The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century

By William H. Chafe | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
From Feminists to Flappers:
College and Career Women

ALTHOUGH THE EXPERIENCE of women in industry was pivotal to long-range prospects for equality, many feminists placed their immediate hopes for progress on the young college women who came of age during the early twentieth century.For reasons of economic necessity, the daughters of the poor had always worked outside the home; but most middle- and upper-class women had refrained from taking jobs, conforming instead to the convention that a woman's proper place was to be a housewife and mother. Now, many women's rights leaders hoped for a reversal of that pattern, with women college graduates seizing the opportunity to assert their equality with men in business and the professions, breaking down, in Carrie Chapman Catt's words, "all artificial barriers which laws and customs interpose between women and human freedom...."

As if to reinforce such hopes, the number of women pursuing higher degrees skyrocketed during the early years of the century. Ten percent of all graduate students in 1890 were women, but this figure rose to 41 percent in 1918, a 2,000 percent increase in absolute numbers. Women's college enrollments increased as well, leaping 1,000 percent in public colleges and 482 percent in private schools from 1900 to 1920. According to a 1915 survey of alumnae of nine women's colleges, 70 percent of women graduates worked. Many of the more recent students had participated as well in the suffrage movement and other Progressive crusades.Since educated women had traditionally formed the vanguard of the women's rights struggle, women activists looked to the new generation to carry forward the fight for equality.

On the surface, developments during the 1920s appeared to fulfill feminist expectations. The number of women employed in the professions increased

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