Let’s take a light-hearted look at the wonderful, energetic and outrageous, but stunning Flappers from the 1920s. These women impacted the world in a way women had never done before.
The height of the Suffragette movement was between 1890 and 1919, but then came the roaring 20s with a generation of young women who redefined the role of womanhood. They let the ‘Genie’ out of the bottle, in a way it would never be recorked.
A Slang Word
The word ‘flapper’ was a slang word used for a young prostitute, from as far back as 1631. The Times published grave warnings against moves to extend voting rights to women under 30, two years after the Representation of the People Act 1918, Mature females might be permitted to engage with politics, but the “Scantily clad, jazzing flapper to whom a dance, a new hat or a man with a car is of more importance than the fate of nations,” must never be entrusted with a vote.
Hangover from World War I
The world was shrugging its way out of the Great War that was meant to end all wars, World War I. The return of the male workforce from the war, caused many women to become unemployed.
On top of that, the Spanish Flu pandemic killed between 20-40 million people, mostly the young and healthy, unlike Covid that targets the weak and old. The caused young people to feel that life was short and could end without warning. Enjoying life and freedom was far more important than waiting for a man to marry them.
There was a shortage of men anyway as so many young men died in the war. Women wanted to be seen equal to men and men no longer had monolithic control of women. Indeed, women had shown their capabilities by working on the home front during the war.
The fast, frivolous flapper was partially a cultural stereotype, but she was also a focus of serious debate. With her short skirts, and bobbed hair she threatened the morality of older feminists. The flapper smoked in public, drank alcohol, danced at jazz clubs and practiced sexual freedom. She was impetuous, flirtatious and always surrounded by admiring male suitors. The flappers were seen as being erotic and dangerous and a threat to conventional society.
Older suffragettes found the flappers offensive with their cigarettes, cocktails, sexiness and sass. They saw the pleasure-seeking, taboo-breaking ways of the flappers as total disregard of all for which the suffragettes had fought.
Flappers from the 1920s Struggled for Freedom
If the politics of feminism seemed less important to the flappers, it was because the young women were taking the struggle for freedom as being important to them personally. The ideals of duty, sacrifice and the greater good had been discredited by the recent war. They were “Moved by an inescapable inner compulsion to be individuals in their own right.”
For this new generation, morality centred in being true to oneself, not to a cause. Flapper feminism rejected the idea that women should uphold society’s morals through temperance and chastity. Towards the end of the decade, some feminists argued that women’s greatest achievement in the 20s was learning to value their individuality.
Flappers from the 1920s in the Workplace
While many women were replaced by the men returning from the war, women profited from the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act, in 1919. It gave them access to traditionally male professions such as lawyers, doctors, engineers and pilots. Women, like Amelia Earhart were taking to the air. The revolution of women was afoot and unstoppable.
Yet the 1920s was the era of prohibition in the United States. There was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. This gave rise to a booming underworld black-market and speakeasies and other entertainment venues.
Flappers from the 1920s Changed Fashion
Fashion leaders grabbed the burgeoning opportunity of the 1920s and was one of several industries that expanded rapidly to meet demands. Young women no longer accepted the confines of uncomfortable clothing, such as restrictive corsets and dresses around the ankles. They adored flattened breasts, bare arms, and straight waists, giving them a young and boyish look. It was also the heyday of rolled garters and rolled stockings, usually just below the knee, and step-in panties, replacing the sexless pantaloons.
The flappers valued fashion above substance, novelty over tradition, and pleasure over virtue. While some considered the dress of the flappers as frivolous, with their excessive makeup, it was a mark of liberation. Rising hemlines, sportswear and even trousers made their generation physically freer than any in modern history. Hollywood stars, such as Katharine Hepburn fostered this new freedom trend into the 1930s. Women were beginning to play a leading role in relationships.
Flappers of the 1920s Heralded Profound Change
Flappers from the 1920s provoked a decade of profound change and growth, which led to learning and exploration. Consumerism and mass entertainment was changing the economy of nations.
The 1920s was also marked by world-changing inventions. Not only was the motor car more available to everyday people, but the decade saw the invention of Quick-Frozen Food. The Band-Aid hit the marketplace as did the arrival of the Electric Blender. Then there was the arrival of the first Electric Automatic Traffic Signal and water skis for women, alongside sunglasses. In the cosmetic arena there was the advent of metal lipstick containers and compact mirrors, and blusher came into favour. Coco Chanel championed the tanned skin look instead of the pale skin.
The Flappers Challenge
While double standards persisted, a significant number of women were beginning to claim the same licence as men, including driving an automobile. They challenged the man-made ‘glass ceiling’.
There were small steps of encouragement, too, for the flappers from the 1920s. Divorce was made easier by the landmark Matrimonial Causes Act 1923, though it would be many decades before this would come to full fruition. For the flappers, contraception was more readily available through the Marie Stopes mail-order service, which still has a strong Internet presence.
Changes in work patterns were dramatic in the 1920s. A third of unmarried women moved into paid employment across an expanding range of jobs in medicine, education, and industry. Mass employment also made women the ultimate consumer power. Women are still the world’s most powerful consumers, and their prowess is expected to become even greater over this decade.
Flappers from the 1920s set a Precedent
The flapper generation may have been comparatively apolitical and self-absorbed. They were not deterred by societal limitations as they puzzled out what freedom meant. They tested the personal limits for women, broaching issues that would be hotly debated during the 1960s and 70s.
Women were given electoral equality with men in 1928. Legislation brought equality in inheritance rights and unemployment benefits. However, wealth became unequally divided, particularly in America, the new world power.
The bright era of the Flappers ended dramatically as the United States transitioned into one of its darkest eras. The Great Depression and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 saw yet another massive change.
With a growing number of women leaders in powerful positions, the scales are tipped towards feminism on a grander scale. The supremacy of the patriarchal society is once again being challenged.
The flappers made their mark and it is still felt in the modern world. Flappers from the 1920s refused to live under the domination of men. Perhaps, the day will come, when the sexes will live in a comfortable cohabitation with each other, neither feeling threatened by the other.
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