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Flappers, sanitary pads and public drinking: was the 1920s a time of increased liberation for women?

The 1920s may be known for being “roaring”, but what was life like for women living during this transformative decade? On a recent episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, Professor Sarah Churchwell discussed the changes in rights and opportunities for women in the years following the First World War

Four flapper women line up along a wall and chug bottles of liquor in the 1920s.
Published: March 24, 2022 at 12:06 pm
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The 1920s has often been seen as a time of significant social change in the West, with the rise of an increasingly consumer-oriented economy, mass entertainment and cultural shifts. But did these changes permeate through the whole of society, and was this a time of social liberation for women too? Yes – according to Professor Sarah Churchwell. “Women in the 1920s had a very different experience to what their mothers had,” says Churchwell on a recent episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. “It's not an exaggeration or a myth to say that their lives changed in this decade.”

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The decade began with a major moment of political emancipation as many women became eligible to vote. With a proportion of British women – those over the age of 30 – having won the franchise in 1918, American women attained the vote soon after in 1920. This was a massive step forward – although there were a few significant limits. “Although all women got the vote in theory, in practice white women were able to exercise this franchise much more extensively than black women in the US – especially in the south where their vote was often suppressed,” explains Churchill. “It’s important to remember that was true for white women was not necessarily true for black women.”

It’s important to remember that was true for white women was not necessarily true for black women

Women as wage earners

In the wake of the First World War, the 1920s also saw major economic changes. After a generation of men had been sent off to fight – many of whom did not return home – women could no longer necessarily rely on husbands or fathers to support the household economically. “Women suddenly had to be the wage earners,” explains Churchwell. “So we see that they start to move into more professional situations and pick up new skills, such as learning to write and drive. Much of this was driven by necessity, but women also began to make the most of this opportunity to earn economic and professional autonomy.”

Women working a switchboard in c1929 New York. Following the First World War, "an appreciable proportion of [women]" refused to go back to traditional domestic roles and full-time housekeeping, says Professor Churchwell. (Photo by Getty Images)

While some women did return to the domestic sphere in the years following the war, Churchwell states that “an appreciable proportion of them” refused to go back to full-time housekeeping and traditional roles. Having taken on new responsibilities working in factories and on the home front, some women continued to build upon their professional advances afterwards. It was, however, “a steady progress rather than a rapid acceleration of rights,” argues Churchwell. “The First World War was just one step on that ladder of progress.” The war, she adds, wasn’t “as much of a cultural and social rupture” in the US as it was in Europe; American culture instead saw more progress after the Second World War.

Those who chose to return to work within the home also witnessed great change, with the emergence of labour-saving devices such as vacuum cleaners, electric irons and kettles – although such luxuries weren’t widely available. “The introduction of electricity into the home really altered women’s lives. It was a massive change from the gas power of the 1910s to the largely electrified lives of the late 1920s. While it affected many facets of life, it had a huge effect on domestic labour.”

Even rudimentary refrigeration boxes meant that women could shop and prepare food ahead of time, and importantly spend less time in the kitchen. Women became less tied to the home and household duties, having more free time to spend how they chose.

Flapper fashion in the 1920s

The 1920s is also well-known for its distinctive fashion sense, especially for women. But according to Churchwell, our expectation that everyone was adorned in flapper attire isn’t necessarily correct. “I think we assume that, from 1 January 1920, women wore knee-length skirts that were fringed and sequinned, with feather boas – the whole nine yards. But, as with anything, this was a trend that evolved. The image we have fixed in our head of the flapper is really from 1928–9.”

The 1920s is also well-known for its distinctive fashion sense, especially for women. (Photo by Getty Images)

While women’s hemlines shot up from ankle length in 1919 to knee length in 1920, this trend also didn’t last long. “It was as if America tested the water in 1920 and shocked itself. Think of it like a woman suddenly pulling up her skirt and then going ‘Oh no! I’ve gone too far!’ and then dropping it again. It was a moment of culture shock – too much too soon.” Instead, there was a gradual rising of the hemline over five years, with each year seeing a rise in a couple of inches. By 1925, the skirt length sat around the knee.

Another iconic feature of 1920s female fashion was the drop-waist, which saw a rise in popularity for several reasons. It was a partly a signifier of youthful rebellion against the older generations and was also a reaction against the constrictive corsets and the silhouettes of the Edwardian and Victorian era. “Of course, women still wore corsets underneath these drop-waist dresses,” explains Churchwell. “They were very difficult to wear well unless a woman had a certain kind of figure or had restricted herself.”

"There was a gradual rising of the hemline over five years [from 1920], with each year seeing a rise in a couple of inches. By 1925, the skirt length sat around the knee," says Professor Churchwell. (Photo by Albert Harlingue / Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

Regardless, this was still part of a movement in women’s dress associated with female emancipation. The 1920s saw a sudden veneration of youth culture, with a move towards a looser styles of dress. By following these fashions, women could hope to pull off a more youthful, innocent look.

A revolutionary period

Another development that changed women's lives was the increasing accessibility of the disposable sanitary pad. With Kotex’s first advertisement campaign going out in January 1921, followed by the introduction of Johnson & Johnson’s Modess brand in 1926, women were able to deal with menstruation more readily, while still keeping up with fashion trends.

“It's important to remember that women had previously worn layers of petticoats. Not only did this keep women warm when it was cold, but these layers of fabric were also a method of dealing with menstruation when women didn’t have any other way of disguising it,” says Churchwell. “With access to sanitary pads and tampons following soon after that, women could wear shorter dresses as they were able to keep themselves clean while they were menstruating.”

A group of young women wearing flapper attire pose for a portrait, c1925 (Photo by Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images)

Alongside an increase in the use of sanitary products, some forms of contraception also became widely available – with methods such as the rudimentary diaphragm becoming accessible for the first time. There also was a growing public understanding of reproductive and sexual health, explains Churchwell.

“During the First World War, the US government implemented new educational programmes for what they called ‘hygiene’ – a euphemism for sexual health. It was meant to help stop soldiers spreading venereal diseases in their training camps. There was even a programme for condom use.” By looking at contemporary diaries, journals and letters, it’s clear this advice was taken on board and that contraception was widely used.

Bright young things

As well as practical advancements, the 1920s ushered in new ways for women to spend their free time. Previously, drinking at bars had been something limited to sophisticated members of society. Suddenly, the 1920s saw a rising new trend in socialising for women. “Public drinking was not something that that nice Edwardian women did, but certainly was something that cool young modern women did, whether those were the Bright Young Things in the UK or the flappers in the US,” explains Churchwell. “This was a massive social change that signalled the autonomy of every member of society, but it was also a real chance for social independence for women.”

c1925: Women at a bar in London. “Public drinking was not something that that nice Edwardian women did, but certainly was something that cool young modern women did," says Professor Churchwell. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
Public drinking was not something that that nice Edwardian women did, but certainly was something that cool young modern women did

But not everybody was happy with these changes. “There was a fair amount of social experimentation going on at this time,” says Churchwell. “A sense of cultural decadence emerged, that included not only women’s liberation but also an increase in the power of black people. This is partly what groups like the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan reacted against – they weren’t happy with people getting above themselves and decided to put them back in their place with violence.”

These complexities were integral to the 1920s and are certainly worth bearing in mind when considering the decade. “It’s important to be sceptic and resist clichés and received wisdoms about the 1920s,” argues Churchwell. “But in terms of whether this was a time of increased liberation for women, it’s actually true. Women were definitely emancipated in the 1920s.”

PODCAST | Professor Sarah Churchwell answers listener questions about the 'roaring twenties' in the United States

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Professor Sarah Churchwell is Chair in Public Understanding of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. Words by HistoryExtra podcast assistant Emily Briffett

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Emily BriffettPodcast editorial assistant
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