Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The 'New Woman', Gender Roles and Urban Modernism in Interwar Berlin and Shanghai

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The 'New Woman', Gender Roles and Urban Modernism in Interwar Berlin and Shanghai

Article excerpt

Background to the Status of Women in Interwar Berlin and Shanghai

During the interwar period, urban modernism was linked to contending ideals of womanhood. Women's participation in a culture of leisure, consumption and body consciousness created images of the New Women in Berlin and Shanghai during the 1920s and early 1930s. Weimar Berlin and Republican Shanghai were a laboratory for change in women's roles. While this modernist female persona was short-lived, modern women at least had a short appearance in the drama of interwar Germany and China. The struggle for a new identity and status for women revealed the anxieties associated with modernity in Berlin and Shanghai and a redefinition of national identity. Urban modernism in these two metropoles described a new sensibility and representations of gender roles including a new independent identity, fashion, access to the public sphere, education and jobs. The anonymity of the cities, a change in the work force and new possibilities in urban life produced a transformation in many women's lives.

In Berlin, one important result of the Weimar government was a relaxing of previously accepted gender roles and sexual mores (Brice, 2006). In the 1920s, Berlin was the largest German city, and from the early 20th century it had the highest and most rapid increase of population (Flickinger, 2007). In 1920, the Greater Berlin Act united dozens of suburban towns, villages and estates into a greatly expanded city and established Berlin as a separate administrative region. Berlin had a population of around four million. In a short time period, Berlin expanded from a Grossstadt to a Weltstadt, from city to metropolis. There was also an influx of new inhabitants and increasing stratification among the population. In addition, Berlin, like most global cities, experienced growing anonymity and alienation in public and private spheres. In Germany, during the Weimar Republic, white collar employees became distinctly more like blue collar employees with respect to wages, job insecurity and white collar privileges (Kaelble, 1976:152).

At the same time, the expansion of technological advancements, industry and administrative services created a large number of urban workplaces. The new jobs of shop-girls, secretaries and stenographers that required fairly low skills and pay became identified as 'women's jobs.' These new jobs provided young women independent incomes and leisure. At least for those in the middle and some of the working class, the ability to spend money beyond necessities was available to a wider range of individuals. Many women and men were eager to climb socially and to spend money on new luxuries (Flickinger, 2007).

Shanghai, in the interwar period, was also an urban city where tradition met modernity. In 1910 there were about 1 million residents in Shanghai. By 1920, the population almost doubled to 1.6 million people (Boshier and Huang, 2007). During this time, Shanghai became an increasingly important economic, political and cultural center. By the end of the 19th century, Shanghai had become the most important treaty port in China. By 1930, its population was around 3 million (Lahmeyer, 2003). By the end of the 1930s, in terms of facilities and infrastructure, Shanghai was on a par with major cities, ranking as the world's fifth largest metropolis (Lee, 1999).

Portions of the city were administered under the jurisdiction of European powers. The western section of Shanghai was divided into two districts: the French Concession and the International Settlement. The French Concession was administered by a Consul-General appointed in Paris. The International Settlement was administered by a Municipal Council of 14 permanent foreign residents of the city. In the 1930s, almost 90,000 Europeans and Americans lived in Shanghai. Although Shanghai was a semi-colony it also reaped some benefits. Shanghai became one of the most prosperous metropolitan cities in Asia. …

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