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article number 206
article date 02-05-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Women are Out of Control, The 1920’s Revolution
by Fredrick Lewis Allen

From the 1931 book, Only Yesterday.

A FIRST-CLASS revolt against the accepted American order was certainly taking place during those early years of the Post-war Decade [World War I], but it was one with which Nikolai Lenin had nothing whatever to do. The shock troops of the rebellion were not alien agitators, but the sons and daughters of well-to-do American families, who knew little about Bolshevism and cared distinctly less, and their defiance was expressed not in obscure radical publications or in soap-box speeches, but right across the family breakfast table into the horrified ears of conservative fathers and mothers. Men and women were still shivering at the Red Menace when they awoke to the no less alarming ‘Problem of the Younger Generation’, and realized that if the Constitution were not in danger, the moral code of the country certainly was.

This code, as it currently concerned young people, might have been roughly summarized as follows: Women were the guardians of morality; they were made of finer stuff than men and were expected to act accordingly.

Young girls must look forward in innocence (tempered perhaps with a modicum of physiological instruction) to a romantic love match which would lead them to the altar and to living-happily-ever-after; and until the “right man” came along they must allow no male to kiss them. It was expected that some men would succumb to the temptations of sex, but only with a special class of outlawed women; girls of respectable families were supposed to have no such temptations.

Boys and girls were permitted large freedom to work and play together, with decreasing and well-nigh nominal chaperonage, but only because the code worked so well on the whole that a sort of honor system was supplanting supervision by their elders; it was taken for granted that if they had been well brought up they would never take advantage of this freedom. And although the attitude toward smoking and drinking by girls differed widely in different strata of society and different parts of the country, majority opinion held that it was morally wrong for them to smoke and could hardly imagine them showing the effects of alcohol.

The war had not long been over when cries of alarm from parents, teachers, and moral preceptors began to rend the air. For the boys and girls just growing out of adolescence were making mincemeat of this code.

The dresses that the girls—and for that matter most of the older women—were wearing seemed alarming enough. In July, 1920, a fashion-writer reported in the New York Times that “the American woman . . . has lifted her skirts far beyond any modest limitation,” which was another way of saying that the hem was now all of nine inches above the ground. It was freely predicted that skirts would come down again in the winter of 1920-21, but instead they climbed a few scandalous inches farther.

Even in this 1919 Vogue Magazine depiction of Spring styles, the dresses were now above the ankles.

The flappers wore thin dresses, short-sleeved and occasionally (in the evening) sleeveless; some of the wilder young things rolled their stockings below their knees, revealing to the shocked eyes of virtue, a fleeting glance of shin-bones and knee-cap; and many of them were visibly using cosmetics. “The intoxication of rouge,” earnestly explained Dorothy Speare in Dancers in the Dark, “is an insidious vintage known to more girls than mere man can ever believe.” Useless for frantic parents to insist that no lady did such things; the answer was that the daughters of ladies were doing it, and even retouching their masterpieces in public. Some of them, furthermore, were abandoning their corsets. “The men won’t dance with you if you wear a corset,” they were quoted as saying.

The current mode in dancing created still more consternation. Not the romantic violin but the barbaric saxophone now dominated the orchestra, and to its passionate crooning and wailing, the fox-trotters moved in what the editor of the Hobart College Herald disgustedly called a “syncopated embrace.” No longer did even an inch of space separate them; they danced as if glued together, body to body, cheek to cheek. Cried the Catholic Telegraph of Cincinnati in righteous indignation, “The music is sensuous, the embracing of partners—the female only half dressed—is absolutely indecent; and the motions—they are such as may not be described, with any respect for propriety, in a family newspaper. Suffice it to say that there are certain houses appropriate for such dances; but those houses have been closed by law.”

Supposedly “nice” girls were smoking cigarettes—openly and defiantly, if often rather awkwardly and self-consciously. They were drinking—somewhat less openly but often all too efficaciously. There were stories of daughters of the most exemplary parents getting drunk—”blotto,” as their companions cheerfully put it—on the contents of the hip-flasks of the new prohibition régime, and going out joyriding with men at four in the morning. And worst of all, even at well-regulated dances they were said to retire where the eye of the most sharp-sighted chaperon could not follow, and in darkened rooms or in parked cars to engage in the unspeakable practice of petting and necking.


It was not until F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had hardly graduated from Princeton and ought to know what his generation were doing, brought out This Side of Paradise in April, 1920, that fathers and mothers realized fully what was afoot and how long it had been going on. Apparently the “petting party” had been current as early as 1916, and was now widely established as an indoor sport. “None of the Victorian mothers—and most of the mothers were Victorian—had any idea how casually their daughters were accustomed to be kissed,” wrote Mr. Fitzgerald. . . .

“. . . Amory saw girls doing things that even in his memory would have been impossible: eating three-o’clock, after-dance suppers in impossible cafés, talking of every side of life with an air half of earnestness, half of mockery, yet with a furtive excitement that Amory considered stood for a real moral let-down. But he never realized how widespread it was until he saw the cities between New York and Chicago as one vast juvenile intrigue.”

The book caused a shudder to run down the national spine; did not Mr. Fitzgerald represent one of his well-nurtured heroines as brazenly confessing, “I’ve kissed dozens of men. I suppose I’ll kiss dozens more”; and another heroine as saying to a young man (to a young man!), “Oh, just one person in fifty has any glimmer of what sex is. I’m hipped on Freud and all that, but it’s rotten that every bit of real love in the world is ninety-nine per cent passion and one little soupcon of jealousy”?

It was incredible. It was abominable. What did it all mean? Was every decent standard being thrown over? Mothers read the scarlet words and wondered if they themselves “had any idea how often their daughters were accustomed to be kissed.” . . —But no, this must be an exaggerated account of the misconduct of some especially depraved group. Nice girls couldn’t behave like that and talk openly about passion.

But in due course other books appeared to substantiate the findings of Mr. Fitzgerald: Dancers in the Dark, The Plastic Age, Flaming Youth. Magazine articles and newspapers reiterated the scandal. To be sure, there were plenty of communities where nice girls did not, in actual fact, “behave like that”; and even in the more sophisticated urban centers, there were plenty of girls who did not. Nevertheless, there was enough fire beneath the smoke of these sensational revelations to make the ‘Problem of the Younger Generation’ a topic of anxious discussion from coast to coast.


The forces of morality rallied to the attack. Dr. Francis E. Clark, the founder and president of the Christian Endeavor Society, declared that the modern “indecent dance” was “an offense against womanly purity, the very fountainhead of our family and civil life.”

The new style of dancing was denounced in religious journals as “impure, polluting, corrupting, debasing, destroying spirituality, increasing carnality,” and the mothers and sisters and church members of the land were called upon to admonish and instruct and raise the spiritual tone of these dreadful young people.

President Murphy of the University of Florida cried out with true Southern warmth, “The low-cut gowns, the rolled hose and short skirts are born of the Devil and his angels, and are carrying the present and future generations to chaos and destruction.”

A group of Episcopal church-women in New York, speaking with the authority of wealth and social position (for they included Mrs. J. Pierpont Morgan, Mrs. Borden Harriman, Mrs. Henry Phipps, Mrs. James Roosevelt, and Mrs. E. H. Harriman), proposed an organization to discourage fashions involving an “excess of nudity” and “improper ways of dancing.”

The Y. W. C. A. conducted a national campaign against immodest dress among high-school girls, supplying newspapers with printed matter carrying headlines such as “Working Girls Responsive to Modesty Appeal” and “High Heels Losing Ground Even in France.”

In Philadelphia, a Dress Reform Committee of prominent citizens sent a questionnaire to over a thousand clergymen to ask them what would be their idea of a proper dress, and although the gentlemen of the cloth showed a distressing variety of opinion, the committee proceeded to design a “moral gown” which was endorsed by ministers of fifteen denominations. The distinguishing characteristics of this moral gown were that it was very loose-fitting, that the sleeves reached just below the elbows, and that the hem came within seven and a half inches of the floor.


Not content with example and reproof, legislators in several states introduced bills to reform feminine dress once and for all. The New York American reported in 1921 that a bill was pending in Utah providing fine and imprisonment for those who wore on the streets “skirts higher than three inches above the ankle.” A bill was laid before the Virginia legislature which would forbid any woman from wearing shirtwaists or evening gowns which displayed “more than three inches of her throat.” In Ohio the proposed limit of décolletage was two inches; the bill introduced in the Ohio legislature aimed also to prevent the sale of any “garment which unduly displays or accentuates the lines of the female figure,” and to prohibit any “female over fourteen years of age” from wearing “a skirt which does not reach to that part of the foot known as the instep.”

Meanwhile innumerable families were torn with dissension over cigarettes and gin and all-night automobile rides. Fathers and mothers lay awake asking themselves whether their children were not utterly lost; sons and daughters evaded questions, lied miserably and unhappily, or flared up to reply rudely that at least they were not dirty-minded hypocrites, that they saw no harm in what they were doing and proposed to go right on doing it.

From those liberal clergymen and teachers who prided themselves on keeping step with all that was new, came a chorus of reassurance: these young people were at least franker and more honest than their elders had been; having experimented for themselves, would they not soon find out which standards were outworn and which represented the accumulated moral wisdom of the race? Hearing such hopeful words, many good people took heart again. Perhaps this flare-up of youthful passion was a flash in the pan, after all. Perhaps in another year or two the boys and girls would come to their senses and everything would be all right again.

They were wrong, however. For the revolt of the younger generation was only the beginning of a revolution in manners and morals that was already beginning to affect men and women of every age in every part of the country.

What Caused the Change

A number of forces were working together and interacting upon one another to make this revolution inevitable.

First of all was the state of mind brought about by the war and its conclusion. A whole generation had been infected by the eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die spirit which accompanied the departure of the soldiers to the training camps and the fighting front. There had been an epidemic not only of abrupt war marriages, but of less conventional liaisons.

In France, two million men had found themselves very close to filth and annihilation and very far from the American moral code and its defenders; prostitution had followed the flag and willing mademoiselles from Armentières had been plentiful; American girls sent over as nurses and war workers had come under the influence of continental manners and standards without being subject to the rigid protections thrown about their continental sisters of the respectable classes; and there had been a very widespread and very natural breakdown of traditional restraints and reticences and taboos.

The World War changed the attitudes of our nation’s young men.

It was impossible for this generation to return unchanged when the ordeal was over. Some of them had acquired, under the pressure of war-time conditions, a new code which seemed to them quite defensible; millions of them had been provided with an emotional stimulant from which it was not easy to taper off. Their torn nerves craved the anodynes of speed, excitement, and passion. They found themselves expected to settle down into the humdrum routine of American life as if nothing had happened, to accept the moral dicta of elders who seemed to them, still to be living in a Pollyanna land of rosy ideals which the war had killed for them. They couldn’t do it, and they very disrespectfully said so.

“The older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us,” wrote one of them (John F. Carter in the Atlantic Monthly, September, 1920), expressing accurately the sentiments of innumerable contemporaries. “They give us this thing, knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow up; and then they are surprised that we don’t accept it with the same attitude of pretty, decorous enthusiasm with which they received it, way back in the ‘eighties.”

The middle generation was not so immediately affected by the war neurosis. They had had time enough, before 1917, to build up habits of conformity not easily broken down. But they, too, as the let-down of 1919 followed the war, found themselves restless and discontented, in a mood to question everything that had once seemed to them true and worthy and of good report. They too had spent themselves and wanted a good time. They saw their juniors exploring the approaches to the forbidden land of sex, and presently they began to play with the idea of doing a little experimenting of their own. The same disillusion which had defeated Woodrow Wilson and had caused strikes and riots and the Big Red Scare, furnished a culture in which the germs of the new freedom could grow and multiply.


The revolution was accelerated also by the growing independence of the American woman. She won the suffrage in 1920. She seemed, it is true, to be very little interested in it once she had it; she voted, but mostly as the unregenerate men about her did, despite the efforts of women’s clubs and the League of Women Voters to awaken her to womanhood’s civic opportunity; feminine candidates for office were few, and some of them—such as Governor Ma Ferguson of Texas—scarcely seemed to represent the starry-eyed spiritual influence which, it had been promised, would presently ennoble public life. Few of the younger women could rouse themselves to even a passing interest in politics: to them it was a sordid and futile business, without flavor and without hope.

Nevertheless, the winning of the suffrage had its effect. It consolidated woman’s position as man’s equal.

Even more marked was the effect of woman’s growing independence of the drudgeries of housekeeping. Smaller houses were being built, and they were easier to look after. Families were moving into apartments, and these made even less claim upon the housekeeper’s time and energy.

Women were learning how to make lighter work of the preparation of meals. Sales of canned foods were growing, the number of delicatessen stores had increased three times as fast as the population during the decade 1910-20, the output of bakeries increased by 60 per cent during the decade 1914-24. Much of what had once been housework was now either moving out of the home entirely or being simplified by machinery. The use of commercial laundries, for instance, increased by 57 per cent between 1914 and 1924. Electric washing-machines and electric irons were coming to the aid of those who still did their washing at home; the manager of the local electric power company at “Middletown,” a typical small American city, estimated in 1924 that nearly 90 per cent of the homes in the city already had electric irons.

The housewife was learning to telephone her shopping orders, to get her clothes ready-made and spare herself the rigors of dress-making, to buy a vacuum cleaner and emulate the lovely carefree girls in the magazine advertisements who banished dust with such delicate fingers. Women were slowly becoming emancipated from routine to “live their own lives.”

1920’s Actress Aileen Pringle set in a modern kitchen.

And what were these “own lives” of theirs to be like? Well, for one thing, they could take jobs. Up to this time girls of the middle classes who had wanted to “do something” had been largely restricted to school-teaching, social-service work, nursing, stenography, and clerical work in business houses. But now they poured out of the schools and colleges into all manner of new occupations. They besieged the offices of publishers and advertisers; they went into tearoom management until there threatened to be more purveyors than consumers of chicken patties and cinnamon toast; they sold antiques, sold real estate, opened smart little shops, and finally invaded the department stores.

In 1920 the department store was, in the mind of the average college girl, a rather bourgeois institution which employed “poor shop girls”; by the end of the decade, college girls were standing in line for openings in the misses’ sports-wear department and even selling behind the counter in the hope that someday, fortune might smile upon them and make them buyers or stylists.

Small-town girls who once would have been contented to stay in Sauk Center all their days, were now borrowing from father to go to New York or Chicago to seek their fortunes—in Best’s or Macy’s or Marshall Field’s. Married women who were encumbered with children and could not seek jobs consoled themselves with the thought that home-making and child-rearing were really “professions,” after all.


No topic was so furiously discussed at luncheon tables from one end of the country to the other as the question whether the married woman should take a job, and whether the mother had a right to. And as for the unmarried woman, she no longer had to explain why she worked in a shop or an office; it was idleness, nowadays, that had to be defended.

With the job—or at least the sense that the job was a possibility—came a feeling of comparative economic independence. With the feeling of economic independence came a slackening of husbandly and parental authority. Maiden aunts and unmarried daughters were leaving the shelter of the family roof to install themselves in kitchenette apartments of their own. For city-dwellers the home was steadily becoming less of a shrine, more of a dormitory—a place of casual shelter where one stopped overnight on the way from the restaurant and the movie theater to the office.

Yet even the job did not provide the American woman with that complete satisfaction which the management of a mechanized home no longer furnished. She still had energies and emotions to burn; she was ready for the revolution.

Like all revolutions, this one was stimulated by foreign propaganda. It came, however, not from Moscow, but from Vienna. Sigmund Freud had published his first book on psychoanalysis at the end of the nineteenth century, and he and Jung had lectured to American psychologists as early as 1909, but it was not until after the war that the Freudian gospel began to circulate to a marked extent among the American lay public. The one great intellectual force which had not suffered disrepute as a result of the war was science; the more-or-less educated public was now absorbing a quantity of popularized information about biology and anthropology which gave a general impression that men and women were merely animals of a rather intricate variety, and that moral codes had no universal validity and were often based on curious superstitions.


A fertile ground was ready for the seeds of Freudianism, and presently one began to hear even from the lips of flappers that “science taught” new and disturbing things about sex. Sex, it appeared, was the central and pervasive force which moved mankind. Almost every human motive was attributable to it: if you were patriotic or liked the violin, you were in the grip of sex— in a sublimated form. The first requirement of mental health was to have an uninhibited sex life. If you would be well and happy, you must obey your libido.

Such was the Freudian gospel as it imbedded itself in the American mind after being filtered through the successive minds of interpreters and popularizers and guileless readers and people who had heard guileless readers talk about it. New words and phrases began to be bandied about the cocktail-tray and the Mah Jong table—inferiority complex, sadism, masochism, Edipus complex. Intellectual ladies went to Europe to be analyzed; analysts plied their new trade in American cities, conscientiously transferring the affections of their fair patients to themselves; and clergymen who preached about the virtue of self-control were reminded by outspoken critics that self-control was out-of-date and really dangerous.

The principal remaining forces which accelerated the revolution in manners and morals were all 100 per cent American. They were prohibition, the automobile, the confession and sex magazines, and the movies.

When the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibition seemed, as we have already noted, to have an almost united country behind it. Evasion of the law began immediately, however, and strenuous and sincere opposition to it—especially in the large cities of the North and East— quickly gathered force. The results were the bootlegger, the speakeasy, and a spirit of deliberate revolt which in many communities made drinking “the thing to do.” From these facts in turn flowed further results: the increased popularity of distilled as against fermented liquors, the use of the hipflask, the cocktail party, and the general transformation of drinking from a masculine prerogative to one shared by both sexes together.


The old-time saloon had ‘been overwhelmingly masculine; the speakeasy usually catered to both men and women. As Elmer Davis put it, “The old days when father spent his evenings at Cassidy’s bar with the rest of the boys are gone, and probably gone forever; Cassidy may still be in business at the old stand and father may still go down there of evenings, but since prohibition mother goes down with him.” Under the new régime not only the drinks were mixed, but the company as well.

Meanwhile a new sort of freedom was being made possible by the enormous increase in the use of the automobile, and particularly of the closed car. (In 1919 hardly more than 10 per cent of the cars produced in the United States were closed; by 1924 the percentage had jumped to 43, by 1927 it had reached 82.8.) The automobile offered an almost universally available means of escaping temporarily from the supervision of parents and chaperons, or from the influence of neighborhood opinion.

Boys and girls now thought nothing, as the Lynds pointed out in Middletown, of jumping into a car and driving off at a moment’s notice—without asking anybody’s permission—to a dance in another town twenty miles away, where they were strangers and enjoyed a freedom impossible among their neighbors. The closed car, moreover, was in effect a room protected from the weather which could be occupied at any time of the day or night and could be moved at will into a darkened byway or a country lane.

The Lynds quoted the judge of the juvenile court in “Middletown” as declaring that the automobile had become a “house of prostitution on wheels,” and cited the fact that of thirty girls brought before his court in a year on charges of sex crimes, for whom the place where the offense had occurred was recorded, nineteen were listed as having committed it in an automobile.


Finally, as the revolution began, its influence fertilized a bumper crop of sex magazines, confession magazines, and lurid motion pictures, and these in turn had their effect on a class of readers and movie-goers who had never heard and never would hear of Freud and the libido. The publishers of the sex adventure magazines, offering stories with such titles as “What I Told My Daughter the Night Before Her Marriage,” “Indolent Kisses,” and “Watch Your Step-Ins,” learned to a nicety, the gentle art of arousing the reader without arousing the censor.

The publishers of the confession magazines, while always instructing their authors to provide a moral ending and to utter pious sentiments, concentrated on the description of what they euphemistically called “missteps.” Most of their fiction was faked to order by hack writers who could write one day “The Confessions of a Chorus Girl” and the next day recount, again in the first person, the temptations which made it easy for the taxi-driver to go wrong. Both classes of magazines became astonishingly numerous and successful. Bernarr McFadden’s True-Story, launched as late as 1919, had over 300,000 readers by 1923; 848,000 by 1924; over a million and a half by 1925; and almost two million by 1926—a record of rapid growth probably unparalleled in magazine publishing.

The sinful nature of the 1920’s was expressed in the film, The Great Gatsby.

Crowding the news stands along with the sex and confession magazines were motion-picture magazines which depicted “seven movie kisses” with such captions as “Do you recognize your little friend, Mae Busch? She’s had lots of kisses, but she never seems to grow blasé. At least you’ll agree that she’s giving a good imitation of a person enjoying this one.”

The movies themselves, drawing millions to their doors every day and every night, played incessantly upon the same lucrative theme. The producers of one picture advertised “brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrific smashing climax that makes you gasp”; the venders of another promised “neckers, petters, white kisses, red kisses, pleasure-mad daughters, sensation craving mothers, . . . the truth—bold, naked, sensational.”

Seldom did the films offer as much as these advertisements promised, but there was enough in some of them to cause a sixteen-year-old girl (quoted by Alice Miller Mitchell) to testify, “Those pictures with hot love-making in them, they make girls and boys sitting together want to get up and walk out, go off somewhere, you know. Once I walked out with a boy before the picture was even over. We took a ride. But my friend, she all the time had to get up and go out with her boy friend.”


A storm of criticism from church organizations led the motion-picture producers, early in the decade, to install Will H. Hays, President Harding’s Postmaster-General, as their arbiter of morals and of taste, and Mr. Hays promised that all would be well. “This industry must have,” said he before the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, “toward that sacred thing, the mind of a child, toward that clean virgin thing, that unmarked slate, the same responsibility, the same care about the impressions made upon it, that the best clergyman or the most inspired teacher of youth would have.”

The result of Mr. Hays’s labors in behalf of the unmarked slate was to make the moral ending as obligatory as in the confession magazines, to smear over sexy pictures with pious platitudes, and to blacklist for motion-picture production, many a fine novel and play which, because of its very honesty, might be construed as seriously or intelligently questioning the traditional sex ethics of the small town.

Mr. Hays, being something of a genius, managed to keep the churchmen at bay. Whenever the threats of censorship began to become ominous, he would promulgate a new series of moral commandments for the producers to follow. Yet of the practical effects of his supervision, it is perhaps enough to say that the quotations given above all, date from the period of his dictatorship. Giving lip-service to the old code, the movies diligently and with consummate vulgarity publicized the new.

Each of these diverse influences—the post-war disillusion, the new status of women, the Freudian gospel, the automobile, prohibition, the sex and confession magazines, and the movies—had its part in bringing about the revolution. Each of them, as an influence, was played upon by all the others; none of them could alone have changed to any great degree the folkways of America; together their force was irresistible.

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