THE WOMEN WHO Jazzed UPA GENERATION; like Gatsby's Daisy and Jordan, They Were the Bright Young Things Who Defied Their Parents' Stuffy Prewar Mores to Live Their Lives on Their Own Terms. Judith Mackrell Reveals How the Flapper Revolution Forged the Thoroughly Modern 20th-Century Woman
Byline: Judith Mackrell
AT the start of the 1920s, parents, politicians and journalists were perplexed and outraged by a new generation of young women. According to The Times, they were mystifyingly frivolous, caring only for a new hat or a night of 'jazzing'. They inspired a new breed of heroines in fiction and on screen - brazen creatures who flirted and wisecracked, drank in public and even dabbled with drugs. And such was their impact that they acquired their own, international label: the flapper.
Today we mostly remember the flapper through the glamour of her appearance: hair bobbed, skirt shimmying around her knees, lips painted scarlet, a cocktail in one hand, a cigarette holder in the other. But at the time she was regarded as far more complex and threatening: she was a woman who wanted to choose her own life, take lovers, earn a living and explore the world before she even considered marriage and motherhood. She represented a generation who saw the world changing and who wanted to change with it.
Women had, of course, been agitating for change long before the 20s. On both sides of the Atlantic they'd been demonstrating for the vote and for equal opportunities in education and work. They'd been struggling against the kind of rigidly sexist culture that meant a woman could be arrested for smoking a cigarette while walking down a public street. But those reforms had been slow to come, and it was the traumatic upheavals of the First World War that proved the catalyst for change.
In brutal terms, the fact that millions of men were being sent off to fight allowed women to move into jobs that had previously been closed to them, or at best very hard to access. They became policewomen, doctors and engineers; they drove ambulances at the front. And along with their new status as working women they also had their first independent money. One American journalist may have spoken too soon when she claimed that 'on August 4, 1914, the door of the doll's house opened'. But the war did open the door to a decade of unprecedented transformation for women - at least for those with sufficient luck and resources to take advantage of it.
One such woman was Diana Manners. Born into an ancient aristocratic family, Diana was only a rung or two below royalty and was expected to maintain an unblemished reputation and marry a man of rank. For all her privileges Diana grew up in a gilded cage, was chaperoned wherever she went and was required to give an account to her mother of every man she had danced with, at every party.
She felt the humiliation keenly, but with the outbreak of war the old social proprieties began to weaken and 22-year-old Diana was given the perfect patriotic excuse to fly her cage. She signed up to nurse with the Volunteer Aid Detachment, and if her new independence was brutal, working 12-hour days and dealing with bedpans and
harrowing wounds, she felt that she was finally becoming a free adult.
When the war was over, Diana had no intention of returning to her old life in Britain. Not only did she defy her family to marry the man she loved, Duff Cooper, the son of a doctor, she was also determined to earn the money that would launch him into politics. In 1921 Diana embarked on her own acting career that would take her into film and on to the Broadway stage.
For an aristocrat to become an actress and to support her husband was a radical break with tradition. But hundreds of thousands of women shared Diana's determination to remain independent. For many it was a necessity. In Britain alone a terrible postwar statistic warned that only one young woman in ten was likely to get married. And even though there was pressure on them to return to their homes after the war, throughout the 20s there was a steady rise in women working as lawyers and accountants as well as secretaries and teachers. In parts of America, the numbers rose by 500 per cent. …