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Half of the Story. Women and Men Enter the 1920s Companionate Relationship

In the 1920s the life of a couple changed radically in comparison to what it was only a decade before. The new freedom that entered the couple’s relationship was significant especially for women, but the change affected men too. 

When we think of the ‘sex revolution’ that happened in the 1920s, we usually see the part of the new woman. 

Women really saw a significant advancement in the way they could express themselves and their sensuality in the 1920s. The way they dressed changed radically. Layers and layers of clothing disappeared from a woman’s wardrobe. Legs, arms and shoulders were uncovered. Make-up became so common it was finally considered acceptable for everyone. Her hair became as short as a man’s. 

1920s Couple (sepia)

In a very short time, the very way women looked changed completely. 

Her behaviour followed suit. Women started to get out of the house and have fun. They started to smoke, drink, dance wildly, go around in cars, do sports. Get on dates outside the house and explore sensuality in ways that her parents most likely found daring at best. 

It was indeed an epochal change, a revolution, and anyone interested in the history of the first part of the 1900s will focus on women when addressing this change. 

But men were part of this too. After all, the change was possible because men’s mentality and attitude also changed. And besides, the shifting in social mores then required men to adapt to the new situation.  

While up to before WWI, marriages were a family matter, after the war the focus shifted on the couple. Young men and women now looked in first person for a companion for their life.

The companionate marriage was both the result and the cause of the great change in the relationship between men and women.

Women now had aspirations that their parents would have considered pretentious only a decade before. They had desires and wanted to realise them. In part, it regarded her own life, but a part of it involved how she imagined her life with a man and how she would behave while they were not yet married. 

This of course reflected on men’s expectations. While once they may have been fine with a pretty woman who would be a lady of his house and the mother of his children, now men wanted someone who would share their life and dreams. A companion who understood him and shared the same outlook on life. 

Once the family of origin was the centre of interest in the marriage. Now the couple was the heart of the relationship.

A 1920s Woman’s Love Life

The shift in the life and the amount of freedom that a woman could enjoy in the 1920s regarded her entire life. But the part involving her love life, that is her relationship with men, is maybe the most apparent because it’s where the most taboo fell. 

Freedom of expression

Freedom is the keyword to understand 1920s women. At that time, they started to do things that were previously barred to them. This new freedom involved how she dressed, how she spoke, how she looked, the kind of activity she involved herself with. 

But it was especially how she wanted to look to men that the new freedom seemed particularly shocking to the older generation.  

Women shed layers of clothing. Their underwear, in particular, became lighter and a lot simpler. Skirts became shorter. Uncovering legs and arms wasn’t consider scandalous anymore. 

Jule Andre Wearing A Dress By Chanel

Not only women started to show more of their body, but they also did all they could to become more attractive. The line of a cloche hat would underline her eyes. Cleavages both on the breast and the back became common. Stockings were rolled down to show the knees. Nails would be painted. 

Most shockingly, women – nice women – started to use make-up, something that up until the beginning of the Great War, only actresses and prostitutes would do. And they cut their hair so sure that they would look like men when before the war, a woman flowing long hair was a mark of femininity.

Here was the core of that shocking social shift: what before was considered vulgar and indecent, became charming and attractive. 

The life of women changed radically in the 1920s. But men changed their mentality too #History #Women Share on X

Besides, presenting themselves in the best possible way was essential. Mating increasingly became a couple affair. Not the family, but the young people would choose their life companion among their peers. This meant that a young person’s look was not dictated by the need to appear proper and desirable, but by the need to attract the right kind of companion. 

Sensual exploration

It was unthinkable for a woman before the Great War to explore sensuality before marriage. Girls were expected to be pure and untouched when they married, the most naïf the better. Her purity was a gift of her family to the groom’s family.

1920s couple Kiss

But when girls and boys started to choose each other, thing changed completely. It was very rare to meet the right person straight away, so it became common for young people to try and meet as many companions a possible to make an educated choice. 

Dating became expected. Both boys and girls would date different people and try the company of different partners before choosing the one who was right for them. 

Sensual exploration became also more accepted, though there were still many taboos attached to it. While kissing, necking and petting was now common and acceptable, going too far was not. Especially for women. 

Pre-marital intercourse wasn’t sanctioned if it happened with the man a woman would subsequently marry. There was still a stigma on women who loved different men. But even women who had intercourse with their boyfriend, but then married another man were frowned upon.

Going places

With the man she would marry, she could do a lot of things that were barred to her mother. 1920s women entered a lot of spaces that were considered men-only before the war, most notably, bars and amusing hall. 

In the process of dating and getting to know the man who was right for her, a girl frequented many bars (and drank and smoked, just like men did), dance hall, sports courts. 

This was probably the most apparent aspect of the companionate couple. They wanted to do things together, so they went everywhere together. 

The working woman

The Great War had caused a massive change in the working field: during the war, while men were away on the battlefields, women took up jobs that once only men did. This cause a huge mentality change in the minds of both men and women. Women proved to themselves and to men that they could do it, and men now knew that women could do it (whether they were willing to admit it or not). 

When the war was over and men went back to their jobs, women didn’t renounce the idea of their own occupation, with their dream of independence. 

Though independence often proved to be just that: a dream. Many young girls started to work outside the house in the 1920s, something that was greatly praised and advertised socially. But the positions available to a woman were very few and chosen, opportunities of career advancement were extremely limited, especially because when she married, a woman was expected to leave her job and leave it to her husband to sustain the family. 

In the 1920s, young women would often work outside the house and were praised for it. But they were expected to leave their job as soons as they got merried #history #women Share on X

Still, the idea of having the opportunity – illusory as it may be – to achieve her own independence, changed the attitude of women both toward working and toward men. When a woman could think that she could make it even on her own, her attitude toward a companion changed in consequence. 

The 1920s Men Love Life

Although the relationship life of men in the 1920s changed little in comparison to that of a woman, this doesn’t mean that it didn’t change significantly. The very fact that women could enjoy a shift in the way they lived their couple life underlines the fact that men’s mentality was changed enough to accept that sort of woman. 

A man who would not only accept, but choose a flapper as his wife was certainly a very different man from his father.

Men’s sex-appeal

We often don’t adequately appreciate it, but in the 1920s men stopped to be the chooser and became the chosen as well. In the time of the companionate couple, women would choose their man the same way men would choose their woman.

Gary Cooper
Gary Cooper

The most visible expression of this was the way men started to be conscious of their looks as much as women did. They may have not shown parts of their body they previously wouldn’t, but still, they took extra care of their looks, in a way that more consciously showed they could be a fitting companion. 

Sport became extremely popular because it sculptured a man’s shape. Team games that involved physical contact became more popular because they allowed to show a man’s physical prowess in immediate comparison with the others. 

Clothing was also important. Being abreast with the latest fashion was a way of showing one’s cutting edge personality. And just like women, many men would use make-up to enhance their looks. 

In this sense, it is quite telling actors were just as popular among women for their looks as actresses were among men for the same reason. 

Shared interests

Although a woman’s look was still very important for a man in the process of choosing her as his life partner, personality started to become more prominent a factor. 

The companionate couple would do things together, things they were both passionate about. 

1920s Couple (smocking)

A young 1920s couple would go together to the cinema, on a trip, at the beach. They would dance together and drink together and smoke together. And they would talk of their future, making plans. 

In this context, an independent woman, who was willing to fend for herself and may even actually do it, started to be considered a worthy companion. Not just a pretty doll, but a partner in crime. 

And yet, there were lots of limits to this vision. Although men might be more willing to accept an independent, capable companion, they still expected their wife to be just a wife and a mother. A couple may take decision together, they may share their dreams, they may work together to make those dreams come true, and this is a change in comparison to before. But a wife was still expected to look up at her husband to guide her life. 

Accepting the working woman

This went hand-in-hand with handling the working woman. While the idea of a woman who worked was generally well-received, the reality of it was quite uncomfortable for men. 

Working women received lots of praise from many sources, including social comments and newspapers’ favourable attention. Women praised her as a tangible social advancement for all women. Men would praise the strength of her character and sing about her independence. 

A girl who worked might even be a fine companion for a young man. 

But that young man would certainly expect her to quit her job when they got married. Because, charming as she was, a working woman was already considered quite dangerous. 

Sensuality double standard

Where things had changed the least was probably in the way young people actually lived their sexuality. 

Women and Men Enter the 1920s Companionate Relationship

Since necking and petting were totally acceptable activities, it is implied that both men and women could involve themselves in it. It was part of the normal process of dating and exploring to find the right partner. 

But when the line was crossed, things went very different if the crosser was a man or a woman. 

Men were almost expected to have intercourse before marriage. It made them expert in life and relationship, which would put them in a predominance position in comparison to their woman. 

The woman who crossed the same line was considered lost the same way she would decades before. 

When it came to actual sexual experience, men were expected to have it, women were still expected to be ignorant of it.

Conclusion

The 1920s was really a borderland in men/women relationship. Many attitudes were shifting, and the shift involved both men and women, if in different guises and magnitude. 

But change seemed to be accepted and welcomed only for young people. When they married, the old expectations regarding genre and their role in society still held strong. 

Girls were finding new freedom in the new age, but for wives and mother, the way was still long and impervious.


RESOURSES

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

History – How Flappers Redefined Womenhood

The Guardian – The 1920s: ‘Young women took the struggle for freedom into their personal lives’


1920S WOMEN AND MEN AND THE NEW COUPLE - In the 1920s, women found new freedom in their love life, but we often don't appreciate men stopped to be the chooser and became the chosen as well

2 Comments

  • Kristin
    Posted February 16, 2020 at 17:36

    I have read a couple of old books that mention the companionate marriage. They described it more as a temporary marriage, when the couple no longer felt companiable, they would divorce. So going into marriage with the idea that divorce would be a probable eventuality.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted February 18, 2020 at 09:54

      I wouldn’t say that divorce was ‘probable’. I’d say it was ‘possible’.
      If it was a contemporary work, I’m not surprised that even the possibility to decide whether to continue a marriage or not was presented in a negative way. It was a huge change that gave power especially to women. Society in general didn’t take that too easily.

      But the reality of it was that most marriages went on as they had done for the past century. Most of the freedom was for young couples who werent’ married yet.

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