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

The Flapper

In contrast to the poor country women who wrote to Sanger of their bondage to alcoholic husbands, young and fashionable city women expressed their freedom by drinking alcohol freely with men in speakeasies. These women, the "flappers," embodied the disregard for tradition that virtually defined being young and modern in the 1920s. No longer weighed down by long hair and long dresses, or constricted by corsets and rules of propriety, the flappers danced to jazz, drove cars, smoked in public, and appeared to be in no hurry to marry.

Symbol or Reality?

Gordon Conway, a Dallas debutante who, at 20, moved to New York and found work as a magazine illustrator, lived the life and promoted the image of the flapper. Her love of parties and fashionable clothes was matched by her drive to succeed in her career. Her later work in theater and film costume design earned her a large salary and an executive position that was unprecedented for women.

Though less educated than Gordon Conway, and pursuing no career, F. Scott Fitzgerald's young wife Zelda Fitzgerald became another much admired model for the flapper. Her dazzling dresses, some with hemlines shockingly above the knee, were often the talk of the town. Carefree and daring, she would throw all-night cocktail parties, ride on the hoods of taxis, swim in the public fountains of New York City, and sometimes wear men's knickers. An icon of "flaming youth," Zelda radiated modern beauty.

Scholars have recently shown that the political solidarity women experienced as they fought for the vote led to increased economic independence and educational achievement earlier in the century. However, because this solidarity splintered after women won suffrage in 1920, women suffered a cultural backlash during the 1920s. Moreover, the new freedom the flapper represented had actually first flourished during the war when the rules governing young women's behavior had been relaxed. As they volunteered for the Red Cross and socialized with soldiers more freely, traditional codes of class division and gender segregation were suspended. And though the liberation from cumbersome clothes and outdated rules was here to stay, the flapper's outrageousness was but an echo of the freedom of movement brought about by the special circumstances of the war.

While more women than ever before pursued careers and higher education throughout the 1920s, they received contradictory pressure to value marriage and domesticity. Some of this pressure came from advertisements that used the image of the flapper in ads proclaiming marriage as the highest possible achievement for women. The message indicated that it was what a woman bought that made her free and modern, not her ability to stand on her own. The truly freewheeling flapper that had first emerged during the war was by 1920 more of a symbol than a reality.

Photograph of Gordon Conway polishing a car
Photograph of Gordon Conway polishing a car

Fun-loving and glamorous, Gordon Conway polishes a car (a French Delage), the advertisements for which she was hired to illustrate.

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