Women in the Early to Mid-20th Century (1900-1960)
The dawn of the twentieth century witnessed changes in almost every aspect of the day-today lives of women, from the domestic sphere to the public. The women's movement, with its emphasis on advocacy of equal rights, newly formed women's organizations, and the rise of a new generation of female artists, photographers, and professionals, transformed the traditional patriarchal social structure across the globe. Followed closely by the advent of World War I, these social shifts, which had been set in motion at the beginning of the century, developed further as women were propelled into the workforce, exposing them to previously male-dominated professional and political situations. By the midpoint of the twentieth century, women's activities and concerns had been recognized as a significant element of the literary, scientific, and cultural landscape of several countries, marking a revolutionary change in the social and domestic roles of women.
The end of the nineteenth century saw tremendous growth in the suffrage movement in England and the United States, with women struggling to attain political equality. The suffragists—who were often militant in their expressions of protest—presented a sometimes stark contrast to the feminine ideal of the era, which portrayed women as delicate, demure, and silent, confined to a domestic world that cocooned them from the harsh realities of the world. Despite many challenges English and American women eventually won the right to vote, in part due to the changed perception of women's abilities following World War I. As men were called to war, companies that had previously limited employment in better-paying jobs to white males found themselves opening their doors to white women and women and men of color. Racial and gender tensions escalated during this time, and many jobs were in fact permanently redefined as "women's work," including teaching, nursing, secretarial work, and telephone operations. As well as functioning in the workforce, women actively participated in the political and cultural life of England and the United States. The early decades of the twentieth century, often referred to as the Progressive Era, saw the emergence of a new image of women in society which had undergone a marked transformation from the demure, frail, female stereotype of the late Victorian Era. The women of the Progressive Era, according to Sarah Jane Deutsch, were portrayed as "women with short hair and short skirts … kicking up their legs and kicking off a century of social restrictions." Progressive women smoked, danced in public, held jobs, and generally did most things that nineteenth-century women were barred from doing. However, Deutsch asserts that this image of the 1920s "flapper" was restricted to certain portions of the population, namely white, young, and middle-class communities. Women elsewhere, particularly women from other ethnic backgrounds, such as African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics, lived much differently, struggling in their new roles as mothers and professionals. The number of women who worked outside the home in the 1920s rose almost 50 percent throughout the decade. While women still constituted a small number of the professional population, they were slowly increasing their participation in more significant occupations, including law, social work, engineering, and medicine.
The presence of a large class of young working women after World War I was reflected in what had become a major cultural force—the film industry. Nevertheless, films of the era continued to reinforce outdated stereotypes about women's place in society. While early cinematic storylines often featured poor women finding success and contentment through marriage to rich men, the films of the 1920s depicted young, feisty working women who, like their predecessors, could attain true happiness only by marrying their bosses. Such plotlines helped many to cope with the growing fear that the domestic and family structure of society was being eroded by the emergence of the new, independent woman. Rarely did depictions of women in mass media, including film, radio, and theater, convey the true circumstances of working women. Instead, audiences were presented with images of flappers or visions of glorified motherhood and marriage.
Women in the early twentieth century were perhaps most active and influential as writers and artists. The advent of the new century did witness a change in the style and content of women's writing, as well as an increase in the depiction of feminine images and themes in literature. Male authors such as D. H. Lawrence and W. D. Howells explored issues pertaining to sexuality and the newly redefined sexual politics between men and women. Women authors such as Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair, and Katherine Mansfield focused on topics pertinent to women, bringing attention to the myriad difficulties they faced redefining their identities in a changing world. Other major women writers of the period included Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton. In the arena of art, the early twentieth century provided growing opportunities for women to exhibit their work. In 1914, for example, the National Academy of Design first allowed women to attend anatomy lectures, thus providing them with a chance to study draftsmanship and develop drawing skills in a formal setting. Such artists as Emerson Baum and photographers like Alfred Steiglitz helped promote exhibitions of women's art, including the works of Imogen Cunningham and Georgia O'Keefe. Many female artists—among them Dorothea Lange and Claire Leighton—used their talents to highlight the social realities of their times, and some of the most powerful images of this period, including stirring portrayals of coal miners and farmers, were produced by these women.
By the mid-twentieth century, women throughout the Western world had completely redefined their roles in almost every social, political, and cultural sphere. While the fight for equal rights and recognition for women would continue into the 1950s and beyond, the first major steps towards such changes began at the advent of the twentieth century, with women writers, photographers, artists, activists, and workers blazing a new trail for generations of women to follow.
Democracy and Social Ethics (nonfiction) 1902
Twenty Years at Hull House, with Autobiographical Notes (essays) 1910
The Long Road of Woman's Memory (nonfiction) 1916
Peace and Bread in Time of War (nonfiction) 1922
* Fort Peck Dam (photograph) 1936
You Have Seen Their Faces (photographs) 1937
The Dream (photograph) 1910
Magnolia Blossom (photograph) 1925
Der Tanz der Zukunft [The Dance] (nonfiction) 1903
The Art of the Dance (nonfiction) 1928
My Life (autobiography) 1928
Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution [edited by Blanche Wiesen Cook] (essays) 1978
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"The Yellow Wallpaper" (novella) 1892
Women and Economics (nonfiction) 1898
Concerning Children (nonfiction) 1900
The Home: Its Work and Influence (nonfiction) 1903
Human Work (nonfiction) 1904
The Man-Made World; or, Our...
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SOURCE: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Chapter XIV." In Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998.
In the following excerpt from her book Women and Economics, originally published in 1898, Gilman reflects on the changing relationship between men and women.
The changes in our conception and expression of home life, so rapidly and steadily going on about us, involve many far-reaching effects, all helpful to human advancement. Not the least of these is the improvement in our machinery of social intercourse.
This necessity of civilization was unknown in those primitive ages when family intercourse was sufficient for all, and when any further contact between individuals meant war. Trade and its travel, the specialization of labor and the distribution of its products, with their ensuing development, have produced a wider, freer, and more frequent movement and interchange among the innumerable individuals whose interaction makes society. Only recently, and as yet but partially, have women as individuals come to their share of this fluent social intercourse which is the essential condition of civilization. It is not merely a pleasure or an indulgence: it is the human necessity.
For women as individuals to meet...
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SOURCE: West, Rebecca. "The Woman as Workmate: Her Claim to Equal Rates of Pay for Equal Quality of Work." Manchester Daily Dispatch (26 November 1912).
In the following excerpt, West responds to an article by George Edgar denouncing women's participation in the workplace, and makes a case for equal pay for equal work.
Every man likes to think of himself as a kind of Whiteley's—a universal provider. The patriarchal system is the ideal for which he longs. He likes to dream of himself sitting on the verandah after dinner, with his wife beside him and the children in the garden, while his unmarried sisters play duets in the drawing-room and his maiden aunts hand round the coffee. This maintenance of helpless, penniless, subservient womanhood is the nearest he can get in England to the spiritual delights of the harem.
So when womanhood declares that she is no longer helpless, dislikes being penniless and refuses to be subservient the men become indignant and inarticulate. An example of this was to be seen in Mr George Edgar's recent article, 'Why Men Do Not Marry', in the Daily Dispatch. Mr Edgar's thesis is difficult to criticise because it consists of two mutually destructive conclusions. He stated, first, that it is absurd for women to ask for equal wages with men because they are inferior workers and have no dependants; and then he...
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SOURCE: Goldman, Emma. "Victims of Morality." In Red Emma Speaks, Alix Kates Shulman, pp. 126-32. New York: Random House, 1972.
In the following excerpt, originally written circa 1913, Goldman responds to the Comstock Law of 1873, which made it difficult for women and men to obtain contraceptives, denouncing its imposition of a narrow version of morality on the lives of men and women.
Not so very long ago I attended a meeting addressed by Anthony Comstock, who has for forty years been the guardian of American morals. A more incoherent, ignorant ramble I have never heard from any platform.
The question that presented itself to me, listening to the commonplace, bigoted talk of the man, was, How could anyone so limited and unintelligent wield the power of censor and dictator over a supposedly democratic nation? True, Comstock has the law to back him. Forty years ago, when puritanism was even more rampant than to-day, completely shutting out the light of reason and progress, Comstock succeeded, through shady machination and political wire pulling, to introduce a bill which gave him complete control over the Post Office Department—a control which has proved disastrous to the freedom of the press, as well as the right of privacy of the American citizen.
Since then, Comstock has broken into the private chambers of people, has...
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SOURCE: Eastman, Crystal. "Birth Control in the Feminist Program." In Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution, Blanche Wiesen Cook, pp. 46-9. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
In the following article, originally published in the Birth Control Review in 1918, Eastman contends that birth control is a fundamental right for women and must be available as an alternative if they are to participate fully in the modern world.
Feminism means different things to different people, I suppose. To women with a taste for politics and reform it means the right to vote and hold office. To women physically strong and adventuresome it means freedom to enter all kinds of athletic contests and games, to compete with men in aviation, to drive racing cars,…to enter dangerous trades, etc. To many it means social and sex freedom, doing away with exclusively feminine virtues. To most of all it means economic freedom,—not the ideal economic freedom dreamed of by revolutionary socialism, but such economic freedom as it is possible for a human being to achieve under the existing system of competitive production and distribution,—in short such freedom to choose one's way of making a living as men now enjoy, and definite economic rewards for one's work when it happens to be "home-making." This is to me the central fact of feminism. Until women learn to want economic...
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SOURCE: McDougald, Elise Johnson. "The Double Task: The Struggle of Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation." The Survey 53, no. 11 (1 March 1925): 689-91.
In the following article, McDougald reflects on the struggle confronting young African American women in their efforts to obtain employment in areas hitherto denied to them.
Throughout the long years of history, woman has been the weather-vane, the indicator, showing in which direction the wind of destiny blows. Her status and development have augured now calm and stability, now swift currents of progress. What then is to be said of the Negro woman today?
In Harlem, more than anywhere else, the Negro woman is free from the cruder handicaps of primitive household hardships and the grosser forms of sex and race subjugation. Here she has considerable opportunity to measure her powers in the intellectual and industrial fields of the great city. Here the questions naturally arise: "What are her problems?" and "How is she solving them?"
To answer these questions, one must have in mind not any one Negro woman, but rather a colorful pageant of individuals, each differently endowed. Like the red and yellow of the tiger-lily, the skin of one is brilliant against the star-lit darkness of a racial sister. From grace to strength, they vary in infinite degree, with traces of the race's...
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SOURCE: Deutsch, Sarah Jane. “From Ballots to Breadlines: 1920-1940.” In No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States, edited by Nancy F. Cott, pp. 413-72. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
In the following essay, Deutsch provides an overview of the social, economic, cultural, and political status of American women in the early part of the twentieth century, focusing on their growing role in the public sphere, the changes in their domestic world, and their entry into the workforce.
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,...
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SOURCE: Chafe, William H. "World War II as a Pivotal Experience for American Women." In Women and War: The Changing Status of American Women from the 1930s to the 1940s, edited by Maria Diedrich and Dorothea Fischer-Hornung, pp. 21-34. New York: Berg, 1990.
In the following essay, Chafe provides an overview of the changes in the social and economic roles played by women during and immediately following the end of World War II.
Few areas of American life demonstrated such rapid and dramatic change during World War II as the social and economic roles of women. Just a few months before Pearl Harbor, more than 80 percent of American men and women declared that it was wrong for wives to work outside the home if their husbands were employed. School systems throughout the country refused to hire women teachers if they were married, and fired them if they got married after being employed. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins had denounced women as "pin money" workers for taking jobs away from needy men (the charge had no basis in fact), and the federal government itself prohibited by law the employment of two members of the same family in the civil service. Now, suddenly, all that changed. Women workers became the secret weapons of democracy's arsenal, "Womanpower," the key to victory against fascism. Those who had been told just a few years earlier that they were...
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SOURCE: Chesler, Ellen. “Organizing for Birth Control.” In Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America, pp. 223–42. New York, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1992.
In the essay below, Chesler documents and discusses Sanger’s efforts to promote birth control legislation in the United States, emphasizing the democratic aspect of the movement.
If the dreamer in Margaret survived through the 1920s, it was hidden from all but an intimate few. What had been an outsider’s begrudging accommodation to the role of elites in accomplishing change became an insider’s willful determination to manipulate the system on her own terms.
In 1922, after considerable lobbying of dubious New York State officials, Margaret incorporated the American Birth Control League in accordance with the laws governing not–for–profit charitable institutions and set out an ambitious and far–reaching declaration of intentions that included public education, legislative reform, medical research in contraception, and the actual provision of services. The league was to be a national voluntary organization headquartered in New York. It would spawn affiliates at the state and local level throughout the country, while also acting as a vehicle for Margaret’s leadership aspirations on an international scale.
To manage the...
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Women And The Arts
SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. "The Female Aesthetic." In A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, pp. 240-62. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.
In the following essay, Showalter contends that many women writers of the early twentieth century reacted to the violence of the First World War and the almost-masculine nature of the feminist movement by attempting to create a new kind of writing that offered a retreat from the real world rather than an expression of it.
The last generation of Victorian women novelists began to publish during the suffrage campaigns and the First World War. Suffragette writers had taken up John Stuart Mill's challenge to transmute the moral issues of Victorian feminism into an aesthetic philosophy. After the war, women novelists, half-inspired by the promise of a purely female art, half-frightened by the spectacle of how closely feminist militance resembled its masculine form, began to develop a fiction that celebrated a new consciousness. The female aesthetic applied feminist ideology to language as well as to literature, to words and sentences as well as to perceptions and values. Perhaps the war, coming at the height of suffrage militance, inflicted a sense of collective guilt upon activist women; certainly members of the W.S.P.U. transferred their energies from the vote to the war with...
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SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “The Battle of the Sexes: The Men’s Case.” In No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, pp. 3-62. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.
In the following excerpt, Gilbert and Gubar detail the views of early twentieth-century male authors regarding the burgeoning women’s movement.
In 1913, one Walter Heape, M.A., F.R.S.—a reader in zoology at Cambridge—produced a book entitled Sex Antagonism in which he summarized the increasing fervor with which the battle of the sexes was being waged as the suffrage campaign intensified during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Reviewing many of the same social transformations that, say, Henry Adams summarized, he cogently described the escalated hostilities to which those transformations led:
To most of us a sex war appears to be an entirely new experience. For fifty years we may have noted the gradual growth of opinions which have led to a more or less indefinite alteration in the tone of the sexes to each other; for the last twenty-five years we may have recognized just cause for that alteration and some of the advantages to be derived from it; but of late we have been face to face with strife as selfish, as brutal, as bitter, and as unrestrained as that shown in any class...
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SOURCE: Chadwick, Whitney. "The Independents." In Women, Art, and Society, pp. 265-96. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
In the following excerpt, Chadwick presents an overview of female artists and sculptors of the early-twentieth century, including Suzanne Valadon, Emily Karr, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Gwen John, Frida Kahlo, and Germain Richier.
Referring to women artists as "independents" is already an arbitrary and misleading designation for no artist is independent of the complex of economic, social, and cultural practices through which art is produced. Nor can lumping together a diverse group of women be intellectually or theoretically justified when it produces alliances reducible only to gender. Yet at the same time, many women artists working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had an ambiguous relationship with the developing mythology of the vanguard modern artist.
The view of the modern artist as a heroic (male) individualist finds its fullest expression in the literature of post-Second World War art. The emergence of a self-conscious set of practices and characteristics through which the modern in art is understood, and the closely related notion of an "avant-garde" as the dominant ideology of artistic production and scholarship, coincides with the emergence of a first generation of women artists...
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SOURCE: Enstad, Nan. "Movie-Struck Girls: Motion Pictures and Consumer Subjectivities." In Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, pp. 161-200. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
In the following excerpt, Enstad explores the relationship between women and the film industry in the early twentieth century.
[Working women walking on Eighth Avenue see] the flashing, gaudy, poster-lined entrances of Hickman's and of the Galaxy. These supply the girls with a "craze," the same that sends those with a more liberal allowance to the [stage] matinees. Their pictures spread out adventure and melodrama which are soul-satisfying.
—Ruth True, The Neglected Girl (1914)1
Mary's eyes were smoldering that day with the fire of strange yearnings. She moved about her work as one walking in a dream—burning with a life that was not the life around her.
—opening lines, print version of What Happened to Mary (1912)2
During the same years that working women went on strike in unprecedented numbers, they were creating a motion picture "craze." Working women attended movies by 1905, but only formed a distinctive "fan" relationship with them after 1908. As reformer Ruth True...
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SOURCE: Sandler, Martin W. "For the Printed Page." In Against the Odds: Women Pioneers in the First Hundred Years of Photography, pp. 140-67. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2002.
In the following essay, Sandler recounts the lives of such female photographers as Jesse Tarbox Beals, Consuelo Kanaga, Margaret Bourke-White, Marjory Collins, and Louise Dahl-Wolf, remarking on their pioneering efforts and far-reaching influence on every aspect of the medium.
At the turn of the century Eva Watson-Schütze stated, "There is one open field yet very little touched by the camera, and that is illustrations, and I look for great things in that direction in the future." Little more than a decade later, Collier's magazine would proclaim, "It is the photographer who writes history these days. The journalist only labels the characters."
Actually, photographs had been used as the basis for illustration as early as the 1850s, when wood engravings copied from photographs adorned the pages of many newspapers and magazines. It was the introduction of the halftone plate in the 1880s that made the reproduction of actual photographs in publications possible. The key to the halftone printing process was the use of a screen of fine lines on glass that broke a photographic image into thousands of dots. The pattern of dots was transferred...
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Ammons, Elizabeth. "Men of Color, Women, and Uppity Art at the Turn of the Century." American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 23, no. 3 (spring 1991): 14-24.
Analyzes turn-of-century American literature as being distinguished by its concern for topical issues and experimentation, with women and black authors forming the majority of the most important authors at this time.
Byles, Joan Montgomery. "Women's Experience of World War II: Britain and Germany." In War, Women, and Poetry, 1914-1945: British and German Writers and Activists, pp. 23-42. Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 1995.
Literary and historical overview of the role of women in German and British social history during World War II.
Campbell, D'Ann. Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984, 320 p.
Collection of essays detailing various aspects of women's lives in the first half of the twentieth century, including data on wages and labor statistics.
Carpenter, Lynette. "Deadly Letters, Sexual Politics, and the Dilemma of the Woman Writer: Edith Wharton's 'The House of the Dead Hand.'" American Literary Realism,...
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