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 Androcentric Culture (nonfiction) 1911
Anarchism and Other Essays (essays) 1910
Living My Life (autobiography) 1931
Red Emma Speaks [compiled and edited by Alix Kates Shulman] (essays) 1972
Self Portrait (painting) 1926
Fruits of the Earth (painting) 1938
Cotton Picker (photograph) 1930
White Angel Bread Line (photograph) 1932
Lapful of Windfalls (woodcut) 1932
Coming of Age in Samoa (nonfiction) 1928
Tent Door at Night (painting) 1913
Oriental Poppies (painting) 1928
Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (painting) 1931
This Is My Story (autobiography) 1937
The American Mothers' Declaration (nonfiction) 1939
Ladies of Courage [with Lorena A. Hickok] (essays) 1954
On My Own (autobiography) 1958
Woman Rebel (periodical) 1914
What Every Mother Should Know; or, How Six Little Children Were Taught the Truth (nonfiction) 1916
Woman and the New Race (nonfiction) 1920
Motherhood in Bondage (nonfiction) 1928
My Fight for Birth Control (nonfiction) 1931
The Story of An African Farm [as Ralph Iron] (novel) 1883
Woman and Labour (nonfiction) 1911
Useful Knowledge (nonfiction) 1928
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (memoir) 1933
Lectures in America (lectures) 1935
Married Love (nonfiction) 1918
Wise Parenthood (nonfiction) 1918
The Return of the Soldier (novel) 1918
Harriet Hume (novel) 1929
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1942
The House of Mirth (novel) 1905
The Fruit of the Tree (novel) 1907
The Age of Innocence (novel) 1920
* This photograph was used on the first cover of Life, 23 November 1936.
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...
(The entire section is 1347 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1577 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1513 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1747 words.)
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?
(The entire section is 2230 words.)