How did freedom change between the Gilded Age and the 1920s?
For Black Americans, freedom was redefined by two events: the First World War and the Great Migration.
Black men were eager to enlist in the war, though most were not accepted. They were eager not only to serve, but also to be officers. From the nation's inception, military service has been one of the primary ways in which black people have demonstrated their citizenship and commitment to the nation's values. However, discrimination was rampant in the American military, so rampant that the black combat troops intended for the Ninety-third Division, among the first to be sent to Europe, were placed in various divisions of the French army. One of these was the famed 369th Infantry Division. Members of the division had exhibited extraordinary bravery. It was also the source of the 369th Regiment Band, led by James Reese Europe and assisted by Noble Sissle. The band had been responsible for bringing jazz to Paris and would be the start of an illustrious career for Sissle, who went on to produce numerous musicals, including Shuffle Along.
In France, black men realized a freedom that they did not have in the United States. They were not treated poorly due to their skin color. They were free to date white French women, if they pleased, and some of them stayed and pursued careers in music. Given the instant popularity of jazz, there was high demand in Paris for anyone who could play a little music.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of black people left the South during the war. The boll weevil had destroyed cotton crops in 1915 and 1916, and many blacks had been employed as sharecroppers. The floods in the summer of 1915 had also left many without homes. Furthermore, a sharp decline in foreign immigration, probably due to the war, had led to a labor shortage. By 1916, a modest migration had, according to John Hope Franklin, become a "movement [that] spread like wildfire among African Americans."
Black people still experienced racism and de facto segregation in Northern cities, and they sometimes had violent confrontations with whites, particularly the Irish, who were threatened by the competition in the labor market. However, they had escaped the threat of lynching, which became especially rampant after the end of the war, and were able to earn more livable wages. Some received positions in prosperous factories, such as the Ford Manufacturing Company in Detroit.
Freedom changed between the Gilded Age and the 1920s, and this was especially true for women. During this time period, there were several changes for women. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed that gave women the right to vote. Women began to get jobs outside of the house. Women were getting more education, and fashion became important for them. Women also began to smoke in public during this time period, which was fairly new for them. Women weren’t as hesitant to share their opinions publicly on the important issues of the day. There was more social, political, and economic freedom for women between the Gilded Age and the 1920s.
Further political rights included the passing of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed people to directly elect their United States Senators, instead of having the state legislature do it. The initiative, referendum, and recall were developed to give the average citizen an opportunity to have a greater role in government. The recall allowed voters to remove an elected official before his or her term was completed. The referendum allowed people to vote, either in a binding or in an advisory manner, on proposed legislation. This initiative also gave people an opportunity to get legislation introduced in state government.
Freedom increased in several ways between the Gilded Age and the 1920s.
I would argue that the conception of freedom in the Gilded Age was more of a concept of economic freedom. By the time the '20s came around, freedom was defined more in terms of personal choices.
The Gilded Age was an era of laissez-faire capitalism. It was also an era in which only the rich had a great deal of freedom. The rest of the people did not have as much freedom because they did not have enough money. Therefore, their lives were circumscribed by the need to work. During this time, freedom was seen as the freedom to compete economically. The "robber barons" were the ones who won this competition.
By the '20s, there was a much larger middle class than there had been. This middle class had the money and the time to do things for fun. Because of this, freedom came to be defined in terms of personal choices. Freedom now was the freedom to go to a speakeasy or to wear the clothes of a flapper. There was still laissez-faire to a great degree, but the common idea of freedom was more of a personal freedom as opposed to an economic type of freedom.
So, the major difference is that freedom in the Gilded Age was economic freedom and freedom in the '20s was personal freedom.