Flapper Rebellion of the 1920s
Women of the 1920’s opened up a new and unpredictable path that no prior generation of females had yet experienced. Women were changing right before America’s eyes. From smoking to drinking to the dramatic shift in appearances, women’s morals were drastically evolving. Flappers, unconventional women of this decade, were the most noted piece of evidence that demonstrated the severe transformation from the old to the new.
The first active defiance of the female gender of “the Twenties” was tightly rolled tobacco that was smoked through pure mouths. The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, also led them to believe they were equal in all other aspect of life (Siegel 1). Throughout World War I, American Red Cross groups would send care packages of cigarettes to the fighting soldiers over seas. When the war ended, the demand for tobacco not only remained high, but also was a contagious trend through young adults across the country. However, advertisers did not directly target women. Instead, as smoking became more common for women, commercials only implied women smoked. As time grew, women that smoked were no longer considered tasteless, but were both morally and socially conventional upon public venues.
Although female smokers were generally accepted in the eyes of society, the idea rose to be a very controversial issue. Cigarettes became know as “devil’s toothpicks,” “coffin nails,” and “little white slavers” (Gourley 81). Groups formed to protest against cigarettes being legal. By chanting and waving picket signs, the Anti-Cigarette League of America became the most recognized assembly of straightedge citizens all fighting in the same interest to put smoking away for good (Gourley 80). Their concerns were that cigarettes would become a serious addiction and not just a passing craze. Thomas Edison, also in support of ending this whim, wrote a letter to Henry Ford explaining the dangers of smoking and ended it with, “I employ no person who smokes cigarettes” (Gourley 81). Also in strong belief of making smoking illegal was Henry Ford himself along with companies including Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Ward (Use 9,000,000 Automobiles 1). Contrary to their beliefs, flappers thought it to be a “personal decision” which happened to be very pleasurable. Though that might have been true, smoking was simply an apparent image of rebellion (Hanson 48).
Nicotine and tobacco were not the only implements in the womens’ strike against conformity. Much like cigarettes, alcoholic beverages merged with the women’s society as well the men’s. When the 18th Amendment was administered, the manufacturing, sale and transportation of liquor became illegal. Soon after, the Volstead Act was passed which called for enforcing the new law, but even for this short thirteen-year era of prohibition, women disobeyed the law constantly (U.S.Congress 1). The fact that liquor was illegal only inspired these freethinking women more to go out and indulge themselves in alcohol. Over the earlier years, there had been an image of a so-called “good girl”. The idea of this “good girl” would never even think about partaking in alcoholic social events, especially in public. For a woman to be drinking was unheard of and one would endure severe consequences if a woman showed signs of intoxication (Gourley 83).
This “good girl” quickly vanished as the flappers proudly marked their territory in the grounds of society. Despite the new amendment, to women of this age, the law was a mere suggestion. It kept no one from purchasing illegal or bootlegged liquor during prohibition and the women would even store flasks within the lining of their boots, hence the name bootleg liquor (Hanson 47).
Women managed to rebel, not only through their actions, but through their apparel as well. The one thing that defined each woman of this time period was her clothing. Almost all females of the twenties dropped their parents’ outdated code of moral behaviors and picked up a mind of their own. Corsets, which were worn by all and provided a narrow waist for a woman, were considered vintage (Hanson 51). Women were not concerned with the rules of etiquette they had to follow as children, but had moved on to producing a slim and straight style, exposing their bare knees and arms, and being the epitome of contemporary (Gourley 60).
Mrs John B. Henderson, a politically active woman spoke about the change in uniform in the 1920’s, “ The world war left us with our sense of values gone and our moral stamina weekend…the girls are shameless in dress and conduct alike” (Gourley 70). The trend of being a flapper had even spread to women with political power. Women became fixated on cutting their hair short because it gave them a chance to receive freedom from their parents who made them keep their hair long all during childhood. Along with the freedom aspect of “bobbed” hair styles, came the convenient position. “It took less time to wash dry and style. Bobbed hair meant more leisure time for young girls” (Gourley 80).
The upcoming style does not stop at the loose-fitting clothing, shapeless dress, and bobbed hairstyles. The women of the twenties, much like the women of today, were obsessed with being petite. “A stout, or corpulent, person was most likely unhealthy. Besides, a flapper’s short skirt did nothing for an over weight woman” (Gourley 91). Clearly, lack of attitude had never been or will be an issue when discussing size or weight.
Flappers were more than young women with short skirts and bobbed hair; they represented the drastic change in women of the 1920’s across the country. Whether it was through their revealing dress, independent mindsets, or their dramatic framework these women were symbolic of excitement, sovereignty, and development. Since their rebellion was nothing more than enjoying themselves at social events with liquor and cigarettes, few cared to notice even who ran the country (Gourley 63). These women of the 1920’s certainly served as an artery going from old to the new of the decade and through United States history.
Gourley, Catherine. Flappers and the New American Woman. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2008.
Hanson, Erica. Through the Decades- The 1920’s. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1999.
Siegel, Scott, and Barbara Siegel. Revised and Updated in Part by James M. Welsh and Tom Erskine. “Lancaster, Burt.” Book of Hollywood, Second Edition. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2004. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
U.S. Congress. “Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” From: Triumph of the American Nation, p. 214. . American Women’s History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
“Use 9,000,000 Automobiles.” The New York Times 20 Feb. 1921: XX6.