickley Jules
    Posted May 11, 2016 at 16:49

    Very enlightening!

    • Post Author
      Posted May 11, 2016 at 19:41

      I’m happy you enjoyed it :-)
      Thanks for stopping by.

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