Turning the Century
The late 1800s and early 1900s saw dramatic changes in virtually all aspects of American life: family, industry, occupation, and social ideals. As conventional gender role arrangements and realities changed, individual identities became less fixed, precipitating a need for other avenues of control and regulation of women.
Dramatic industrial expansion during the turn of the century produced a general atmosphere of progressive social change. As cities bulged with workers from rural towns in search of paychecks, the labor movement and socialist ideals emerged with new propositions about economic justice and social class. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) developed under the direction of Samuel Gompers, and the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) organized strikes across the country. Women joined in efforts at general social reform, participating in the formation of the Parent Teachers Association (PTA) and the League of Women Voters (Schneider, 1993). Factory workers became part of a new social and economic class that included women as paid workers, especially in textile mills. Factory work involved long hours, low pay, and many safety and health risks. For the first time, young women were leaving farms and family households for paid employment, often living separate from the supervision and auspices of their families.
During the early 1900s, the nation’s ideal was the Gibson Girl—a wholesome, healthy, athletic girl based on a series of drawings aimed at portraying a new kind of femininity (Banner, 1983). The Gibson Girl was tall and thin, but had a large bust and hips. During this time, dieting was common among women, although by present-day standards women were still plump (Banner, 1983). For example, the 1904 National Physique Contest winner, Emma Newkirk, weighed 136 pounds standing at 5 feet, 4 inches (Todd, 1987). Beauty during the early 20th century became equated with that which could be purchased (e. g., beauty parlor treatments and the products one was able to buy there). As women began to internalize the messages and ideas regarding cosmetic use, they began to view cosmetics as necessary for their own success and fulfillment (Peiss, 1990). Women began to purchase and use cosmetics, convinced that painting themselves not only was respectable but also had become a general requirement of womanhood (Peiss, 1990).
The implications for women’s sexuality and identity were subtle but pervasive. The Gibson Girl was a highly feminine image highlighted by a soft body physique. The style was one of voluptuous dimensions combined with high collars, long sleeves, and deferential manners. For the first time, the ideal woman was to be both socially and morally acceptable and also —ever so subtly—sexual. Prior to this time, women were dichotomized as either virtuous and maternal, or sensual and pathological. The Gibson Girl ideal represented a shift toward expectations that every woman be both. Although women’s sexuality during this time was to be private, constrained, and not publicly displayed, subtle evidence of their sexuality was now expected.
As women at the turn of the century moved into a variety of new roles, expectations of women’s appearance and expression of sensuality became more demanding. Women were now supposed to embody all characteristics considered important: saintliness, athleticism, motherhood, sensuality, and so on. As women acquired new status and skills outside the home, even more was demanded of them in terms of social, moral, and occupational identity within the family. Changes in these expectations are captured in the ideal image of the Gibson Girl and illustrate the evolution of the contemporary superwoman phenomenon.