Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art

Rise of Women


"Woman must have her freedom—the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she shall be a mother and how many children she will have. Regardless of what man's attitude may be, that problem is hers-and before it can be his, it is hers alone. She goes through the vale of death alone, each time a babe is born. As it is the right neither of man nor the state to coerce her into this ordeal, so it is her right to decide whether she will endure it."
Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (1920)
"What's in the men nowadays—the women have the fire & the ardency & the power & the depth?"
Letter to Josephine Herbst from Genevieve Taggard, (ca. 1922)

In the June 1918 issue of Ladies' Home Journal, editor Edward W. Bok proclaimed that "the most important single factor that is to come out of the war is woman." In 1848 the revolution had begun at the Seneca Falls Convention, which passed a "Declaration of Sentiments" that demanded equal rights for women. Women marched, petitioned Congress, and gave speeches in the face of public disapproval, led by the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. And seventy-two years later, on August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was proclaimed, and women's rights became clearly possible.

During the decade of the Twenties, further progress was slow, and in many states anti-women initiatives were popular. Nevertheless, as more women entered college and appeared in workplaces formerly dominated by men, role models and organizations emerged. The life of women changed, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, and freedom became possible if not prevalent. Between the motion picture and the novel, a change in the portrayal of women occurred during the decade, crossing social classes and economic sectors. There would be no turning back.

The most ubiquitous symbol of woman in the Twenties is the "flapper," with bobbed hair, turned-down rayon stockings, and short skirts. Alcohol, cigarettes, and cars became the symbols of the new freedom, but women were beginning to take their place as great artists and fierce businesswomen.

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Line drawing "The new freedom in marriage" from Vanity Fair
Gordon Conway

Cartoons like this one in Vanity Fair parodied women's high hopes for profound cultural change and their belief in the value of reform movements. Example of a Gordon Conway line drawing for her monthly parody page in Vanity Fair from J...

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