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article number 340
article date 05-06-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
American Women Possess New Freedoms, 1900-1925
by Preston William Slosson

From the 1930 book, The Great Crusade and After, 1914-1928.

COUNT HERMANN KEYSERLING, one of the many distinguished European philosophers, authors and men of affairs who visited the United States after the World War, found as the most noteworthy of transatlantic marvels the complete and assured ascendancy of the American woman, In America, he wrote:

“… all men are supposed to be equal. But women as a class are candidly accepted as superior beings. Thus America is today an aristocratic country of a peculiar type. It is a two-caste country, the higher caste being formed by the women as such. And this caste rules exactly in the way higher castes have always ruled . . .

“. . . . Her inspiration and influence stand behind all American educators, as it stands behind all American prohibitionists. Her influence accounts for the infinity of laws and rules. She directs the whole cultural tradition. She also dictates in the field of moral conduct. Who wants to study the real meaning and purport of a caste system, should today not visit India, but America.”

Of course there was exaggeration here. The good count came from the country of Schopenhauer and brought with him not only the traditions of central Europe but, as a lifelong student of Oriental cultures, many of the views of eastern Asia as well. At almost any period of American history the position of women would have seemed strange to him. But his words are not too wide of the mark to call attention to the rapid advance of the feminist movement in the United States during and after the war.

The most obvious change was the adoption of woman suffrage as the universal law of the nation, But the complete acceptance of the American woman in political life was only one phase of a general movement towards sex equality, older than the war and broader than America. The same generation that saw woman suffrage granted in the United States saw it granted also in most of the nations of northern Europe along with many other legal rights and privileges.

Not in the field of politics, but in economic status and social prestige, did the American woman occupy her unique position. American feminism meant freedom from custom and tradition more than from positive legal restriction. Many European nations, for example, had enacted divorce laws as liberal as those of most American states, but in none of them (with the possible exception of Soviet Russia) were divorces so frequently obtained by discontented wives.

European schools and colleges had been generally opened to women, but only in the United States did women look upon a college education as a natural right.


Nowhere else in the world could a respectable unmarried girl spend her time and money with so little adult supervision.

Nowhere else did the middle-class housewife have so wide a margin of leisure for amusement, self-development, or public work as her fancy might dictate.

Though the entrance of women into industry began long before the war, it was undoubtedly accelerated by it. The census of 1920, coming conveniently just when the temporary labor displacements of war time had been mainly eliminated, showed eight and a half million women and girls over ten years of age engaged in gainful occupations, an advance of more than half a million since 1910.

This was not in itself a notable increase, Indeed it did not quite keep pace with the growth in the general population; but the decreases were in occupations long open to women, such as farm work and domestic service, while in practically all “masculine” occupations the number of female workers greatly increased both in number and in proportion.

There was a marked decline in the number of women employed as farm hands, laundresses, tailors, music teachers, midwives, charwomen, general servants and cooks, and a corresponding gain in the number of women chauffeurs, cigar makers, bankers, police and probation officers, social workers, lawyers, college professors, elevator “boys,” clerks, typists, bookkeepers and barbers.

Almost one woman in four “gainfully employed” was married and presumably running a home as well as an outside job.

For various sorts of routine clerical work employers definitely preferred women; men tended therefore to drift into other occupations rather than face the competition of the cheap and competent woman worker. There were, for example, eleven women stenographers and typists to every man so engaged. The capture of the elementary schools by the schoolma’am had made the old-fashioned schoolmaster an almost extinct type.

No doubt the men had a real grievance in the fact that wages were kept down by the hiring of women to do the same work at cheaper rates, but their grievance was rather against the employers who would not pay “men’s wages” than against the women who frequently needed their jobs as badly as the men they displaced.*

* “The report for thirty-three industries in the State of Illinois showed that the average weekly wages for women during the month of May, 1924 was $17.15. In the cotton industry throughout the country the statistics showed that in 1922 the female employees received a wage ranging from about $12 to $19 a week. In the report of the women wage earners employed in the five and ten cent stores of New York State (1921) it is shown that of the total group of full-time women workers, exactly one-half received less than $13.49 a week.” B. P. Chass, “American Women Who Are Earning Wages,” Current History (1925), 256.

Fortunately the rapid expansion of American industry made it usually possible for any adaptable man to find some occupation not yet unduly cheapened by feminine competition. Probably the worst effect of woman’s invasion of industry was not the economic but the psychological; more men, perhaps, left such occupations as teaching and stenography from the feeling that their task was “no work for a man” than because of lowered incomes.

One occupation after another had thus taken on a purely feminine color. A traveler from Europe shortly before the United States entered the war commented on how unnatural it seemed to him to see men running elevators and doing other work that European women had taken over when their men went to the trenches.

In many trades this temporary effect of the war was merely an acceleration of the general tendency in industry.


There was a sharp schism in the feminist movement over the question as to whether women should or should not seek special protection for their health and welfare while engaged in industrial pursuits. Most reformers argued that the entire nation had a vested interest in the health of the mothers of the race and should therefore maintain by law wholesome standards for women workers.

By 1922 forty-three states had limited by law the hours of labor for women, thirteen states had enacted minimum-wage laws and sixteen states had forbidden night work in certain occupations.

But what appealed to most feminists as legal protection seemed to the more doctrinaire type, represented by the National Woman’s party, as legal restriction. These advocated an “equal-rights amendment” to the federal Constitution which would sweep away all the legal disabilities of women, even those designed to safeguard them from competitive pressure in the ranks of industry.

Both political parties were urged in 1928 to indorse the equal-rights amendment, but both cautiously refused to commit themselves.

The institution of the home was affected in a hundred ways by the growing custom of American women to pursue a trade before matrimony and sometimes along with it. In some respects the influence was wholly constructive.

No longer was marriage the inevitable way of getting a living. This set a higher standard for husbands than in the days when “old maid” (a term fast disappearing from use) might mean penury as well as loneliness.

On the other hand, a conflict frequently arose between the man’s desire to support his wife according to the old American tradition and the woman’s desire to have “a career.” The business girl gave up much in abandoning a job where all her earnings were her own to manage a household whose necessary expenses might leave little margin for the small luxuries to which she was accustomed.

If she kept at her former work after marriage the double burden of home work and office work might easily prove too much for her health, or one of her tasks must be scamped. Nearly every popular magazine printed articles and stories innumerable around the problem, “marriage, a career, or both?”

An interesting evidence of the interpenetration of man’s world and woman’s was the theme of Dorothy Canfield’s novel, “The Home Maker,” which depicted a woman who had failed as a mother but made a success in commerce, while her husband, kept at home by an accident, found in educating his children the success which he had missed as a man of business.

Other conditions of the time besides the commercial employment of women bore hard against the home as an economic unit. Domestic help had become almost unobtainable. Household servants, both men and women, numbered about one to the hundred of the whole population Women cooks decreased in ten years from 333,436 to 268,618.

The reduced immigration from Europe, the traditional recruiting ground of American domestic service, was certainly a major cause of this condition but another reason was the opening of new and more attractive occupations for women. The cook might be wiled away from the stove not only by a wealthier neighbor, but equally by the chance of a more independent industrial job. Every mistress in employing servants felt the competition of the entire world of business.


To a considerable extent the cook and the house-maid could be and were replaced by mechanical aids. In the decade following the war there was an increase “of over 100,000 in the employés for attending to (not manufacturing) electric refrigerators, oil heaters, and similar household appliances which so vividly typify the liberation of “Mrs. Workman.”

To get an accurate idea of the transformation of the household economics we must reënforce personal impressions by statistics. Thus, “from the beginning of 1913 to the end of 1927, the number of customers for electric light and power increased 465 per cent. In 1912 only sixteen per cent of the population lived in electric-lighted dwellings, but sixty-three per cent had electric lights in 1927.”

It is easy to visualize the meaning of such a change: the extension of daily time for work and play, the encroachment on the hours formerly devoted to slumber, the brightening of homes, the individualization of reading and study and the partial dispersion of the former “family group” about the parlor lamp or hearth fire, the adjustment of household temperature by electric heaters, fans and refrigerators.

By 1926 about sixteen million homes had been wired for lighting and of these eighty per cent had electric irons, thirty-seven per cent vacuum cleaners, and more than twenty-five per cent had clothes washers, fans or toasters.

The costly but cleanly and convenient oil heater began to displace the coal furnace. In 1926 the twenty-four leading makers of oil-heating apparatus installed in American homes 73,000 heaters; in 1927, about 100,000. The grand total in use in American homes by 1928 was not less than 550,000, to make no mention of some 220,000 installed in hotels, stores, theaters and other public buildings.

Where local costs permitted, gas heating was often substituted for coal and oil alike, though usually it was too expensive to be used for the family heating plant, however freely it might be employed in the kitchen or laundry.

Many improvements were introduced into the domestic furnace for those who still relied on coal, such as the “iron fireman” which automatically pushed into the flames as much coal as might be needed to maintain the desired temperature.*

* Of course the farmhouse had fewer such conveniences than the city or suburban home.


The traditional ice box, itself a rare luxury in all other countries, was being rapidly supplanted by the domestic refrigeration plant. The census would have done well to cease listing the American housewife as of “no occupation” and to have called her by her real name, “household engineer.”

Yet the servant problem, in spite of the partial solution offered by modern science, compelled certain simplifications in domestic economy. The traditional nineteenth-century home, which survived in many parts of the United States down to the World War, required an amount of labor that would seem appalling to the latter-day urban American housewife.

There were kerosene lamps to be filled and trimmed; coal scuttles to be emptied; huge expanses of rugs and carpets to clean; mountains of curtains, table cloths, doilies, napkins and other fabrics to require attention; cupboards of preserves to be put up for winter use; an annual earthquake of spring cleaning; and a huge Sunday dinner, requiring hours of preparation and a whole cookbook full of recipes.

The visitor to an American home, especially a city home, in the postwar period would have found a very different picture. Instead of the roomy kitchen there would have been a kitchenette with dumbwaiter, sink, and gas or electric range. Small, brightly burnished aluminum pots and pans had replaced the morose array of ironware. The ice box or refrigerator served the purpose of the cool cellar, eliminating one story of the house.

Little attempt was made to keep large supplies of food in the home. The delicatessen store around the corner was the accepted substitute for the pickle shelves in the cupboard; the commercial bakery had eliminated bread-making day, and ice cream was bought from the confectioner instead of being made by boy power in the freezer.

In the living rooms the same tendency towards compactness, convenience and simplicity prevailed, influenced no doubt by new artistic ideals as well as by labor shortage. The comfortable old American homes had come to seem “stuffy” and “cluttered.” In place of the Victorian ideal of a homely coziness the new time emphasized an austere simplicity.

The carpet gave way to the small rug on a polished hardwood floor, or to some new floor covering of the linoleum type which could be cleaned with water and soapsuds. Sofas, draperies, family portraits and miscellaneous paintings were used more sparingly, and wall paper was often abandoned. The parlor tended to disappear as an institution, if not as a room, for no longer was a special room reserved for curio cabinets, albums, the family piano and the Sunday afternoon.

The whole house was put to use all the time; all rooms were “living rooms.”


Upstairs, unless it were a single-floor apartment, were the bedrooms and the principal bathroom (the houses of the well-to-do had usually several bathrooms and toilets). With its white porcelain tub, its shining tiles, and its spotless cleanliness, the bathroom might have been mistaken by a traveler from the past for a hospital room, just as he might have mistaken the kitchen for a chemical laboratory. Ponderous wooden bedsteads with nine-foot headboards gave place to neat pairs of small single beds.

Space as well as time had to be spared, for the cost of building operated as powerfully as the lack of domestic service to reduce the dimensions of the average home.

Our imaginary Victorian visitor would have found fault with the low ceilings, the small dining room with its round table, and the paucity of bedrooms. Very often the unexpected friend or relative would be “put up” at the hotel instead of being taken into the home. There was hardly room for hospitality in the older meaning of the word.

Period furniture, especially of the eighteenth-century English styles, had come in during the preceding period, but some interior decorators now carried the trend towards simplicity to an extreme.

The so-called “modernist” furniture, largely influenced by postwar experiments in France and Germany, was a severe scheme of straight lines, almost a “cubist” note in decoration. A bedroom mirror became a mere sheet of reflecting glass gripped by naked metal supports. Wall lines ran from floor to ceiling, unbroken by baseboards or molding.

But this extremity of the fashion was, for the most part, followed only by the very wealthy who could afford to redecorate each time the mode changed. The middle-class home accepted the style of fewer and simpler lines, but refused to eliminate the curve.

The war struck a serious blow at domesticity by restricting the labor available for house building. A crisis in housing naturally resulted and, before new construction after the war could overtake the demand, rentals soared to unheard-of figures.

New York City apartments that for many years had cost forty or fifty dollars a month, increased suddenly to one or even two hundred, and the state legislature was forced to adopt emergency laws to prevent the eviction of thousands of tenants who could not meet the new rentals.

The decrease in building from 1913 to 1920—a temporary factor; the great increase in wages in the building trades—a probably permanent factor; the congestion of population in rapidly growing cities—all combined to enhance housing costs.

In some places people with moderate incomes had to give up their dream of owning an independent home, or even a good-sized apartment, and content themselves with a three-rooms-and-a-bath suite, meantime storing half their goods in some warehouse. Landlords often subdivided apartments, making two families live where one lived before.

In most parts of the country the separate home still remained the standard type, and in rural districts there were almost as many dwellings as families, though there was a slight increase in the number of rented and mortgaged homes. But in a few places, notably New York City, the usual proportion of separate houses to apartments was reversed.

On Manhattan Island there were about seven families to each roof, and the few private homes which relieved the monotony of ten-flat apartment houses were counterbalanced by the huge apartment hotels in which hundreds of families lived in great blocks of steel and stone.

This typical Fifth Avenue Mansion gave place to this typical apartment hotel.

Manhattan was, however, in this, as in most matters, an extreme case. But the same trend could be noted almost everywhere, different only in degree. From 1920 onwards the bureau-of-labor-statistics collected figures on building permits and in each year except one (1924) the proportion of urban families housed in single-family dwellings decreased and the proportion of those lodged in multifamily apartments increased.

In 1928, for the first time, the permits issued for apartment houses showed a larger estimated expenditure than those issued for single-family houses. Average building costs for all types of dwellings ranged from two or three thousand dollars per family in St. Louis, New Orleans and Dallas, to more than seven thousand in Manhattan Borough.

Single-family dwellings varied from $2671 in Dallas to more than nine thousand in Providence, Rhode Island, and Newark, New Jersey. These averages included, of course, workingmen’s homes. Middle-class suburban houses cost usually from ten to twenty thousand dollars to build, an amount equal to four or five years’ income of the typical owner, an unwontedly heavy item in the home budget.

Various solutions of the housing problem were ventured. Some feminist leaders, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, advocated cooperative housing, and the transfer of cooking, cleaning and other industrial processes of the “home plant” to central units for a whole block of dwellings.

New methods of construction made their contribution. Sometimes houses were made in standardized parts, advertised through mail-order catalogues, and assembled according to pattern. The increased use of concrete saved wood and lessened fire risk. For many Americans the automobile became a second home, and the sole family residence for weeks or months of a family camping trip.

In every direction the economic functions of the home had been reduced. Restaurant, delicatessen and hotel invaded the sphere of the kitchen; the cannery cut down the pantry shelves; the steam laundry proved a formidable competitor to the hired washerwoman; the public school, kindergarten, nursery school and public playground assumed part of the care of supervising children. Such things, however, mattered little.

When social theorists spoke with dread of the coming “breakdown of the American home,” they were thinking of the family group rather than of the household “plant”; for so long as parents and children formed a congenial circle, the family would remain the fundamental human institution though its last economic function disappear. But if the family itself were breaking up, as some pessimists proclaimed, it mattered little where or how the homeless drifters found a place to sleep or eat.

The most common argument of those who believed that the traditional monogamous family was disappearing in America was, of course, the very high divorce rate, by far the highest rate for any part of Christendom where statistics were carefully kept. Moreover, this high ratio was not stationary but increasing, and very rapidly.

From 1914 to 1928 the annual ratio of divorces to marriages rose from about one to ten to one to six. The increase was too steady over a long period of time to be attributed to the war, for though the war marriages of 1917 and 1918 may have been rash, apparently many civilian marriages were equally so.


The divorce rate varied greatly from state to state, but the American people were so migratory that this difference corresponded almost exactly with the differences in the local statute law of marriage and divorce, and not with the different social traditions of the states.

New York had one of the lowest divorce rates in the nation and yet no one supposed that domesticity was stronger among the apartment hotels of Manhattan than among the rural villages of Oregon where there were (in the 1920’s) about two divorces to each five weddings.

Nevada offered the extreme example. If one were to believe unanalyzed statistics, nearly every Nevada marriage ended in divorce, and in Reno, the chief city, people contrived to get divorced faster than they got married. As a matter of fact, Reno was simply a “Gretna Green” of divorce hunters, as Indiana had been in earlier days and South Dakota a little later.

The laws of Nevada did not differ greatly from those of other Western states with respect to the causes of divorce, but the necessary period of residence within the state was only six months (reduced in March, 1927, to three months) instead of the usual year or more.

The higher social ranks, by which is meant those who could easily afford foreign residence, made Paris divorces fashionable. Life in metropolitan Paris was gayer than in a small place like Reno and the law was almost equally complaisant. Also, a trip abroad for a divorce was an easy way to escape—or, if one preferred, to enhance—the publicity of the affair.

Contrary to common belief, the curious incompatibility-of-temperament clause which appeared in the divorce laws of a few states was not frequently required. The great majority of divorces were for the standard causes of desertion, cruelty and adultery, but in the interpretation of these terms much laxity was employed.

Desertion often meant a collusive arrangement whereby both parties had agreed to separate long enough to make divorce possible; cruelty was interpreted to cover “mental anguish” caused by any misconduct whatever of the party against whom complaint was laid; adultery was often a staged affair to satisfy the technicalities of law.

The blunt truth is, that almost any American man or woman who was tired of the marriage relation could have it dissolved at the cost of a little time and trouble.

About two thirds of all divorces were obtained at the instance of the wife, and this ratio was constant over many years. The freedom to depart at will from the legal ties of matrimony was therefore chiefly a woman’s privilege.

Little wonder, then, that a sober sociologist declared: “Our United States family . . . is monogamic in form with an apparent tendency toward term marriage and what is coming to be called the ‘companionate.’”

“Term marriage” existed wherever a divorce was taken for granted if the venture did not turn out happily. If it were entered upon with no expectation of children, the term marriage became the “companionate,” a phrase first generally popularized by Judge Benjamin B. Lindsey, whose service in the Denver juvenile court had convinced him that conventional marriage laws were being increasingly disregarded by the oncoming generation.

Professor William F. Ogburn of the University of Chicago declared that the American family at least in “its extreme urban form, has lost nearly all of its functions.” He noted seven ties that had held together the family of the past: economic, religious, protective, educational, recreational, social status and affectional.

The first six of these had been greatly attenuated or snapped altogether by changes in industrial methods and social customs; only affection remained to hold the home together, and where it was absent divorce was apt to be the solution.


There was, however, no general trend in the United States toward increased celibacy; the marriage rate, in contrast to the rising divorce rate, was fairly constant. The very fact that the knot could be so easily undone perhaps encouraged marriage. Nor was there any general increase in the age at which marriage was contracted except, to some extent, among professional men, college graduates and business employees working for salaries too small to support a family.

In these classes matrimony was frequently postponed till the thirties, though sometimes a solution to the economic problem was found by an early marriage and the postponement of motherhood until the joint savings of husband and wife would permit the proper care of children.

For the nation as a whole the most common age of marriage for a man was about twenty-five; for a woman, about twenty-two.

Indeed, more moralists were concerned over rash adolescent marriages than over the middle-aged bachelors and bachelor maids. They pointed out that it was those who wed in haste who repented at leisure and that by far the greater number of divorces occurred among those who had gone to their wedding in a holiday mood, as on a lark or spree.

More than a dozen states adopted laws requiring an interval, usually of five days, between the granting of a license or the filing of an application therefor and the celebration of the wedding. New York, Wisconsin and many other states adopted so-called eugenic laws (more accurately, health laws) requiring certain tests of physical fitness for marriage.

But state lines were so easily crossed that the chief effect of local restrictions on matrimony was to increase the license fees of the state next door. Thus the coming into effect in July, 1927, of a California statute requiring three days’ notice for matrimony, immediately increased the number of marriages performed under the laxer laws of Arizona and Nevada.

The decrease of immigration by the European war and by restrictive legislation was a factor in retarding the rate of growth of the American population, but “even had immigration continued at a record rate,” said the expert analysts of the census, “the percentage of the national population increase still would have been lower than that shown by any previous census of the United States.”

The United States shared with almost all countries of Western civilization in an accelerating fall of the birth rate. The native white stock of the nation was still enlarging at the rate of eleven or twelve per cent to a decade, but this increase was made possible only by a decline in the death rate. If the birth rate of the 1920’s had been combined with the mortality rate of 1910, the natural increase would have diminished to 3.6 per thousand per annum, and had it been combined with the mortality rate of the beginning of the century there would have been virtually no increase at all.

But actual failure to keep up the existing population was confined to a small class. Unfortunately this class included many of the otherwise most successful elements in the nation—well-to-do and educated business and professional men and women.

Celibacy, late marriage and birth control were all alike widespread in this group, as the late President Roosevelt had noted. It was not “race suicide” that he really had had in mind, but the “class suicide” of the upper and middle classes.


Although national mailing laws prohibited such public discussion of methods of birth restriction as was common in many European countries, there is no other way to explain the coincidence of a fairly high marriage rate with a decreasing proportion of births than to assume that, nevertheless, these methods were widely known and practised in the United States.

The small family had, apparently, come to stay. The passing of the open frontier, the growth of the great cities with their cramped housing conditions, the closing of the door to fecund immigrant races, the higher standards of comfort and the growing cost of education, all tended to make a family of two or three children the national standard.

At first glance the smaller family seems even more important than mechanical invention and simplified housekeeping in setting feminine energies free for work outside the home. But one qualification must be made. If care for children in the home was less extensive than formerly, it was also more intensive.

At no previous period were children tended with such watchful care of their health, diet, habits and abilities. Never before were magazines of professional parenthood so widely sold or parent-teacher associations so generally attended. Even where the family had but one child, he often received as many hours of attention as had been distributed among the dozen brothers and sisters of his grandfather.

The effects of the changing standards in home and family life may be illustrated by what happened in a typical Middle Western city of forty thousand population.*

* R. S. Lynd and Helen M. Lynd, Middletown (N. Y., 1929). The community in question, an Indiana town thinly disguised under the name of Middletown, was studied by a corps of investigators after the manner of social anthropology. Its typical character was perhaps vitiated by its homogeneity: Negroes and foreign-born were relatively few. The field work was conducted in 1924-1925.

In Middletown almost nine tenths of the high-school girls declared their intention of “going to work” after graduation, and more than a fourth of all commercially employed women were married. Children were more independent of the family circle; fifty-five per cent of the boys and forty-four per cent of the girls spent less than four evenings a week at home.

Parents on the other hand greatly increased their range of solicitude for their children’s welfare, typical statements being: “I accommodate my entire life to my little girl. She takes three music lessons a week and I practice with her forty minutes a day. I help her with her school work and go to dancing school with her,” and “Everyone asks us how we’ve been able to bring our children up so well. I certainly have a harder job than my mother did; everything today tends to weaken the parents’ influence. But we do it by spending time with our children.”

The home was rapidly ceasing to be a unit of economic production, from five to seven loaves of bread out of every ten—according to the season of the year— were bought from the bakery and, in the well-to-do homes, most laundry was done outside the house, although the “advent of individually owned electric washing machines and electric irons has . . . slowed up the trend of laundry work—following baking, canning, sewing, and other items of household activity—out of the home to large-scale commercial agencies. . . .” *

* Lynds, “Middtetown,” 155, 174. Curiously enough, the authors regard this particular countercurrent as reactionary and retrogressive (175, 498), as though science has less “right” to bring industries back into the home than to take them out!


Whether moral standards in the United States were improving or degenerating (and this, of course, was the crucial question for the survival of the home) was widely but most inconclusively debated. The issuance in a given year of one divorce decree to each six or seven marriage licenses was alarming if one considered it a symptom of growing marital unrest.

But it might merely mean that unions were now formally dissolved by law which in times past had been covertly dissolved by extralegal relationships. The number of illegitimate births remained fairly low*, but this encouraging fact may be partly discounted by the wider use of contraceptive methods.

* The fact that out of a hundred white children ninety-six or ninety-seven are born in wedlock indicates that our society has attained a fair degree of success in the control of the sex relation. E. A. Ross. What is America? (N. Y., 1919), 41.

The National Federation of Settlements, after a very wide and impartial investigation, came to the conclusion that commercial prostitution was much diminished. “Report after report says that disorderly houses are gone and there is practically no solicitation on the streets.” In nearly all cities the regulated or tolerated “red-light district” had disappeared, dispersed, or hidden itself from casual view.

This great improvement might be explained by many causes. The committee of the National Federation of Settlements laid stress on the effect of prohibition. The increase of industrial wages certainly must have made “Mrs. Warren’s profession” less attractive to working girls. Reform campaigns and welfare work among the poor cleansed many a sinister street.

But there was another side to the story. While commercial prostitution was disappearing, there was much talk of clandestine love matches, unsanctioned by law, among young people of the most “respectable” circles. Here, unfortunately, one must leave solid statistical ground for general impressions, and these seemed to differ according to the personal bias of each witness.

There seemed to be no direct proof that sexual immorality was more common, but the opportunities for it were certainly greater. The game of personal caresses, or “petting,” was not essentially different from the old-fashioned “spooning,” but an automobile fifty miles from town or an unchaperoned road-house dance may have been a more dangerous place to play the game than a domestic parlor or veranda.

Some conservative colleges forbade their students the use of automobiles as much to safeguard their morals as to protect their limbs. The necessary spice of intoxication which could no longer be obtained at a saloon might be carried on the hip in a silver flask.

Girls were certainly less restrained by conventions and inhibitions from doing whatever boys of the same social set might do. Often their time and latch-keys were their own. Engagements were lightly entered into and usually considered in no way binding.*

* We had nearly said that there were no statistics on twentieth-century lovemaking, but that would have done injustice to the tabulating epoch. “Marriage and Love Affairs” by G. V. Hamilton and Kenneth Macgowan, Harper’s Mag., CLVII (1928), 277-287, solemnly tabulates, with the proper graphs, the 1358 love affairs of two hundred young married persons of the educated classes; about seven cases of love apiece. It is a pity that we have no comparable figures for earlier generations.

There was an evil cult of “the thrill,” whose motto was “I’ll try anything once” and which reduced the problem of happiness to the accumulation of the greatest possible number of “new sensations.” Of course the natural resuit was to make the young “sheik” and his “sheba” bored and cynical at twenty when they should have been still full of absurd young enthusiasms.

Most of what alarmists said of changes in morals, however, should be translated into changes of manners. Even if one grants that shifts in social fashion do not go very deep into the bedrock of moral character, one must admit that these changes were swift enough after 1914 to alarm the elderly and sedate.

Consider the question of clothing. Women’s fashions have always fluctuated—the waistline moving up and down anywhere between neck and knee; skirts ballooning out till they covered much of the ballroom floor, or again tucked in till they shackled movement, as in the “hobble skirt” so briefly popular about 1911 or 1912; hats towering like mountains or spreading out like pancakes.

Women’s waistlines 1914-1929.

But usually the new styles came by degrees, so that people could get used to them; they “evolved” like the British constitution.

But during and after the war a real sartorial revolution took place. The skirt, in the old sense of the word, disappeared altogether to be replaced by a sort of tunic or kilt barely reaching the knee. Conservative eyes were shocked by this, although the change was in the direction of common sense and, had it taken a century instead of five or six years to complete, would have provoked little comment.

Skirts were already “short,” ankle-length, in 1914, but the “very short” skirt, knee-length, hardly became general before 1920 and required about three years more to become the accepted mode for all sections, ages and classes.

In 1929, clothing interests, impelled by Paris, made a desperate effort to restore the long skirt at least for evening wear and formal occasions. But many American women refused, for the first time in history, to obey the Parisian dictators of fashion.

With the shortening of the skirt went many other changes. Hampering petticoats were discarded, the corset was abandoned as a needless impediment to free movement, silk or “rayon” stockings became practically universal even among the poor and for a time were often rolled at the knee, sleeves shortened or vanished, and the whole costume became a sheer and simple structure, too light to be the slightest burden.

H. G. Wells, writing in war time, declared that his heroine “at fourteen already saw long skirts ahead of her, and hated them as a man might hate a swamp that he must presently cross knee-deep.” But by the time Joan would have been old enough for the long skirts there were none for her to wear.

These simplifications of costume started with the wealthier classes but were almost immediately copied everywhere. A survey in Milwaukee of more than thirteen hundred working girls showed that less than seventy wore corsets.

The commercial effect of these changes of style was profound. Factories which specialized in petticoats, corsets or cotton stockings had to change their trade or go bankrupt, but the sale of silk and rayon hose more than doubled in four years, and the sale of bathing suits tripled in two.

During the sartorial revolution men proved to be, as usual, the conservative sex, making but minor changes in costume. A man who was well dressed for Roosevelt’s inauguration would have provoked but little comment at Hoover’s.

What few alterations were made were usually in the direction of greater comfort. The soft hat replaced the derby for almost every occasion, warm weather permitted light tropical suitings, and softer shirts and collars passed muster for business wear in the daytime. But men still wore coat and collar in summer when women were comfortable in scanty one-piece frocks (unless they followed the fashion of summer furs).


“Today our American women are in better physical condition than our men,” declared Dr. Ephraim Mulford, president of the Medical Society of New Jersey. “And while there are many reasons, we might credit one to the fact that women do not wear too many clothes, especially in the summer. Their garments, light in weight and light in color, permit the ultraviolet ray of the sun to give its full benefit. Men, in their dark clothes which completely cover them from neck to ankle are denied this energy.”

The tailors and textile factories even had a certain revenge on the male sex for their losses on the skimpier female raiment. Small boys often wore long trousers, and at adolescence they adopted trousers not only long but wide—huge, baggy affairs that moved hardly a step to each two steps of their owner but were raised above criticism by the name of “Oxford.”

In swimming, both men and women wore the simplest possible one-piece suits, the woman’s suit often having less coverage than the man’s. On hot summer days many girls went stockingless everywhere.

When the public had scarcely recovered from the shock of the disappearing skirt, it received another. The girls began to cut their hair. The barber shop was the last refuge of masculinity in America, the only spot which had not become “coeducational.” The saloon was gone; the polls were now open to women; swimming tanks were crowded with fair mermaids; the very prize ring had its lady guests, and nearly all men’s clubs had their ladies’ night.

But in the barber shop the unshorn male could lean back at his ease in the great chair, unashamed in his suspenders, while the barber stuffed his mouth with lather and gave him the latest gossip of politics and baseball. This last trench was now taken. A fashion started for hair fitting compactly around the head and fluffed or banged over the ears; long tresses were out of style; hence occasional visits to the barber shop.

Persons over thirty viewed the fad with some misgivings, but presently began to try cautious experiments in the same direction. The flapper grew bolder. The “boyish bob” appeared, and ears emerged once again from their retirement. Soon there was no difference between a man’s hair cut and a woman’s, unless the man was an artist or musician and wore his hair long as a professional asset.

One Chicago barber shop had to advertise, “Men’s custom ALSO welcomed!” The double prophecy made more than four hundred years ago had come true at last:

“Lo! yet before ye must do more, if ye will go with me,
As cut your hair up by your ear, your kirtle by the knee.”

The universalizing of the bob simplified the hat problem. Large, broad and unstably balanced hats were out of the question, as the hatpin found no anchorage. All the new hats took the form of a close-fitting, simple bonnet which a wind would not carry away. Birds and flowers on headgear largely disappeared, and the vanishing of the hatpin ended a major menace in crowded cars.

A third phase of the revolution in fashions, even more disturbing to the traditional than short skirts or short hair, was the freer use of cosmetics. In a way, this was a move in the opposite direction, as it represented a tendency not towards “naturalness” and freedom but towards artificiality and sophistication.

If it be considered progress since the times of Victoria, when ladies got along with a little face cream and white powder, it might equally be considered a reversion to the days of Pompadour.


Bright orange rouge and lipsticks advertised as “kiss-proof” were used by young ladies of the most unquestionable respectability. The fashionable “sun tan” was sometimes acquired at the drug store as well as on the beach.

Like the other changes in fashion the cosmetic urge was democratic in the sense that it stopped at no class barrier. “Progress toward democracy,” wrote a journalist:

“…has made amazing strides in this matter of personal decoration. Formerly it was the ladies of the court who used it most; today it is the serious concern and dearest pastime of all three estates. It was the spread of the use of furs, to take but one example, to all classes (and also to all seasons) which inspired the just description of woman as America’s greatest fur-bearing animal.

“And nowadays no one can tell, either by the quantitative or the qualitative test, whether a given person lives on Riverside Drive or on East Fourth Street.”

The business of the manufacturers of cosmetics and perfumes increased from less than $17 million in 1914 to $141 million by 1925, over eightfold in one decade. The Foucaults (French perfumers) estimated that seventy-one per cent of the women of the United States over eighteen years of age used perfume; ninety per cent, face powder; seventy-three per cent, toilet water; fifty-five per cent, rouge.

“Beauty shoppes” blossomed on nearly every street of the shopping districts, their proprietors sometimes seeking to professionalize their status with the word “beauticians.”

Seven thousand kinds of cosmetics were on the market in 1927, a large majority of them being face creams. Fortunes were made in mud baths, labeled “beauty clay,” in patent hair removers, in magic lotions to make the eyelashes long and sweeping, in soaps that claimed to nourish the skin, in hair dyes that “restored the natural color,” in patent nostrums for “reducing,” and in all the other half-fraudulent traps of the advertisers for the beauty seeker.

One manufacturer of dentifrice based a clever advertising campaign on the vogue of the feminine cigarette, with such headlines as “Why are Men so Unreasonable about Women Smoking?” and “Can a Girl Smoke and Still be Lovely?” arguing that since women were determined to smoke they should keep their teeth stainless by the daily use of tooth paste.

Cigarette advertisers took a similar ingenious advantage of the craze for the “boyish form”—e.g., “And now, women may enjoy a companionable smoke with their husbands and brothers—at the same time slenderizing in a sensible manner. . . . Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”

Thus one fad supported another. Earlier advertisers, not so bold, had usually depicted pretty girls not themselves indulging In a cigarette but in the company of young men so engaged, perhaps pleading, “Blow some my way!” The number of cigarettes sold in the period 1911-1915 averaged less than fifteen billion annually; for the period 1921- 1925 sales averaged well over sixty-five billion, and in 1928 reached one hundred billion.

As during the same period there was no greater sale of cigars and a much smaller sale of chewing tobacco, the increased vogue of the cigarette did not mean an increased tobacco hunger. Rather it meant the entrance of the American girl into the ranks of the smokers. A cigarette had about it a slim, feminine daintiness; it could be gracefully twirled and dandled like a fan between dances when a cigar or pipe would have been ridiculous.

The war, too, had its effect. Y.M.C.A. secretaries who had spent years warning young men of the peril of the demon nicotine had perforce to hand out cigarettes by the thousand to the soldiers in France. Army life also convinced men who were sensitive about their masculinity that cigarettes and wrist watches were as suitable for “he-men” as the Pittsburgh stogie or the pocket Ingersoll.


As for chewing tobacco—the nightmare of the European traveler since the days of Dickens—it had been very largely replaced by the increased use of chewing gum, perhaps another victory for feminism.

Thus the flapper of the l920’s stepped onto the stage of history, breezy, slangy and informal in manner; slim and boyish in form; covered with silk and fur that clung to her as close as onion skin; with carmined cheeks and lips, plucked eyebrows and close-fitting helmet of hair; gay, plucky and confident. No wonder the house rang with applause; no wonder also that faint hisses sounded from the remoter boxes and galleries.

But she cared little for approval or disapproval and went about her “act,” whether it were a Marathon dancing contest, driving an automobile at seventy miles an hour, a Channel swim, a political campaign or a social-service settlement.

Eventually she married her dancing partner, that absurdly serious young man with plastered hair, baby-smooth chin and enormous Oxford bags, and then they settled down in a four-room-kitchenette apartment to raise two children, another “younger generation” to thrust them back stage among the “old fogies.”

The Nineteenth Amendment which extended the political franchise to American women, already emancipated in everything save politics, followed about half a year after the Eighteenth, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic liquors. The twin amendments—twin victories for feminism some would say—had much in common.

Both prohibition and woman suffrage had roots deep in American history and represented a final triumph obtained after almost a century of continuous agitation. Both were attempted in many places on a state-wide scale before they forced their way to the front as national issues.

Both were first mooted by Puritan reformers in the Northeastern states, then actually carried into effect by their radical sons who had moved to the Western plains and mountains, and opposed almost to the last ditch by their conservative grandsons who had stayed in the East.

But in at least one respect there was contrast. However prolonged and bitter the opposition to woman suffrage, once the amendment was carried, the issue disappeared from politics, whereas prohibition remained a bone of contention as much after its victory as before.

By 1914 equal suffrage existed in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, California, Oregon, Arizona and Kansas, and during the year, Nevada and Montana were added to the number. Many other states had a limited woman suffrage, often for school elections only.

Neither of the great parties had either indorsed or opposed the movement, except locally, but the Progressives in 1912 and many other third parties at various times had made equal suffrage a plank in their platforms. Though all the major victories had been confined to a single section of the country, politicians everywhere felt the pressure of the growing movement.

It was ably captained, and one of the chief arguments for admitting women into politics was that they were showing themselves adepts at the game even before enfranchisement. Carrie Chapman Catt, Anna Howard Shaw, Alice Stone Blackwell and their lieutenants aroused much admiration, almost envy, among professional politicians, even those who were their opponents.

After 1916 the states rapidly fell into line. Already (1913) Illinois had adopted a curious compromise by which women could vote for all offices except those governed by the franchise stipulation in the state constitution; thus they could vote for presidential electors but not for Congress or most state officers.

Many other states followed with similar “presidential-suffrage” laws, and Arkansas permitted women to vote in party primaries which were there, as in most parts of the South, the really important elections. New York capitulated in 1917, the first Eastern seaboard state to grant complete equality.

Nowhere else had the fight been so completely organized and well munitioned. Most of the suffrage, and equally the antisuifrage, associations had New York offices, and for several years the city had been accustomed to the sight of marching armies of suffrage paraders, each larger than the last and viewed by a more sympathetic crowd.

The cries of “Go home and wash the dishes!” which greeted the first paraders were replaced by a continuous ripple of applause up and down Fifth Avenue. In 1918 Michigan, South Dakota and Oklahoma joined the caravan of equal-suffrage states, and interest shifted from the state campaigns to the prospect of a national amendment.


The so-called Susan B. Anthony amendment forbade the restriction of the franchise on the ground of sex. in June, 1919, it started from Congress on a tour of the state legislatures, and by the following spring had been accepted in thirty-five states and rejected by ten, all in the Southeast, Tennessee, Connecticut and Vermont were still doubtful, the national election was rapidly approaching, and neither party wished to appear as an obstacle in the way of the necessary thirty-sixth ratification.

The governors of Connecticut and Vermont refusing to call the legislatures into special session to consider the amendment, the honor fell to Tennessee. A frantic effort by Tennessee anti-suffragists to reverse the action of the legislature came just too late; in August, 1920, the amendment had been declared part of the Constitution.

Two features of the equal-suffrage campaign in the United States are of special interest. One, already alluded to, was the small part played by the parties in securing the amendment. The other was the almost complete absence of “militancy.”

In England a fairly large radical wing of the suffrage movement had tried to badger the government of the day into action by such means as breaking windows, interrupting public meetings, destroying mail boxes, and other “nuisance tactics.” Nothing so extreme occurred in the United States, the nearest approach to it perhaps being the picketing of the White House with banners denouncing President Wilson (himself already a convert to the cause) for not putting more pressure on Congress to hasten the enactment of the proposed amendment.

Even this very mild form of militancy was frowned upon by the majority of American suffragists, who used no method except political organization and open discussion.

Their speedy success seems to have been due in part to the skill of their political managers, in part to the chivalric tradition in American life which made it difficult to refuse any really sustained demand by women, in part to the rivalry of political parties to seize a popular issue before it was too late, and in part as a tribute to the indispensable services of American women during the World War.

With the ballot in hand, most American women found their political ambition contented. Down to 1928 fewer women sought office than in some countries of northern Europe. After Jeannette Rankin of Montana started the fashion (1917-1919) there was usually at least one congresswoman.

Two women served as governors, but in both cases the office was in some sense a legacy, Mrs. Miriam A. Ferguson being the wife of a former governor of Texas, and Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross the widow of a former governor of Wyoming.

After the elections of 1928 the National League of Women Voters announced that there would be one hundred and forty-five women serving in thirty-eight of the forty-eight state legislatures, twelve of them serving for a fourth term.

All political parties gave to women positions of honor— though not always of much influence—on national and state committees. From the best obtainable estimates it appears that about thirty-five women out of every possible hundred voted at important elections.

As the ballot was everywhere secret, one can only guess at the manner in which the woman’s vote influenced American politics, but it is at least significant that those states which had lived longest under equal suffrage were usually very advanced in welfare legislation, and especially laws to protect the rights of women and children.

Politically, suffrage meant more to some than a woman’s right to vote or the general freedom of woman. Many used the concept for the woman’s say in the treatment of children. The sword reads “Labor Laws Protecting Children.”

On other issues there seems no evidence the women in the mass differed from men. Of all important groupings among voters, by place of residence, wealth, occupation, race, nationality, religion and sex, the last named made the least difference in the way the votes were cast.

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