New Women in Early 20th-Century America
New Women in Early 20th-Century America
- Einav Rabinovitch-FoxEinav Rabinovitch-FoxDepartment of History, Case Western Reserve University
In late 19th- and early 20th-century America, a new image of womanhood emerged that began to shape public views and understandings of women’s role in society.
Identified by contemporaries as a Gibson Girl, a suffragist, a Progressive reformer, a bohemian feminist, a college girl, a bicyclist, a flapper, a working-class militant, or a Hollywood vamp, all of these images came to epitomize the New Woman, an umbrella term for modern understandings of femininity. Referring both to real, flesh-and-blood women, and also to an abstract idea or a visual archetype, the New Woman represented a generation of women who came of age between 1890 and 1920 and challenged gender norms and structures by asserting a new public presence through work, education, entertainment, and politics, while also denoting a distinctly modern appearance that contrasted with Victorian ideals. The New Woman became associated with the rise of feminism and the campaign for women’s suffrage, as well as with the rise of consumerism, mass culture, and freer expressions of sexuality that defined the first decades of the 20th century. Emphasizing youth, mobility, freedom, and modernity, the image of the New Woman varied by age, class, race, ethnicity, and geographical region, offering a spectrum of behaviors and appearances with which different women could identify. At times controversial, the New Woman image provided women with opportunities to negotiate new social roles and to promote ideas of equality and freedom that would later become mainstream.
- 20th Century: Pre-1945
- Cultural History
- Women's History
Definition of the New Woman
Primarily defined by the popular press, the New Woman represented a contemporary, modern understanding of femininity, one that emphasized youth, visibility, and mobility as well as a demand for greater freedom and independence.1 While the exact origins of the term are still debated, by 1894, an exchange between British writers Sarah Grand and Ouida in the North American Review brought the phrase to the attention of readers and into popular vernacular. The New Woman emerged out of the social and cultural changes in early 20th-century America—the rise of urban centers, increased and shifting immigration, industrialization, technological advances in print culture, the growing influence of consumer culture, imperialism, changes in the structures of the labor force, post-Reconstruction race relations—and as such offered a way not only to understand women’s new visibility and presence in the public sphere, but also to define modern American identity in a period of unsettling change.2 The New Woman image was often positioned in opposition to the Victorian “True Woman,” which was associated with an understanding of femininity as an essential, timeless concept that emphasized domesticity and submissiveness.3 Yet, the New Woman did not express a unified message regarding women’s changing roles, as those varied by region, class, politics, race, ethnicity, age, time, and historical conditions. The New Woman could be a suffragist or a flapper, a Gibson Girl or a settlement house worker, an actress or a factory laborer, and oftentimes these images and meanings overlapped, allowing women to adopt some characteristics while renouncing others.4 The image of the Gibson Girl dominated the 1890s and the 1900s, but by the 1910s it was the suffragist and the political New Woman who marked modern femininity. In the 1920s, the flapper epitomized New Womanhood. Moreover, class and race factored into one’s ability to adopt and shape the meaning of these different images. Thus, the New Woman represented not a single image but a spectrum of visual expressions and behaviors; indeed, every woman could shape her own version of the New Woman, depending on her resources and the particular interests she wanted to promote.
The Gibson Girl and the Bicycle
In the pages of popular magazines such as Collier’s Weekly, Life, and Ladies’ Home Journal, the New Woman in the 1890s and 1900s represented a new beauty ideal that corresponded with white middle-class women’s growing opportunities for work, education, and engagement with consumer culture. Typified mainly by the work of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, the “Gibson Girl,” as the image came to be known, was portrayed as a young, white, single woman, dressed in a shirtwaist and a bell-shaped skirt, with a large bosom and narrow, corseted waist.5 The Gibson Girl often appeared outdoors, engaged in an athletic or leisure activity such as golf or cycling, or depicted in social activities such as dances and dinner parties, all of which suggested her bourgeois origins.
She was never portrayed performing any kind of labor, and Gibson himself did not present her as a working-class “factory girl,” but rather as a lady of leisure or as a middle-class college debutante.6 As a product of the printed media, the Gibson Girl was also a commercialized image. By the mid-1890s, she became one of the most marketed images of the time, appearing in advertising and on a myriad of consumer products, including fashion, wallpaper, silverware, and furniture. In addition, magazines and pattern companies advertised “Gibson skirts” and “Gibson waists,” as well as fashion accessories such as hats, ties, and collars that were inspired by the Gibson Girl.7
Gibson’s success in turning the Gibson Girl into a popular icon of New Womanhood rested on his ability to use her image to reflect the values of the period, and at the same time to capture the changes, providing a visual vocabulary for contemporaries to discuss the various meanings of the New Woman. In his quick pen-stroke style, the New Woman “type” that the Gibson Girl embodied was definitely modern, but not too radical. While she presented a more athletic ideal and a new public presence, she simultaneously maintained traditional gender expectations from women of her status. For example, although the Gibson Girl was usually depicted in more modern forms of relationships with men—often unchaperoned and in fairly equal settings—she was also portrayed as an object of men’s desire, whose main objective was to find a suitable mate and get married. Through such depictions, the Gibson Girl served to ameliorate fears of “race suicide” regarding the more radical college graduate who postponed or eschewed marriage. Yet, Gibson often depicted her as a single girl and rarely as a married woman or as a mother, alluding perhaps to the more liberating potential that the New Woman symbolized. By presenting the Gibson Girl as flirtatious, yet not portraying the fulfillment of her courting endeavors, Gibson implied that she could remain an eternal bachelorette. Nevertheless, the freedom the Gibson Girl represented was superficial, a matter of style rather than substance. In Gibson’s illustrations, she represented a confident and assertive type of femininity that carried a potential challenge to existing sexual hierarchies and gender roles. However, Gibson framed this challenge as playful romanticism in relationships with men, not as a demand for political rights.8
The Gibson Girl was not associated with politics, but she represented two other main developments that contributed to the emergence of the New Woman in the 1890s: women’s entrance into higher education, and their engagement in sports. Even though the percentage of women in higher education remained quite low—only 2.8 percent of American women in 1900 were enrolled in college—their cultural significance far exceeded their actual numbers. College graduates comprised the bulk of settlement house workers, city reformers, social workers, and suffrage activists—all occupations identified with the New Woman.9 By embracing the Gibson Girl fashions and imagery, young students, particularly those for whom college marked the beginning of a career in suffrage or social reform, could claim a progressive identity and express political views while also conveying an image of athleticism and feminine appeal.
The connection between college and athleticism was not coincidental. By the 1890s, women’s colleges—particularly Smith, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, and Wellesley—included physical exercise in their curricula. Students did not only engage in physical activities; they were actively encouraged to participate in competitive sports such as basketball, hockey, and rowing.10 Sports became socially acceptable for women, marking athleticism as a central component of the New Woman image. Cycling in particular, as a new sport and leisure activity that was associated with mobility, became identified with the image of the Gibson Girl. Wearing the new, less cumbersome cycling costumes that allowed greater freedom of movement, the Gibson Girl who rode a bicycle represented women’s physical emancipation through sports and clothes.
Marking a new public presence and new possibilities to escape the physical confines of the domestic sphere, the bicycle became for feminists and woman’s rights advocates the “picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”11 It offered women new opportunities for healthy exercise and mobility. Representing the emancipated woman, the wheelwoman became another visual icon of the New Woman, one that emphasized above all freedom, health, and the luxury of leisure, while also challenging gender hierarchies and norms.
Yet, the emancipatory aspects of cycling and the association of the bicycle with women’s rights also made this activity controversial. Bicycles offered women a means of challenging the gender division between the spheres, allowing them to negotiate a new presence on city streets. But the fact that bicycles, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed, proved that women, just like men, were “bifurcated animal[s],” became a cause of concern for women’s respectability and sexual propriety. Although only a few women opted to wear the more daring bloomer outfit as their riding costume, bicycle clothing offered an opportunity to test the boundaries of conventional fashion by adopting more practical and less feminine-looking outfits such as shortened and divided skirts that challenged the notion of Victorian propriety and modesty.12
Despite Gibson’s hopes that the Gibson Girl would be the embodiment of the ideal white middle-class “All American Girl,” as her popularity grew, contemporaries began to associate her image with a more generic image of modern femininity that allowed for different interpretations and appropriations. Even women who were not necessarily represented by the white, middle-class characteristics of the Gibson Girl identified with her and the clothes she wore, often using her image to advance their own political agendas. Especially for African American women, the Gibson Girl imagery provided an opportunity to claim inclusion in American culture and to promote racial uplift. Because the Gibson Girl never appeared as a political activist, but as an appealing and approachable middle-class young girl, her image enabled African American women to lay claim to middle-class respectability and the associated privileges of white “ladyhood.” By portraying themselves as Gibson Girls, African American woman could challenge derogatory white stereotypes that perceived African Americans as uncivilized and ugly, using her fashions to present themselves as modern women of leisure.13
Despite prevalent racist images—such as Edward Kemble’s illustrations that ridiculed black women’s aspirations to enjoy the freedoms and modernity that the New Woman represented—and despite the dangers in associating themselves with the Gibson Girl’s flirtatious and playful sexuality, African American women managed to appropriate the image, if not the term, to promote claims for racial equality. Civil rights activists Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Nannie Helen Burroughs also adopted the Gibson Girl fashions: they created their own versions, adopting her upswept hairstyle, but often pairing it with more lavish clothes than the standard shirtwaist and plain skirt. Black women also tended to prefer more ornamented shirtwaists over simple white ones, as a way to further distance themselves from association with the working class.14 In presenting themselves as refined middle-class women, activists like Wells-Barnett and Burroughs served as models for racial uplift, presenting themselves as modern New Women equal to whites.
The ready-made shirtwaist that became so identified with the Gibson Girl image allowed working-class and immigrant women to shape their version of the New Woman and her meanings. Jewish immigrant women tapped into the romanticism and middle-class respectability that the Gibson Girl represented, but created a more militant version that emphasized women’s politicized presence in the workforce. Clara Lemlich, who led the famous 1909 garment workers’ strike, adopted the Gibson Girl look, using it to enhance her demands to be taken seriously as a person, an American, a worker, and a woman.15
Building on the association of the Gibson Girl with Americanism, and on women’s dual roles as producers and consumers of fashions, working women presented themselves as ladies while also promoting their status as workers.16 Thus, the Gibson Girl assumed political meanings as African American, working-class, and immigrant women used the style to enhance their claims for respect, rights, and inclusion.
The Political New Woman
In contrast to the Gibson Girl, the political New Woman was mainly associated with the growing influence of women in politics and reform movements, especially the struggle for women’s rights. Mobilized into politics by the Abolitionist and the Temperance Movements, by the 1910s, the political New Woman became mostly identified with the campaign for woman suffrage.17 Feminism, a new buzzword that entered the American discourse in the early 1910s, marked a break with the 19th-century “Woman’s Movement” and a new phase in women’s agitation for rights and freedom. Feminists demanded sexual equality while also acknowledging their sexual difference with men, and went beyond struggles for voting and political participation. As an ideology, or a worldview that was born on the left of the political spectrum, feminism was influenced by socialism and reform, as well as by liberal traditions that saw the individual as the most important political unit. It sought to transform all realms of women’s lives: the political, the social, the economic, the cultural, and the personal. Feminists aimed to eliminate all structural and psychological obstacles to women’s economic independence: they denounced the double standard of morality that punished sexually active women and rewarded promiscuous men, and insisted on women’s right to pursue their own ambitions and express their own desires.18 As Marie Jenney Howe, a self-identified feminist, argued in 1914: “Feminism is not limited to any one cause or reform. It strives for equal rights, equal laws, equal opportunity, equal wages, equal standards, and a whole new world of human equality.” According to Howe, feminism was not one movement or organization that aimed to change women’s opportunities, but a broad struggle to change the entire social system.19
Indeed, feminists joined myriad causes that became associated with the New Woman. Some campaigned for woman suffrage; others agitated for socialism and labor; some worked in the Settlement House or Temperance Movements, while still others called for “free love” and birth control. These causes were not mutually exclusive, and many feminists became prominent figures in several movements at once. For example, Inez Milholland, the quintessential New Woman, fought for suffrage as a member of the National Woman’s Party and was also a Greenwich Village radical who advocated open marriage, labor and dress reform, and pacifism.20 Thus, as the New York World pointed out, many political agendas and ideologies that represented “the most advanced ideas of the present progressive movement of womankind” defined the political New Woman.21 Despite differences in views and personalities, women like Christian Temperance activist Frances Willard, elite socialite Alva Belmont, and anarchist Emma Goldman all represented the political New Woman and the new presence she had in the public sphere.
While feminism transcended any single cause, by the 1910s, the struggle for suffrage became most closely associated with the New Woman. Yet, despite this connection, and the fact that many suffragists saw themselves as feminists, the terms feminist and woman suffrage were not interchangeable.22 Moreover, woman suffrage itself was never a single movement; suffragists differed by class, race, religion, ethnicity, and political affiliation, as well as in their views on why and how to achieve the vote. Some saw woman suffrage as the ultimate goal, others as a means through which they could reform society. Some white middle-class activists hoped to use suffrage as a tool for maintaining white supremacy and class privilege, employing a conservative stance that imagined women voters as protectors of the domestic sphere. Others, mainly working-class and African American suffragists, saw woman suffrage as part of a larger effort to gain independence and power for those who were otherwise largely disenfranchised.23 African American suffragists, who were often barred from membership in the white national suffrage movements, founded their own organizations and used the vote as a vehicle to challenge racism, arguing for voting rights not only for black women but also for increasingly voteless black men.24 For working-class Jewish immigrant women, it was their union activity in the labor movement rather than suffrage that provided an entrance into political activism. Although many supported woman suffrage, they preferred to concentrate their efforts on improving labor conditions in factories, seeing it as a more urgent issue than gaining the vote.25
Representations of the political New Woman in the media, whether as a suffragist, feminist, or social reformer, often portrayed her as masculine, unattractively clothed in bloomers, and sometimes smoking. These depictions reflected cultural anxieties over women’s demands for equality by framing them as a threat to the social order and catalyst for the reversal of gender roles. An image titled “The New Woman—Wash Day” clearly conveyed this sentiment, showing a woman in bloomers, a cigarette dangling from her mouth as she oversees the work of a man bending over a bucket of laundry.
Other depictions ridiculed women who were active in politics, presenting them as either hysterical fanatics or frivolous women who only cared about shopping and bargains. A cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly mocked suffragists’ political dedication, showing how the famous marching slogan “Votes for Women” is turned into “Vote for Men” as the women who carry the letters S, W, and O leave the march at the sight of an interesting sale at a department store.
Feminists and suffragists defended themselves by presenting alternative images that emphasized their femininity and attractiveness.26 They capitalized on the growing cultural emphasis on personality and performance and used consumer culture and advertising tactics to impress their politics in visual ways, giving special attention to clothing and color. Utilizing all kinds of theatrical and spectacular tactics—from outdoor gatherings and colorful parades to pageantry and picketing—suffragists presented a respectable, stylish, and fashionable appearance that turned their public image into a positive and palatable one.27 Dressed in the suffrage colors of white, purple, and yellow, and with careful attention to the portrayal of their womanly talents of embroidery and fashion, suffragists marched in their costumes and with handmade banners, asserting their political presence in what was considered to be male territory. A photograph of a 1915 parade exemplifies this idea, showing suffragists marching in formation, their bright clothing contrasting sharply with the sidewalk crowds of men in dark-colored suits. This visual contrast—between women and men, bright and dark, order and disorder—provided a perceptible manifestation to suffragists’ arguments and conveyed to viewers the possible contribution women might add to politics after receiving the vote.28
Greenwich Village bohemian feminists also used fashion and appearance to express their identities and to promote their views regarding women’s sexual and political freedoms. These feminists capitalized on the popular Oriental trend of the 1910s and constructed their image as modern fashionable women by adapting the Japanese kimono to convey their progressive ideas.29
Political New Women’s efforts to shape their public image in a favorable way proved successful. In 1915, an editorial in the Century announced: “In the campaign for woman suffrage now being waged in New York, it has been observed . . . that the suffrage speakers have a conspicuous advantage over their opponents in point of personal charm; that, in fact, the ‘anti’ more often looks like the strong-minded suffragist of caricature than the suffragist does.”30
The New-York Tribune also acknowledged that the “type” of suffragist had changed.
Instead of the masculine, dowdy suffragist wearing oversized clothes, untidy short hair, and a masculine hat, the new type of suffragist, as the illustration showed, was a fashionable young woman, dressed in a fashionable one-piece dress and wide hat with feathers, with a sash hanging from her shoulder.31 As the decade progressed suffragists managed to shape images of the political New Woman to be more positive and favorable, playing a significant role in changing contemporaries’ attitudes toward women’s rights.
The New Negro Woman
The intersections between the media, consumer culture, and politics that gave rise to new understandings of femininity were not limited to white America. African American women, combining the ideas of the “New Negro” movement with those of the “New Woman,” created their own version of modern black femininity.32 Coined in 1895 by Margaret Murray Washington, Booker T. Washington’s wife, the term New Negro Woman was used to denote a modern take on middle-class respectability, domesticity, and race progress, serving as a political trope to counter racist stereotypes of the “black mammy.” Washington refrained from tapping into the associations of the white New Woman with independence and sexual freedom due to their problematic implications for black women, and instead emphasized the virtues of motherhood alongside professional accomplishments in education and work, shaping the New Negro Woman as the epitome of middle-class refinement and genteel appearance.33
By the 1910s, however, the New Negro Woman image evolved to suit the new reality of millions of African Americans who left the South to seek better lives in the growing urban centers, mainly in the North. Marking the period of the first Great Migration, the proportion of black residents in all American cities rose significantly, from 22 percent in 1900 to 40 percent in 1930. Single women in their twenties became the second-largest group of migrants after single men. Like men, they hoped to escape racial violence and Jim Crow segregation and improve their economic fortunes. Although for many migrant women, moving north did not necessarily free them from racial discrimination or domestic service, it did provide more options for upward mobility and political participation through the right to vote.34 In cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Baltimore, many African Americans redefined their places in society, expanding the image of the New Negro Woman to include more overt expressions of independence and freedom. By taking advantage of the new possibilities that the mass consumer culture enabled, they sought to construct racial identity and political consciousness with a “modern” image of blackness that was quintessentially urban and emphasized leisure and consumption rather than labor.35
Black women took an active role in the construction of these new identities. Like their white counterparts, they too used the growing emphasis on appearance to further their claims for freedom and equality.36 Yet, due to the pervasiveness of racism, they had to negotiate a fine line between sexuality and respectability, using both as political means. As scholars have demonstrated, the politics of “respectability”—the combination of morality, sexual purity, modesty, thrift, and hard work—were central to middle-class African American women’s behavior and image in the early 20th century, as many believed it was essential to racial progress and equality.37 Using the visual power of photography to convey middle-class notions of black respectability, the black press presented portraits of “accomplished, beautiful, intelligent, industrious, talented, successful” women of color as exemplars of New Negro Womanhood that countered derogatory images of blacks in the white press and refuted charges of moral inferiority and sexual promiscuity.38
But it was also through an emphasis on a fashionable and modest appearance that middle-class black women could push for racial uplift and personal betterment, urging young female migrants to improve their communities and to participate in reform and political causes. Speaking on the “Modern Woman” in 1916, Mary Church Terrell, the prominent reformer and president of the National Association of Colored Women, defined the duties of the New Negro Woman to uplift the race, calling on her sisters “to do more than other women . . . We must go into our communities and improve them . . . we must organize ourselves as Negro women and work together.” Terrell also embodied in her appearance the message she was trying to convey. According to one of the women in the crowd, in her pink evening dress and long white gloves and with her hair beautifully done, Terrell “was that Modern Woman.”39 Fashion and appearance were not just frivolous concerns of elite women; they were the stuff of politics for African American women who styled themselves for equality and to gain respect for their entire race.
While the notion of respectability continued to shape black women’s lives, the growth of black urban centers and the rise of new forms of leisure opened up more opportunities for African American women to display their bodies, and to celebrate their presence in ways they could not have done before.40 Balancing between the need to assert the validity of black womanhood, using it as a vehicle for racial uplift, and their aspiration for taking an equal share in the growing consumer culture, beauty culturists such as Madam C. J. Walker and Annie T. Malone established successful business empires that used the promotion of hair and beauty products to advance black women’s agency and self-control over their image. These women used the ideas of the New Woman to address gender and racial inequalities and to carve new positions of power vis-à-vis both blacks and whites, recreating black womanhood as an expression of modernity and race progress. By expanding definitions of beauty and appropriate body display, black women like Walker assumed new spaces and positions from which they could actively participate in the project of racial uplift, while at the same time challenging it.41 A’Lelia Walker, Madam C. J. Walker’s only daughter, went even further than her mother in challenging middle-class respectability. As a wealthy, tall, voluptuous, dark-skinned woman, who preferred to spend her fortune on lavish clothes, jewelry, and entertaining parties, Walker challenged more than traditional racialized gender roles; she challenged color hierarchies among African Americans, in which light skin and “light features” became the ideal of black beauty.42
Young women, particularly working-class migrants, also adapted the idea of respectability to the new consumer culture and embraced a more brazen appearance through bolder and more expressive aesthetics choices. For them, it was a way through which they could claim access to the growing youth culture and the promises it entailed. As they strolled city streets dressed in the latest fashions, these women asserted control over their bodies and appearances, far from the supervising eye of their white employers or the confining realms of middle-class propriety.43 By adopting the more extreme style of bobs and short skirts, these women stretched the boundaries of respectability and propriety, constructing new images of femininity that represented women’s new experiences and the realities of the urban environment.44
In that context, the female performer—the dancer, the vaudeville actress, and particularly the blues singer—became an important emblem of modern black femininity that gave rise to a new concept of beauty that defied earlier notions of respectability.45
The new cultural scene in Harlem and other urban centers provided the black female performer with new possibilities for reclaiming female sexuality as a source of female power and pride.46 By wearing extravagant dresses and glittering jewelry, the black female performer constructed a modern image of femininity that emphasized glamour and lusciousness instead of modesty and restraint. Spending money on one’s self, and especially on clothes and other luxury products, defied notions of female sacrifice and devotion and offered a more individualistic, independent approach to femininity that was not dependent on men for support. Ethel Waters, for example, bragged about buying a mink coat after signing her first record deal, a purchase that marked both her stardom status and her economic independence, eschewing familial duties. This theme also appeared in one of her songs, “No Man’s Mamma,” in which she sings: “I can spend if I choose, I can play and sing the blues / There’s nobody messin’ with my one’s and my twos / Because, I’m no man’s mamma now.”47 Black performers and blues singers thus became the new standard-bearers of an increasingly sexualized beauty ideal that challenge notions of respectability within the African American community; at the same time, they demanded to take an equal part in the general consumer culture.48 Josephine Baker, whose semi-nude photographs served to emphasize her exotic and “primitive” eroticism, perpetuating racist stereotypes among whites and reinforcing color hierarchies among African Americans, also provided a powerful statement that reclaimed black women’s beauty and sensuality.49
The image of the black female performer also defied sexual and class boundaries. Blues singers such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters were known to have relationships with women, thus extending their celebration of sexuality beyond heterosexuality. In addition, most blues performers came from the South, and to many of them, such as Alberta Hunter and Ethel Waters, their performance career served as a route out of a life of poverty and discrimination. Occupying a liminal space between middle-class and working-class worlds, blues singers managed to construct a new ideal of femininity that acknowledged the worthiness of working-class and rural southern culture even as it stood for upward mobility and economic success.50 This ideal, while rejecting Victorian ideals of black respectability, did not renounce femininity but created and celebrated a sexualized version of it. Thus, by offering an alternative and commodified image of the New Negro Woman, blues singers and black female performers expanded New Womanhood in ways that challenged racialized gender norms within white and black communities.
By the 1920s, the New Woman came to be embodied by the “flapper” or the “modern girl.” With her short skirt and hair, visible makeup, and leisure-filled lifestyle, the flapper represented the culmination of processes that World War I had escalated and highlighted, including the mobilization of women (for war, peace, and in the workforce) and the political changes that suffrage brought. Young women bobbed their hair, wore makeup, and discarded corsets before the war, but only in the 1920s did these fashions come to symbolize the freedoms women were beginning to claim, and the new moral values they promoted. Sophisticated, sexually liberated, and independent, the flapper marked the rise of a new youth culture that emphasized individuality, pleasure, and sexual expression.51
Also associated with urbanism, skyscrapers, the growing numbers of automobiles, and modern aesthetics in art, the flapper became more than the quintessential image of the New Woman in the postwar decade; she became the visual representation of a modern cultural consciousness that defined the 1920s.52
Identified mainly as a young girl in her teens or twenties who lived a libertine and mobile life, the flapper’s youthfulness was intertwined with modernity. Her image, as depicted in advertisements and popular media, was associated with a range of consumer products that denoted modern living: cars, cosmetics, clothing, and electrical appliances. Indeed, youth became less a marker of age and more a state of mind that valued novelty and innovation. As Vanity Fair asserted in 1921: “Flapper is a limitless, a widely embracive term, to such a point that serious men have observed . . . that all women between the ages of fourteen and fifty—make it sixty, if you wish—may be called ‘girls.’”53 Through the use of clothing and makeup every woman could become a flapper, regardless of her age, and assert her identity as a modern woman who holds progressive views on women’s sexuality and gender roles. “Flapper” and “youth” were thus no longer references to a stage in life, but marks of sophistication and shrewdness.
The emphasis on youth created a more slender, straight silhouette—“boyish” and even androgynous—that contrasted markedly with the Victorian and Gibson Girl hour-glass ideal.
Some critics understood this look as a threat to the gendered social order, arguing it was a result of women’s masculinization. Yet, while the flapper adopted some “masculine” traits such as smoking, to most contemporaries she did not symbolize the masculinization of women or a rejection of femininity as much as a newly mobilized and sexualized femininity.54 In fact, that many observers called the look “boyish” rather than “masculine” indicates that they responded more strongly to the look’s youthful connotations than to its possible challenges to male authority.55 The raised hemlines revealed women’s legs and knees for the first time in modern fashion history, and expressed a new understanding of female sexuality. By drawing attention to women’s legs rather than to their bosoms or waists, the short skirt created a conceptual shift from equating women’s sexuality with maternity—as bosoms were associated with breastfeeding—to a new feminine identity in which sexuality was severed from motherhood and was based on pleasure.56 More than a rejection of womanhood, as some critics argued, the flapper ideal symbolized a rejection of the gender expectations that came along with motherhood.
Together with the rising “cult of youth,” the flapper accompanied and encouraged changes in attitudes toward female sexuality. These changes shattered Victorian stereotypes of the passionless white middle-class woman, and redefined womanhood to allow for greater public visibility of and positivity regarding female eroticism and sexual expression. The increasing popularity of mixed-sex, age-based socialization and the growing availability of automobiles provided a space for young people to experience and experiment with new courting customs and sexual practices away from parental or adult control.57 Although these changes clearly marked a break with the prewar generation of middle-class white Americans, many of the features that characterized the “new sexual order” in the 1920s—premarital sexual activity, greater sexual expression, and commercialization of sexuality—had already occurred among working-class, immigrant, and African American urban communities before World War I.58 When white middle-class flappers adopted these manners in the 1920s, contemporaries debated what it meant and whether older generations should accept it. Yet while generational rifts broadened, middle-class status and support of the media eventually enabled white flappers to gain public approval.59
However, the “new sexual order” was very much a heterosexual one. Women’s sexuality was supposed to be expressed only within marriage, which was framed as a “compassionate relationship” that was based on friendship and sexual fulfillment. As the expression of sexuality within marriage became the norm, any deviation from it became a problem. While female homosocial relationships and homosexual desires did not draw much attention or criticism in the 19th century, by the 1920s, with the rising popularity of Freudian theories, female companionships lost their cultural legitimacy and began to be deemed as a medical problem and a social peril, identified as “lesbianism.”60 Thus, despite growing legitimation for women’s sexual expression, the “new sexual order” did not liberate women’s sexuality, but promoted a commercialized version of it that was directed toward and for men.
Like previous images of the New Woman, the flapper was also intertwined with consumerism, popular magazines, and the ready-made industry, which encouraged the consumption of new products, as well as promoting new patterns of consumption.61 The flapper was as much a commercial image as a lived experience, and depictions in the popular media concentrated on her sexuality and quest for fun, and varied in terms of class association. Some depictions, such as those in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories, portrayed the flapper as a young society woman or as a college student, who did not need to work for a living but spent her time in leisure activities. Others depicted her as an independent secretary or salesgirl, or as a young aspirant with rural origins who came to the big city to find success in theater or the movies.62 Despite these differences, the upper-class and working-class flapper were portrayed the same visually and sartorially, contributing to the dissemination of the image nationally and even globally.63 The availability of ready-made clothing—which imitated custom-made fashions in style, though not in quality—caused clothes to gradually cease being a definitive marker of class. Hierarchies of taste and the influence of traditional cultural trendsetters also changed. “It doesn’t matter what queens or beauties do. The young woman of to-day insists on dressing to suit her own life as well as she can with the available materials,” observed the Literary Digest in 1928, pointing to the wage-earning flapper as the fashion icon who set the styles for American women in general.64 Indeed, while economic class still determined the extent to which one could adopt the flapper’s lifestyle, the ability to appear fashionable became within the reach of more people than in previous decades.
Furthermore, although in mainstream media and advertisements the flapper was almost always depicted as white, the black press also adopted the image and created its own versions of the flapper, celebrating her as an embodiment of respectable race womanhood.65 Images such as the one that appeared in the Chicago Defender in 1928, presenting members of the Unique Fashion club showcasing the latest styles, helped to normalize the flapper’s sexuality within the boundaries of racial uplift and respectability discourse.66
Indeed, young women across racial and class lines adopted the flapper’s fashions and attitudes as part of their engagement in the new youth culture. Black flappers demanded access to the leisure habits of their white counterparts, arguing that the flapper’s styles were not promiscuous but improved women’s health, contributed to their beauty, and expressed their freedom.67 For Mexican American and Asian American girls, adopting the flapper styles was also a means of claiming American feminine identity and demonstrating their inclusion in white society. This oftentimes created frictions between second-generation immigrants and their parents, who were worried about the demise of ethnic traditions and moral customs. Second-generation Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese American women had to negotiate between their aspirations to participate in the white youth culture and their commitment to their ethnic communities and identities.68 While adopting the flapper image did not necessarily mean assimilation, by the mid-1920s, the flapper image managed to transcend class, racial, and regional differences, allowing both white women and women of color to expand women’s place in their communities.
However, despite the popularity of the image and the dissemination of the flapper’s fashions across diverse and multiple groups of women, the flapper’s commercialization ultimately promoted a unified, conformist, and limited ideal. For women who could not conform to the flapper ideal, particularly non-white, older, and more stout women, adopting “flapperism” also required adopting a strict regimen of dieting, grooming, chest-binding, and makeup wearing. Moreover, advertising and magazines, while celebrating the flapper and her freedoms, also presented them as a consumer’s choice, thereby reducing the possibility that the flapper might bring a more profound change in women’s lives.69 Women had to contend with contradictory messages of freedom and oppression, bridging the tension between the image’s potential to express pleasure and freedom and its inherent expectation to uphold a beauty ideal that sexualized them and demanded the constant policing of their bodies.
Young flappers’ fascination with appearance and lifestyle coupled with their indifference to partisan politics caused some to question women’s commitment to feminist ideology and equality in favor of an illusionary and superficial sense of freedom.70 Yet, other contemporaries made the connections between the flapper’s styles and women’s newly won political status, seeing her image as implicated in, rather than disconnected from feminism and women’s rights. “Woman's independence has manifested itself nowhere else as sensibly and as sharply as in her relation to her wearing apparel. In fact, it seems to be one of her new accomplishments of late years to which she can point with unrestrained pride,” argued the essayist Ann Devon in 1929.71 Capitalizing on their power as consumers, flappers asserted their status as citizens and used consumption as a form of power. “Women realized their status in life. They demanded independence, and they got it,” argued fashion consultant Margery Wells in an article in the trade journal Women’s Wear Daily. “When they went shopping they asked for what they wanted, instead of what they saw.”72 Flappers also defended their sartorial choices in political terms. Arguing against attempts of municipalities, conservatives, and the fashion industry to regulate women’s appearance, one flapper exclaimed, justifying her reasons for sticking to the short skirt: “Would we passively give up the vote, or any other rights finally obtained after long struggles? Then why give up the comfort, economy, and freedom of movement which the short skirt has meant to us?”73 By conflating women’s skirts with their political rights, flappers demonstrated that women’s freedom did not necessarily lie only in political participation, or in access to education and jobs, but also in wearing comfortable clothing that allowed physical mobility. These flappers translated ideas of political freedom into sartorial expression, using their clothing to carve out new spaces of power and influence.74
Discussion of the Literature
Scholars and contemporaries alike interpret the New Woman differently. Many historians identify the New Woman with the rise of feminism and the campaign for woman suffrage, focusing almost entirely on the political aspects of the New Woman and her activism. In these narratives, the visual aspects of the New Woman and her meanings as an image are neglected, and she becomes almost disembodied, noted for her actions and words, but not appearance.75 Some scholars identify the New Woman as a cultural literary figure, an icon of modernity who challenged gender roles. These scholars demonstrate how politics of sex and gender intersect with art, activism, and literature, identifying the feminist aspects of the New Woman as part of a broader cultural change that manifested itself mainly in artistic forms. While these studies do not deny the political activism of the New Woman, they emphasize more the impact of these politics on the American cultural scene rather than analyzing specific political movements or reforms.76
Studies by media scholars and art historians also emphasize the cultural aspects of the New Woman rather than her political import, associating her with the rise of mass consumer culture and developments in print and advertising. In these interpretations, the New Woman appears first and foremost as a visual image through which contemporaries debated women’s changing social and political status.77 Historians who analyze the connections between consumer culture and the New Woman usually focus on the 1920s and the flapper as the epitome of a modern consciousness that defined the decade.78 These historical accounts rarely portray the flapper as a political figure, a variant of the political New Woman. In fact, they interpret the flapper as evidence of feminism’s demise in the 1920s, and understand the rise of consumer culture as a backlash against women’s political achievements and the new freedoms they claimed.79
Whereas these two understandings of the New Woman—as a political figure and as a modern visual icon—acknowledge her complexity and variations, apart from a few notable exceptions, scholars rarely consider the New Woman as both, taking into account the political aspects of the New Woman image, or the cultural and visual aspects of her politics.80 Similarly, given the nature of women’s political activism in suffrage and other Progressive reforms, and the middle-class audience of the printed press, historians have tended to focus their attention on white, middle-class women in their analyses of the New Woman phenomenon. Yet, thanks to some innovative works that resurrect the voices of working-class women and women of color, this view has been changing. By focusing on working-class culture and activism, historians like Kathy Peiss, Nan Enstad, and Annelise Orleck expand our understanding of the ways in which working-class white women participated in and shaped the meanings of the New Woman.81
Other scholars have specifically challenged the white trope of the New Woman image, looking at alternative manifestations of it among Americans of color.82 Historians have examined African American women’s political activism and modernization, contributing to our understanding of black women’s role in shaping the New Woman.83 Studies that examine black experience during the Great Migration and the New Negro phenomenon as related to the cultural and literary expression of the Harlem Renaissance and other urban centers also include women in their analysis, and provide important contributions to our understanding of the racial manifestations of the New Woman.84 Yet, only a handful of studies exist that focus solely or even substantially on the New Negro Woman during the Great Migration.85 Moreover, studies on the New Negro Women tend to focus their attention either on the late 19th century or on the period of the Great Migration. Further investigation into the New Negro Woman that will consider both periods and analyze the New Negro Woman as a longer phenomenon may contribute to a better understanding of continuities in the ways in which black women shaped and reshaped their position toward respectability and modernity.86 While not as extensive as the research on the New Negro Woman, scholars have examined how Asian American and Latina women adopted the flapper image and fashions, and the ways in which young women negotiated the promises and perils of consumer culture.87 However, these studies rarely consider the New Woman before 1920. Further research that will place Asian and Latina women’s experiences in the broader national scope of the New Woman phenomenon is still needed. Moreover, integrating the histories of New Women of color into the mainstream narrative of the white New Woman will enrich our understanding of the complexity of the phenomenon, as well as the extent of its dissemination across various groups in American society.
Recently, scholars have started to examine the New Woman not only as a broader phenomenon in terms of race and class, but also as a wider global phenomenon, analyzing her connection to modernity and consumer culture from an international perspective.88 By focusing on specific national case studies, or providing a comparative transnational lens, research that places the New Woman in a larger conversation about the changes in women’s status, and the importance of consumer culture in shaping these changes, illuminates the active role women played in the international workings of modernity.89 This scholarship provides a crucial addition to our understanding of the cross-cultural influence of feminine modernities as well as to the political importance of popular culture, appearance, and fashion in the construction of gender, class, and racial identities. By employing a transnational perspective, these studies also reveal the specific historical context of the American New Woman, and contribute to a more diverse and integrated analysis that takes into consideration both the visual and the political elements of her image. Moreover, a growing attention is given to the intricate networks of African diasporas and imperial interactions in the construction of modern feminine identities.90 A further analysis into the ways in which the New Woman trope functioned in shaping these cultural exchanges across racial, class, and national boundaries will bring new perspective to the transnational nature of modern womanhood in the early 20th century.
No designated collections or archives address the New Woman specifically. Hence, those who are interested in studying the New Woman phenomenon in America should be willing to explore many institutions and various collections to dig for valuable sources. A good way to start will be by consulting two important anthologies of primary sources: Martha Patterson, The American New Woman Revisited: A Reader, 1894–1930, and Marianne Berger Woods, The New Woman in Print and Pictures: An Annotated Bibliography.91 Moreover, since the New Woman was defined primarily through popular culture and the periodical press, researchers will benefit from exploring newspapers and magazines from the period. These can be accessed through microfilm and digital databases such as Chronicling America, HathiTrust, American Periodicals Series, America’s Historical Newspapers, and the Black Press Research Collective, available in many universities and libraries. Ephemera collections such as the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at the Rubenstein Library at Duke University, which holds the “Glory of Woman: An Introduction to Prescriptive Literature” and “Everyday Life and Women in America, c. 1800–1920” collections, are also useful.
Archival collections specializing in women’s history—such as the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College and the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard—hold valuable material on the suffrage movement and other New Women activists. The Library of Congress’ American Memory Collections, and especially its prints and photograph collections on women’s history, also provide invaluable source to the New Woman and her visual manifestations. The editorial website Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000, while not focusing specifically on the New Woman, can also be a useful source of information to those who are interested in the political New Woman and her activism, specifically its primary source collections on “The Struggle for Woman Suffrage, 1830–1930,” and “Histories of Women’s Organizations.” The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, which holds the papers of notable Greenwich Village bohemians such as Mabel Dodge Luhan and Inez Haynes Gillmore (Irwin) and Harlem Renaissance performers such as Josephine Baker, offers a valuable source on radical feminism and the artistic and literary aspects of New Woman. Those who are interested in the New Negro Woman can consult Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology, which includes various female voices and is useful to the understanding of women’s roles in the New Negro Movement.92 The archival collections at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which holds Alberta Hunter’s Papers, and the Billy Rose Theater Division at the New York Public Library also provide important sources on the New Negro Woman. While not quite as extensive, the collections of the Chicago History Museum and the Mabel Hampton Collection at Lesbian Herstory Archives also contain relevant sources.
- Banta, Martha. Imaging American Women. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.
- Brown, Jayna. Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
- Buszek, Maria Elena. Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.
- Carby, Hazel. “Policing the Black Woman’s Body in an Urban Context.” Critical Inquiry 18.4 (Summer 1992): 738–755.
- Cott, Nancy F. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.
- Enstad, Nan. Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
- Floyd, Janet, ed. Becoming Visible: Women’s Presence in Late Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Rodopi, 2010.
- Freedman, Estelle. “The New Woman: Changing Views of Women in the 1920s.” Journal of American History 61.2 (September 1974): 373–393.
- Heilmann, Ann, and Margaret Beetham, eds. New Woman Hybridities: Femininity, Feminism, and International Consumer Culture, 1880–1930. London: Routledge, 2004.
- Kitch, Carolyn. The Girl on the Magazine Cover. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
- Matthews, Jean. The Rise of the New Woman: The Woman’s Movement in America, 1875–1930. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003.
- Otto, Elizabeth, and Vanessa Rocco, eds. The New Woman International: Representations in Photography and Film from the 1870s to the 1960s. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.
- Patterson, Martha H. Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895–1915. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.
- Patterson, Martha H., ed. The American New Woman Revisited. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
- Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.
- Rooks, Noliwe M. Ladies’ Pages: African American Women’s Magazines and the Culture that Made Them. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
- Schoen, June. The New Woman: Feminism in Greenwich Village, 1910–1920. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1972.
- Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
- Stansell, Christine. American Moderns. New York: Owl Books, 2000.
- Weinbaum, Alys Eve, et al. The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity and Globalization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
- Woods, Marianne Berger. The New Woman in Print and Pictures: An Annotated Bibliography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.
- Zietz, Joshua. Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006.
1. Kathleen L. Endres and Therese L. Lueck, Women’s Periodicals in the United States (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995), xiii–xiv; and Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, Vol. IV: 1885–1905 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 353–368. On the influence of these magazines on gender politics, ideas of femininity, and modernity, see Ellen Gruber Garvey, The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880–1910 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); and Jennifer Scanlon, Inarticulate Longings: The Ladies’ Home Journal, Gender, and the Promises of Consumer Culture (New York: Routledge, 1995). Due to developments in printing and distribution, paper and printing costs dropped in the late 19th century. In addition, magazines became more dependent on advertising revenues than on subscribers. Combined, these trends led to a considerable reduction in price, to ten cents an issue, increasing magazine circulation into the middle class. By the 1900s, six women’s magazines—Ladies’ Home Journal, Pictorial Review, Delineator, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Home Companion, and McCall’s—reached over one million subscribers.
2. Martha H. Patterson, The American New Woman Revisited: A Reader, 1894–1930 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 1–3, 25. The New Woman related to a series of movements and phenomena that were also associated with the “new” in this period: the New Negro, New Psychology, New South, New Empire, and New Morality. For general histories of the period that address the changes in women’s roles, see Alan Dawley, Struggles for Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991); and Janet Floyd, ed., Becoming Visible: Women’s Presence in Late Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Rodopi, 2010).
3. For further discussion on the “True Woman,” see Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820–1860,” American Quarterly 18.2 (Summer 1966): 151–174.
4. Patterson, The American New Woman Revisited, 1–2, 25.
5. Gibson was not the only artist who portrayed the New Woman. Other illustrators such as Harrison Fisher, Howard Chandler Christy, and Coles Phillips also created their versions of the “American Girl.” Yet, by the 1900s, the Gibson Girl’s popularity had surpassed its competitors, and it became one of the most marketed images of the time. For more on the other “Girls,” see Carolyn Kitch, The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 37–74.
6. Kitch, The Girl on the Magazine Cover, 37–39; and Lois Banner, American Beauty (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1983), 158, 169.
7. G. S. H., “Fabrics, Gowns and Fashion Notes,” Ladies’ World (April 1902), 14; “‘Gibson Waist’—Chas J. Hirsch & Co. Advertisement,” 1902, appears in Claudia Brush Kidwell and Margaret C. S. Christman, Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974), 139; and John Wanamaker Trade Catalogue (Fall–Winter, 1902–1903), cover.
8. Charles Dana Gibson, “The Weaker Sex II,” (1903); Banner, American Beauty, 165–166; Martha H. Patterson, Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895–1915 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 37–39; Kitch, The Girl on the Magazine Cover, 44; and Maria Elena Buszek, Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 87–88.
9. Despite their small percentage, female students galvanized the American public because they broke old boundaries between the expected endeavors of men and women. Margaret A. Lowe, Looking Good: College Women and Body Image, 1875–1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 4, 164.
10. Patricia Campbell Warner, When the Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), 177–195.
11. Nellie Bly, “Champion of Her Sex,” New York World, February 2, 1896, 10; and Lisa S. Strange and Robert S. Brown, “The Bicycle, Women’s Rights, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” Women Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 31.5 (2002): 615–616.
12. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Shall Women Ride the Bicycle?” in Elizabeth Cady Stanton Papers, Reel 35: 1066–1073 (quote appears on p. 3 in her speech); and Evan Friss, The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 161–163, 171–176.
13. John H. Adams Jr., “Rough Sketches: A Study of the Features of the New Negro Woman,” Voice of the Negro (August 1908): 324–325; and Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration and Black Urban Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 57.
14. Illustration of Ida B. Wells appeared in Irvine Garland Penn, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors (Springfield MA: Willey, 1891), 409.
15. Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 50, 77–79, 82–83.
16. Enstad, Ladies of Labor, 8; and Susan Glenn, Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 209–214.
17. Janet Zollinger Gale, Two Paths to Women’s Equality: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995), 45–46, 54–56, 63. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), led by Frances Willard, was the largest women’s organization in the United States by the 1890s, drawing many women into political activism for the first time. While the main focus of the WCTU was prohibition and ending domestic violence, it hosted a range of social reforms, among them woman suffrage.
18. Nancy Cott, Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 3–8, 35–37.
19. Marie Jenney Howe, “Feminism,” The New Review (April 1914): 441.
20. Linda J. Lurnsden, Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).
21. “Here is the New Woman,” New York World, August 18, 1895, 25.
22. Cott, Grounding of Modern Feminism, 15, 29–30.
23. Cott, Grounding of Modern Feminism, 23–25, 29–32; Margaret Finnegan, Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture & Votes for Women (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 5–7; and Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 87–88.
24. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Woman in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 2, 9–10; and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “In Politics to Stay: Black Women Leaders and Party Politics in the 1920s,” in Women, Politics, and Change, eds. Louise A. Tilly and Patricia Gurin (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1992), 201.
25. Glenn, Daughters of the Shtetl, 215–216.
26. Marry Holland Kinkaid, “The Feminine Charms of the Woman Militant,” Good Housekeeping, February 1912, 146–147; Florence Flynn, “‘Attract and Allure,’ Cries the Suffragette,” New-York Tribune, April 30, 1911, C7; and “Mrs. Belmont Home for Suffrage War,” New York Times, September 16, 1910.
27. Finnegan, Selling Suffrage, 8; Susan A. Glenn, Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 129, 131–132; and Barbara Antoniazzi, The Wayward Woman (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014), 33–35.
28. A photograph of the parade can be found at the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
29. Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, “[Re]fashioning the New Woman: Women’s Dress, the Oriental Style, and the Construction of American Feminist Imagery in the 1910s,” Journal of Women’s History 27.2 (2015): 24–28.
30. “Beauty’s Vote,” Century Magazine, July 1915, 480.
31. “The Type of Suffragist Has Changed,” New-York Tribune, February 24, 1911, 7.
32. The New Negro Movement is usually associated with the cultural and literary expressions of the Harlem Renaissance as well as with the political and intellectual activism during the Great Migration. In recent years, scholars have expanded the understanding of the New Negro both geographically and thematically, pointing to other urban spaces such as Chicago and Detroit, as well as adopting a transnational perspective. These studies also underscore the connection between the commercial marketplace and modernity in constructing black identity. For further reading on the New Negro, see Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes; Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); and Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani, eds., Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
33. Patterson, Beyond the Gibson Girl, 50–52, 56.
34. On the Great Migration, see Carole Marks, Farewell—We’re Good and Gone: The Great Black Migration (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 1–2; Daniel Johnson, Black Migration in America: A Social Demographic History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1981), 78–79; Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Noonday Press, 1995), 73–74; and Tera Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 232–235.
35. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes, 5–9, 14.
36. Erin Chapman, Prove It on Me: New Negroes, Sex and Popular Culture in the 1920s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 6–9, 113.
37. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 185–192; Victoria Wolcott, Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 4–7, 18, 38; and Michele Mitchell, Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny After Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 10. Although this notion of respectability was influenced to a large degree by middle-class African Americans’ adoption of white Victorian values of “True Womanhood,” Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham demonstrates that middle-class black women used “respectability” also as a political means to counteract white racial and gender perceptions of black femininity as sexually available and dangerous. By claiming “respectability” through their manners and morals, African American women exposed race relations as socially constructed rather than biologically determined.
38. “Exalting Negro Womanhood,” The Messenger, January 1924, 7; The Crisis in particular was known to put on its covers photos of beautiful women, babies, and small children as part of its racial uplift campaign. See, for example, covers for August 1922, July 1923, July 1924, and August 1924. Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture (New York: Henry Holt, 1998), 213.
39. Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–1994 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 21–23.
40. Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 227; Chapman, Prove It on Me, 81–82; and Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes, 62.
41. Davarian L. Baldwin, “From the Washtub to the World: Madam C. J. Walker and the ‘Re-creation’ of Race Womanhood, 1900–1935,” in The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, eds. Alys Eve Veinbaum, et al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 57, 59, 61–62; and Peiss, Hope in a Jar, 213.
42. Andrea Barnet, All-Night Party (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 2004), 147–148, 151–152; and Carole Marks and Diana Edkins, The Power of Pride (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 66–67. While light skin and “light features” were usually paired to form an ideal of black beauty, people with dark skin and “light features” could also be counted as beautiful. Moreover, although the preference for lighter skin and features also contained some class component, in reality, many middle-class African Americans had dark skin and vice versa.
43. Shane White and Graham White, Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 245–246; and Hazel Carby, “Policing the Black Woman’s Body in an Urban Context,” Critical Inquiry 18.4 (Summer 1992): 741.
44. One of these prominent images that expanded the boundaries of respectability was that of the “bathing beauty”—a beauty contestant appearing in swimming suit—which became popular in the late 1920s. While the “bathing beauty” represented a more elaborate and sexual display of the black female body, she remained a respectable figure, demonstrating racial progress.
45. Chapman, Prove It on Me, 80; and White, Too Heavy a Load, 127–128.
46. Shane Vogel, The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009), 2–3, 12; and Hazel Carby, “‘It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime’: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues,” Radical America 20.4 (1986): 20.
47. Ethel Waters, His Eye Is on the Sparrow (New York, 1951), 142–145; lyrics appears in Carby, “’It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime’,” 19.
48. Carby, “Policing the Black Woman’s Body,” 753–755; Brown, Babylon Girls, 196–197; Susannah Walker, Style & Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920–1975 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007), 70.
49. Chapman, Prove It on Me, 82, 105–107; and Marks and Edkins, The Power of Pride, 32.
50. Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday (New York: Pantheon, 1998), 142–143, 154.
51. Joshua Zietz, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity and the Women Who Made America Modern (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), 8, 23; John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 229, 233–234, 256–257; and Kitch, The Girl on the Magazine Cover, 121.
52. Kitch, The Girl on the Magazine Cover, 121–122; and Angela Latham, Posing a Threat: Flappers, Chorus Girls and Other Brazen Performers of the American 1920s (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 22. Scholars have understood modernity as a conceptual, esthetic, political, and social phenomenon related to processes of urbanization, industrialization, and technological developments in transportation and communication that occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
53. Alfredo Panzini, “The Flapper—A New Type,” Vanity Fair, September 1921, 63.
54. Zeitz, Flapper, 156–158, Kitch, The Girl on the Magazine Cover, 130–131.
55. Richard Le Gallienne, “The Modern Girl and Why She’s Painted,” Vanity Fair, January 1924, 27–28.
56. Jill Fields, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, Sexuality (Berkley: University of California Press, 2007), 18–19; and Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Fashion (New York: Kodansha, 1995), 145–147.
57. D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 256–257, 263–265; Zietz, Flapper, 33–35; Paula Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 218, 268–270; and Beth L. Baily, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988), 19, 86–87.
58. D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 200–201, 241. Kathy Peiss’s study on working-class women in turn-of-the-century New York also locates the changes in morality in working-class dating cultures. Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986).
59. Among ethnic immigrant communities, flappers’ appearance and lifestyle was often a source for inter-generational tensions between parents and daughters. Peiss, Cheap Amusements, 67–72; Vicki L. Ruiz, “The Flapper and the Chaperon” in From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 54–56; “Courting Danger in the Automobile,” Literary Digest, July 5, 1924, 35; “Is the Young Generation in Peril?” Literary Digest, May 14, 1921, 10; “The Case Against the Younger Generation,” Literary Digest, June 17, 1922, 38, 42; Barton W. Currie, “Eliminate Flapperism, Male and Female,” Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1922, 30; and G. Stanley Hall, “Flapper Americana Novissima,” Atlantic Monthly, June 1922, 771–780.
60. Christina Simmons, Making Marriage Modern: Women’s Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 142–143, 145–147; and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct (New York: Knopf, 1985), 74, 266, 281–282.
61. The Modern Girl Around the World Research Group, “The Modern Girl as Heuristic Device” 12, and Alys Eve Weinbaum, “Racial Masquerade: Consumption and Contestation of American Modernity,” 121, both in Weinbaum et al., eds., The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity and Globalization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Penny Tinkler and Cheryl Krasnik Warsh, “Feminine Modernity in Interwar Britain and North America,” Journal of Women’s History 20.3 (Fall 2008): 113–115; and Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful, 230, 258, 291–326.
62. Martin Pumphrey, “The Flapper, The Housewife, and the Making of Modernity,” Cultural Studies 1.2 (1987): 186. Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, an Alabama debutante who was identified as “America’s first flapper,” had an important role in popularizing the flapper as a young, slender, sexual woman. For more on Fitzgerald and his role in immortalizing the flapper, see Zeitz, Flapper, 39–49, 63. See also Sarah Beebe Fryer, Fitzgerald’s New Women: Harbingers of Change (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988), 1–18. Elinor Glyn’s famous story “It” was adapted as a Hollywood movie in 1927, featuring Clara Bow as a young salesgirl flapper.
63. On the global aspects of the Modern Girl, see Weinbaum et al., The Modern Girl Around the World.
64. “Fashion’s Effect on Business,” Literary Digest, February 25, 1928, 18; Franklin S. Clark, “Who Sets Fashions—and How?” Review of Reviews (January 1930), 56; and Mary Alden Hopkins, “Women’s Rebellion Against Fashions,” New Republic, August 16, 1922, 332.
65. “Two Types of Beauty from Two States,” Baltimore Afro-American, May 14, 1927, 12; “The Girl of Today,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 17, 1926, 16; “African Girl Like Flapper of America,” Chicago Defender, May 30, 1925, A1; “A Nifty Bunch of Damsels . . . ,” Inter-State Tattler, June 29, 1928; and “New York Daily Uses Pretty Picture of Some Harlem Bobbed Hair Beauties,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 18, 1926.
66. “Display Many Styles at Fashion Show,” Chicago Defender, October 13, 1928.
67. Dorothy Ilone Embry, “Leader of Harlem Sub-Debs Defends ‘Virtue’ of Modern Girl,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 2, 1927, 12.
68. Ruiz, “The Flapper and the Chaperon,” 54–56; Valerie J. Matsumoto, City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920–1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 60–62; and Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 115–116, 122–125.
69. Cott, Grounding of Modern Feminism, 172–174; and Fields, An Intimate Affair, 90–92.
70. Pumphrey, “The Flapper, The Housewife and the Making of Modernity,” 183; Estelle B. Freedman, “The New Woman: Changing Views of Women in the 1920s,” Journal of American History 61.2 (September 1974): 373; and Emily Newell Blair, “Discouraged Feminists” Outlook, July 8, 1931, 302–303, 318–319; and “The New Woman—A Symposium,” Current History (October 1927): 1–48.
71. Ann Devon, “Will Women Wear Them?” Outlook, November 6, 1929, 372.
72. P. K Crocker, “Mass Representation of Style Seen as Artistic Expression of the Age,” Women’s Wear Daily, January 7, 1928, 3. On the idea of consumption as a form of citizenship for women in the 1920s, see Charles McGovern, Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
73. Lucie R. Sayler, “Long Skirts?” The Nation, October 9, 1929, 384.
74. Mary Alden Hopkins, “Do Women Dress for Men?” Delineator, July 1921, 3; Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, “Feminist—New Style,” Harper’s Magazine, October 1927, 552–560; and Mildred Adams, “Did They Know What They Wanted?” Outlook, December 8, 1927), 528–530, 544.
75. Nancy Cott, Grounding of Modern Feminism; June Schoen, The New Woman: Feminism in Greenwich Village, 1910–1920 (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1972); Jean Matthews, The Rise of the New Woman: The Woman’s Movement in America, 1875–1930 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003); Rosalind Rosenberg, Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982); Lynn Dumenil, The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995); and Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
76. Ellen Wiley Todd, The “New Woman” Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Christine Stansell, American Moderns (New York: Owl Books, 2000); and Martha H. Patterson, Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895–1915 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005).
77. Martha Banta, Imaging American Women: Ideas and Ideals in Cultural History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987); and Kitch, The Girl on the Magazine Cover; Patricia Marks, Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990).
78. Zietz, Flapper; Kenneth A. Yellis, “Prosperity Child: Some Thoughts on the Flapper,” American Quarterly 21.1 (Spring 1969): 46–49; and Pumphrey, “The Flapper, The Housewife, and the Making of Modernity”; Latham, Posing a Threat.
79. Cott, “The Modern Woman of the 1920s, American Style,” A History of Women in the West, Vol. 5, Toward a Cultural History in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 67–91; Rayna Rapp and Ellen Ross, “Feminism, Consumerism, and Political Backlash in the United States,” in Women in Culture and Politics: A Century of Change, ed. Judith Friedlander (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 52–61; and Freedman, “The New Woman.” Although Freedman questions the paradigm that sees the 1920s as the demise of feminism, arguing that historical accounts of the flapper are too often based on stereotypes than evidence, she herself does not give attention to the political aspects of the image.
80. Notable exceptions are Finnegan, Selling Suffrage, and Enstad, Ladies of Labor.
81. Peiss, Cheap Amusements; Orleck, Common Sense and Little Fire; and Enstad, Ladies of Labor.
82. Charlotte Rich, Transcending the New Woman: Multiethnic Narratives in the Progressive Era (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009); and Patterson, Beyond the Gibson Girl.
83. White, Too Heavy A Load; Victoria Wolcott, Remaking Respectability; Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: Morrow, 1984); Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro- American Woman Novelist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Treva Lindsey, “Climbing the Hilltop: In Search of a New Negro Womanhood at Howard University,” in Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance Beyond Harlem, eds., Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 271–290; and Sharon Harley, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, and Dorothy Porter, eds., The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1999). There are also biographies on specific African American women that trace their role as New Negro Women. See, for example, Mary Jo Deegan, ed., The New Woman of Color: The Collected Writings of Fannie Barrier Williams, 1893–1918 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002).
84. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes; Caroline Goeser, Picturing the New Negro: Harlem Renaissance Print Culture and Modern Black Identity (Lawrence: Kansas University Press, 2007); David Krasner, A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). Despite these works, however, most studies still view the New Negro movement, and especially the Harlem Renaissance as a masculine phenomenon. See, for example, David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); and Douglas, Terrible Honesty; and Martin Summers, Manliness and its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
85. Notable exceptions are Chapman, Prove It on Me, and Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007). Cheryl A. Wall’s Women of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995) also acknowledges the role of women in the Harlem Renaissance, but overall sees it as a literary movement, not as a broad cultural phenomenon.
86. Treva Lindsey’s Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017) is an important contribution that considers the New Negro Woman as a longer phenomenon.
87. Ruiz, “The Flapper and the Chaperon”; Matsumoto, City Girls; and Yung, Unbound Feet.
88. For great examples that examine the New Woman from a comparative transnational perspective, see Weinbaum et al., The Modern Girl Around the World; Ann Heilmann and Margaret Beetham, eds., New Woman Hybridities: Femininity, Feminism, and International Consumer Culture, 1880–1930 (London: Routledge, 2004); and Elizabeth Otto and Vanessa Rocco, eds., The New Woman International: Representations in Photography and Film from the 1870s to the 1960s (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011).
89. Lucy Delap’s The Feminist Avant-Garde: Transatlantic Encounters of the Early Twentieth Century (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007) is one of the only examples that analyzes the political New Woman from a trans-Atlantic perspective. Non-American national case studies usually focus on the flapper and the commercial and cultural aspects of the New Woman. See, for example, Mary Louise Roberts, Civilization Without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917–1927 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Brigitte Soland, Becoming Modern: Young Women and the Reconstruction of Womanhood in the 1920s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); Liz Conor, The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s, (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004); and Jane Nicholas, The Modern Girl: Feminine Modernities, the Body, and Commodities in the 1920s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).
90. Fiona I. B. Ngo, Imperial Blues: Geographies of Race and Sex in Jazz Age New York (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); and Jennifer M. Wilks, “Black Modernist Women at the Parisian Crossroads” in Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance Beyond Harlem, eds. Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 227–245.
91. Patterson, The American New Woman Revisited; and Marianne Berger Woods, The New Woman in Print and Pictures: An Annotated Bibliography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009).
92. Venetria K. Patton and Maureen Honey, eds., Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001).