1910s and 1920s
Adding to the roiling mix of prosperity and social change of the early 1900s, World War I (1910-1914) further increased women’s participation in public life and paid employment. More women began to work outside the home in an effort to replace the male workers that had been recruited for battle. The shirtwaist was exchanged for the chemise, and brash young women were known to smoke and drink alcohol. Industrial growth, the general shuffle of workers from farms to cities, and the demands for soldiers on foreign fronts contributed to changing ideas about gender and identity.
Women’s right to vote was a pressing political debate, as Susan B. Anthony and other feminists stumped the country to energize the suffrage movement. Marches, oratory, arrests, and hunger strikes were part of the battle. It is noteworthy that imprisoned suffragettes resorting to hunger strikes as a form of political protest were often force-fed by their captors. Thus, the literal bodies of women became a battleground for political freedom. The necessary 36th vote by Tennessee to ratify the 19th amendment came in 1919.
Although the general tenor of the times promoted identities for women that were fun-loving, social, and perhaps even rebellious, women’s bodies were nevertheless strictly controlled. Family and church patriarchs had initially managed the control of women’s sexuality through contraception and birth control. However, as women moved into more public realms, these issues became matters of public policy. Through the late 1800s and early 1900s the Comstock Laws prohibited the mailing of lewd materials, especially anything that mentioned reproductive physiology or birth control. In 1914, Margaret Sanger began distributing a newsletter, The Woman Rebel, that advised women of birth control methods.
Sexual appeal increasingly became a matter of external appearance. The ideal body deflated and the look of the flapper came in vogue (Garland, 1957). Slender legs, narrow hips, and flat breasts were considered very important (Baker, 1984; Banner, 1983; Garland, 1957). Women’s physical attractiveness was assessed primarily by the shape and size of their legs and “ideal” bodies became curveless and almost boy-like (Mazur, 1986). Women of the 1920s often bound their breasts to achieve the slender figure that was so popular (Banner, 1983). Illustrated figures used for fashion design reflected and confirmed the changing ideals of body shape. Whereas in 1918, the ideal figure is described as pear shaped, by 1929, the sexy figure was slim, flat, and youthful with a minimized bust and hip (Danielson, 1989, p. 37). Sex appeal was extended to include standards about body hair, and during this time, women’s body hair became viewed as particularly undesirable. Methods for removing it were widely practiced. Women began shaving the hair under their arms and on their legs as changing fashions exposed more of their bodies, thereby making their arms and legs objects of scrutiny (Banner, 1983). Standards about body hair continue to be powerful, and many contemporary women who disdain cosmetics nevertheless remove much of their body hair. In fact, a woman’s hairy armpits would be almost anathema to sex appeal.
During the 1910s and 1920s, women were breaking traditional images of domesticity and deference like never before. It is not accidental that
women’s right to vote was secured in a period of relative peace and prosperity, a time of hope and optimism when it was assumed there would be plenty for all. Despite these assumptions, constraints on beauty and sexuality continued to increase. Reproduction and birth control emerged as matters of public debate at exactly the time when women were otherwise moving toward autonomy and independence.
Following the war, and for the first time in history, population data revealed that the number of women exceeded the number of men (Broby- Johansen, 1968). This imbalance undoubtedly created greater competition among women and greater power and choice among men. Despite the freedoms that women were able to secure, personal style and glamour became even more difficult to embody, thus effectively maintaining control over women through sexual and social arenas.