From Ballots to Breadlines
Sarah Jane Deutsch
Our images of the 1920s, when we have images, are filled with young women with short hair and short skirts. They are kicking up their legs and kicking off a century of social restrictions. They smoke. They dance. They read racy literature. And they do it all in public. They have “advanced” ideas about sex, too. They have taken the socially outrageous, bohemian behavior of the previous generation’s Greenwich Village set, and, to the horror of their parents, have brought it to Main Street.
What was going on with women in the 1920s and 1930s was, of course, more complicated than these images of “flappers,” which tend to be of young, white, middle-class women. African Americans, Chicanas, Asian Americans, and other women aspired to be or were flappers, too, but most women of any race or ethnicity lived quite differently. Their lives, like our visions of the past, were affected by these images, but they did not mirror them. Although the 1920s did abound with flappers and would-be flappers, the decade also hosted mothers, professionals, women struggling in poverty, and women asserting new power.
Above all, in the 1920s, there was a pervasive sense of newness. To many it seemed that the world was made new after the massive destruction of World War I ended in 1918—and that women were made new too. What was the “new” woman, this creature who, by 1920, could legally vote in national elections on the same basis as men everywhere in the United States? She was the result of competing desires, visions, and needs from a variety of sources. She looked different to different eyes.
When historians discuss such transformations, they like to talk about the way we, as a society, construct ideas about what a woman is. It is perhaps easiest to understand what historians mean by the social construction of womanhood by looking at the literal construction of woman. Both of the figures on the next page were literal constructions of women. People created fashions that demanded a certain “look” from women, then designed clothing to create that look by shaping