Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question for Discussion:
How did American
women's understanding of themselves and
their roles in society change between 1880
and 1930?

Reading: Hymowitz, pp. 285-301; Hoffman, pp. 195-204;
Bromley "The New Feminism" (web); Stanton "The
Solitude of Self" (web)
; Wild Young People (web)

Video:Century of Women

Daily Class Web Links

American Women in the late 1800s and early 1900s

The New Women and the Flapper

The Roaring Twenties

Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement

Daily Class Outline

Reaction and Essay Papers Format

1. The debate over giving women the right to vote

2. Women's Changing Lives in the late 1800s

3. The Rise of the "New Woman"

4. The Roaring 1920s and the "New Woman"

Daily Class Questions

1.  In "The Yellow Wallpaper," how does John treat his ailing wife?

2. What do you think is the larger cause of this woman's depression in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

3. According to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, what is the larger reason why women  need to develop their
own individual identities and be responsible for their
own lives?

4. According to Hymowitz, why did younger women not want to imitate the lives of older professional women?

5. How were young women of the 1920s different from the earlier generation of professional women?

6. What did the young women of the 1920s mean when they referred to themselves as  "New Women"?

7. What was the flapper's style and message in the 1920s?

8. Why is birth control so important to the young women of the 1920s?

9. Why doesn't Dorothy Bromley want to be called a "feminist"?

10. What does Bromley believe should be the role of women in marriage, the family, and in society?

11. What does Bromley mean by "Feminist-New Style"?

12. Do you agree with Bromley that women in the 1920s had gained equality  with men and could now live a balanced life?

13. Why do you think Bromley is so optimistic of the social and cultural equality of women in American society in the 1920s?

Daily Class Notes

I want to challenge Chafe's larger argument that women lives and opportunities did not significantly change between 1890 and 1940. Chafe focuses on economic equality as the major measure of women's success at breaking down the American society's traditional division between women's and men's sphere. To the extent, he argues, that by 1940 women had not achieved significant gains in their economic equality with men, by successfully competing with men for good, high-paying jobs, then their lives and roles did not significantly change between 1890 and 1940. However, by focusing on women's economic success Chafe ignores the larger, gradual evolutionary changes that was occurring in women's personal and social lives. Between 1890 and 1940, women, especially white middle-class women, were increasingly attending college, working in the white-collar professions, demanding more respect and freedom from their husbands and other men, and gaining more control over their lives.

To understand these changes, we need to start with an example of an 1890s woman who was still burdened by woman's traditional role and place in American society. Let's look at Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," to better understand how this women's sphere and role in the 1800s limited women's lives, opportunities, and choices. In this short story, the woman narrator complains about her husband, her marriage, and her life. Her husband, John, is a physician who had taken his wife to the country and rented a house in the hopes that rest and relaxation will cure his wife's nervous illness. John appears to be a devoted husband, doting over his wife and trying to help her get better. But underneath the surface appearances, his wife is angry at her husband. She writes: "John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage." But it is clear that she does not like the fact that her husband doesn't respect her. Her husband doesn't believe that she is sick, feeling that she just has a temporary nervous depression. She writes: "You see he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?" Moreover, her husband refuses to accept his wife's own diagnosis of what she needs to do in order to get well. She writes: "Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?" It is clear throughout this short story that she feels trapped in her marriage, completely dominated and suffocated by her husband and his demands of her.

She writes that she sometimes gets "unreasonably angry with John...I 'm sure that I never used to be so sensitive." Instead of recognizing that he may do things to anger his wife, John demands that she should control herself and not express her anger. She writes: "I take pains to control myself--before him, at least, and that makes me very tired." Clearly, she is bottling up her rage and anger at her husband's control and domination of her life. Because her husband believes that writing is bad for her, she hides her writing from him. He even forces her to sleep upstairs in what she considers to be a dreadful room because if they slept downstairs, he would have to sleep with her, and John doesn't want to do this! Feeling suffocated and dominated, she describes the wallpaper in the room she sleeps in: "When you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide--plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions." At the end of this story, she commits suicide, unable to deal with the contradictions in her own life--her suffocating marriage, her husband's unwillingness to respect her, and her inability to write and do what she wants to do.

By focusing on economic equality, Chafe ignores the evidence from women's own lives and experiences that their roles and opportunities have changed between 1890 and 1930. Beginning in the 1890s, young white middle-class women increasingly attended college. By the 1930s, it was not seen as traditional for young women to go to college. In addition to going to college, and getting an education that they were denied for the most part in the 1800s, young educated women found that they could get white-collar jobs in offices, businesses, and department stores. Many young, college-educated women worked after graduating from college for a few years in their twenties before marrying. Some of these women even continued to work after marriage. Chafe is correct when he points out that the jobs these women were getting were still seen as "women's jobs" and didn't pay as much as men's jobs, but he fails to understand the significance of these jobs and the newfound freedom they gave to many young women.

From 1890 to 1930, young educated young women flocked into the growing industrial cities, seeking jobs and adventure. These women soon discovered that in these large cities they could escape the control of their parents, families, churches, and communities. Free from the traditional restraints that kept women isolated in the place, in women's sphere, these young women increasingly demanded to have the same fun, the same pleasure, and the same opportunities as young men. By the 1910s these liberated young women were called "flappers." Flappers wore their hair short and wore lose-fitting clothing, modeled after the clothing of young men. They smoke, drank, and went out on the town by themselves; they engaged in affairs, demanding the same right to control their sexuality as young men did. One of the heroines of these young, educated modern women was Edna Vincent Millay, a celebrated young poet and flapper herself. Now, Chafe is right when he argues that these "new women" were a minority of young women. The majority of women remained trapped in women's sphere, bound by their roles and their responsibilities to the marriage and family. But the flapper and the "new women" was celebrated in American novels, magazines, and song. She became a role-model for many other women, including older married women, who once wouldn't dream of doing the things these younger women were doing.

Chafe is right to note that many women found this "new woman" was not a realistic option for them. Women in small towns, married women, and Black and minority women did not have the education, the opportunities, and the freedom from social control to adopt the behavior and values of the new woman. However, the new woman provided an example and model for many women to make small changes in their marriages and their lives. Many women demanded more respect from their husbands, a larger say in the marriage and the family, and more freedom in their lives. By focusing on economic equality, Chafe misses these changes in women's personal and social lives.

Chafe notes that many of the older generation of women's rights activists and feminist resented these "new women." And these new women resented the demands made on them by this older generation of feminists. We can see this conflict in Dorothy Bromley's article, "Feminist--New Style," which is a personal response to the feminist's attacks on the younger generation of women. Bromley argues that the "modern young woman" admires the feminists for their struggle to win equality for women. These modern women believe that "the worst of the fight is over" and women have achieved significant victories in their fight for equality. Because the older generation of women does not want to give up their bitter struggle, they have alienated many men and the larger society. The new woman does not want to be seen as hating men, as being obsessed with equality, and concentrating on her career and "expressing herself" at the expense marriage and having a family. The majority of women who struggled to compete with men in the profession and in the larger economy remained single, with their lives dominated by their work and their struggle for recognition and equality. Bromley argues that the new modern woman does not want to be forced to make a choice between their careers and marriage and children.

Taking the side of the older feminists, Chafes suggest that these new modern women by marrying and having children were turning their backs on the larger struggle for economic equality. But Bromley refuses to accept these charges. She argues that the new woman believes that a "full life calls for marriage and children as well as a career." Moreover, by having a career and developing their skills and talents, the new modern woman will be "better wives and mothers." Instead of choosing between being a wife and mother and having a career, the new woman wants a balanced life, a life based on success in the larger world of work and society and success in their marriages and families. Bromley concludes that the new woman is even now creating this balanced life.

Chafe admits that many younger women benefited from the college education, their freedom in the industrial cities, and their success at work, but with marriage and the coming of the Great Depression these changes would disappear. He rights notes that it became harder for women to go to college in the 1930s or hold their jobs in the face of demands by men to lay them off and give men their jobs. Yes, these new modern women faced economic difficulties but this did not stop them from continuing to demand greater equality in their marriages, their families, and their lives. The changes created by these new women didn't get swallowed up by the Depression or the inability of women to compete equally with men for high-paying jobs. Instead, these women would raise their daughters to demand more equality and opportunities. With the economic opportunities created by World War II, many young women would once again expand their roles and discover that they too could successfully work and compete in the larger male world of work and society. The daughters of the flappers and the new women will raise the women who will lead the Women's Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Without understanding the changes in women's personal lives between 1890 and 1930, we cannot understand the growth and success of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

The larger lesson we can learn from examining changes in women's personal and social lives between 1890 and 1930 is the importance of looking beneath the surface of economic and social statistics. We need to look at women's lives and ask them how their lives changed. Without an examination of women's lives and experiences, we cannot understand women's changing roles in American society and culture.

© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 29 Sept. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/flapper.htm
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