Between the turn of the 20th century and the second World War, much changed for women in the United States. Increased presence on the political scene and a strong desire for more independence defined the women of the 1920s and 1930s as radical game changers.
Political Activism and Involvement
In 1920, the long-fought battle for women's suffrage was won with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Gaining the right to vote inspired women to get involved in politics like never before. The first World Exposition of Women’s Progress welcomed nearly 160,000 people in 1925. That same year, Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first female governor to serve in the United States, was elected in Wyoming. Just seven years later, in 1932, Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas became the first female United States senator.
Education and Employment
For women, the '20s and '30s also brought more educational and career opportunities. At the turn of the century, only 19 percent of college degrees were awarded to women. By 1928 that number rose to 39 percent. And the number of educated women continued to grow despite the economic hardships that came with the Great Depression. Though the Great Depression was difficult for women workers, by 1938, 800,000 women belonged to unions. That number would grow substantially as war production increased through the middle of the century.
Style and Dress
Unwilling to adopt their mothers' constricting style, the young women of the 1920s adopted a new one. They replaced corsets and conservative layers with loose-fitting dresses that matched their carefree spirit. Many bobbed their hair and wore heavy makeup. In the 1930s, women adopted a more feminine style with plunging necklines, accentuated waists, knee length skirts and pumps. Advancements in clothing manufacturing increased the selections available to all classes, and from there, women were able to define themselves through individual style.
Social and Cultural Identity
Young women of the '20s challenged traditional Victorian morality by adopting the carefree "flapper" lifestyle. Flappers engaged in drinking, smoking and free-spirited dancing. They drove fast cars and frequented bars and dance halls. They also openly mingled with men without supervision and were educated about sex. The economic hardships of the 1930s forced women to seek more affordable social outlets. Parlor games and gambling grew popular, and local theaters flourished. As the Swing replaced the Charleston, jazz halls remained popular as well. Dance continued to offer an affordable way for women to let loose and mingle with men.
- U.S. History: Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium: Flappers
- The Mead Center for American Theater: Sophisticated Ladies: Women of the 1920s
- Chicago History: Woman's World's Fair, 1925
- The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: Women and the Great Depression
- Discovery Education: Decade by Decade: 1930s
- Discovery Education: Decade by Decade: 1920s
- Lone Star College -- Kingwood: American Cultural History: 1930-1939
- FPG/Photodisc/Getty Images