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Gender in The 1920s

Belated Success of Nineteenth-Century Women's Movements

The 1920s marked a period of new freedom for women in America's modernizing urban culture. The ratification of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Constitution in 1918-19 brought about the successful culmination of the two greatest women's movements of the nineteenth century—temperance and suffrage.

Prohibition: Utopian Failure

Women had long borne a disproportionate share of the consequences of intemperate male drinking of alcohol, such as domestic violence and financial ruin. Temperance, therefore, became mostly a women's crusade, a utopianist social project that hoped to improve society—and the conditions for women living in it—by restricting consumption of alcohol. The temperance movement's victory in enacting Prohibition, however, proved to be quixotic; millions of Americans flaunted the law by continuing to swill illegal booze, creating a lucrative black market that funded the racketeering violence of notorious gangsters like Al Capone. Prohibition was repealed in 1932.

Suffrage: All Citizens Created Equal

Suffrage was permanent, however, finally raising women to equal citizenship with men by granting them the right to vote in federal elections. During World War I, President Wilson found his aggressive democracy promotion agenda abroad to be compromised by the anti-democratic suppression of women's political participation at home; he enthusiastically supported suffrage as a "vitally necessary war measure." Wilson's advocacy helped the suffragists to push the Nineteenth Amendment through Congress, finally extending the franchise to women; 143 years after Thomas Jefferson declared it a self-evident truth that "all men are created equal," America's women became equal participants in the democratic political process.

Short Hair and Shorter Skirts: New Cultural Freedoms

If Prohibition and suffrage brought belated closure to the gender politics of the nineteenth century, the 1920s witnessed new challenges to the gendered status quo, mostly in the cultural sphere. Young urban women, enjoying the fruits of the new mass-production consumer economy, adopted new styles and lifestyles that pushed the limits of tradition. In 1921, women en masse suddenly began wearing knee-length skirts—a fashion previously considered obscene—and adopting the radically short "bob" haircut. These trends later evolved into the "flapper" look, an almost androgynously boyish style sported by independent young women who flaunted traditional gender norms by smoking, drinking, and dancing at jazz clubs. The flapper image—immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1920—became the icon of new social and sexual freedom for women in the 1920s.

Women like Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League (now known as Planned Parenthood), promoted education to teach women about sex and sexuality in order to allow them to seize greater control over their own lives and bodies. By spreading the gospel of contraception, Sanger liberated women to greater sexual freedom but also deeply offended adherents of traditional moral standards. She remains a controversial figure today, nearly half a century after her death.

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