The First Modern Woman

By White, Ann | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, June 1999 | Go to article overview
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The First Modern Woman


White, Ann, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Contrary to popular opinion, current American sexual practice began not in the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s but decades earlier, in the youth of our first modern girls, women now in their eighties. The first modern American women grew up in the 1920s and early 1930s, when Americans discovered that women were sexual beings.

Theirs was the first generation to believe that women could do anything. A woman could fly an airplane, like Amelia Earhart. She could drive a taxi, or she could choose a profession--and have a husband and children as well. After women got the vote in 1920, many insisted on the same freedom as men to choose their personal habits, including smoking, drinking, dancing, and wearing provocative bathing suits. The heroine of a 1925 McCall's magazine story announced that a flapper's goal was "to live life in one's own way." A woman now could go anywhere alone--into stores, churches, depots, saloons. And a modern American woman could go anywhere she chose with a man, including to bed.

Historians tell us that emancipated young women of the '20s and '30s had sex only with men they loved; you could go to bed with a man if you loved him enough to want to marry him. Most women longed for such love--"I would rather be loved than respected," said one--and on the surface they looked "traditional," linking sex and marriage, keeping a good bit of the old female sexual reserve. But all the while a new idea simmered in their minds: that they were capable of sexual pleasure, entitled to sexual satisfaction, and that the marital sexual relationship would satisfy their deepest needs. Meanwhile, the idea of marriage as a sacred, religious bond seemed outdated.

Let's take a look at how one real woman of the 1930s worked out the new sexual idea. Though our heroine, the "first modern woman," is anonymous here, she is neither imaginary nor a composite of many women. She is one individual American woman, who was born in 1911 and died in 1992.

This first modern American woman wanted to be more modern than her mother, a quiet woman who wore modestly printed cotton dresses and followed a weekly routine of household chores: laundering clothes on Mondays, shopping on Wednesdays, baking on Fridays. Her daughter was more sociable. In college, she sang small solo parts in operettas and began to picture herself as a little bit glamorous and to think the staidness of her mother's life a little old-fashioned. "Modern" to her meant glamorous, with a hint of the sexually suggestive. She loved the new Clark Gable movie, It Happened One Night, especially the last scene, when the blanket "wall" separating Claudette Colbert's bed from Gable's came down.

After graduation she found a teaching job in another city. She thought about getting her own apartment--many young women did this--but settled instead for a rented room in a widow's house. She told herself that her first-year teacher's salary would not cover an apartment, but in the back of her mind she feared being alone. The young women who did live alone craved the excitement of an independent life, though they did not necessarily want to go through life by themselves. It was one thing to imagine pawning valuables to buy an airplane, as Amelia Earhart had done, quite another to carry through such lonely, demanding career plans. Most of these would-be moderns wanted to feel free, but they wanted to feel secure at the same time. They yearned for excitement, but they wanted a reliable companion with them on the way.

The companion, they thought, would be male. Not for them, however, the sedate kind of courtship they imagined their mothers having conducted in their grandparents' front parlors. They would engage in sexual behavior unknown to their mothers before the wedding night, usually but not always stopping short of sexual intercourse. Sex was in the air--had been in the air since they were children. Sex was in movies and novels and public lectures, in intellectuals' arguments that sexual abstinence harmed women's physical and mental health.

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