Flappers and the New Feminism

In the 1920s flappers represented a new type of feminism. They possessed different goals and methods than feminists of the early twentieth century. During the 1920s middle-upper class women were no longer concerned with political equality, rather these new feminists desired social equality. Historian Michael Lerner asserted, “women had the right to enjoy themselves socially as much as men did, whether through drinking, sex, or indulging in the pleasures of urban nightlife.”[1] Flappers gleefully defied many long-standing ideas about American womanhood by demanding social equality. They redefined acceptable social behaviors through their dress, new approaches to courting, and their fascination with public drinking. By most descriptions, Lois Long, a reporter for The New Yorker, was the embodiment of the 1920s flapper. Her writing provided a voice for these new feminists.

With her column, “Tables For Two,” Long “emerged as one of the most insightful observers of sex and style in Jazz Age America.”[2] “Tables for Two” first appeared in the September 12, 1925 issue of the New Yorker. Her combination of dry humor and uncompromising honesty gained her a huge following. Her column had a confidential tone that was very appealing; it read as if she was telling a friend about her antics the night before. Typical of the flapper’s carefree outlook she summed up her idea about the 1920s with these words: “All we were saying was, ‘Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love.’”[3] Many Americans were shocked by the actions of these flappers, but Long embraced the exciting world of speakeasies. The women of Prohibition raised their hemlines and their glasses in cheer for a new era.

Flappers were indistinguishably tied to drinking and the speakeasy culture of the 1920s. From the outset of Prohibition many politicians and Drys assumed that middle and upper class women would continue to be staunch and loyal supporters of the cause. It was women’s organizations like, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the American Temperance Society, which had fought so hard for the Eighteenth Amendment.  Flappers in their quest for social equality challenged this belief.

Women began drinking in public as early as the 1910s. In it’s earliest form women enjoyed cocktails with other female companions in a completely segregated environment.[4] Before the 1920s woman found in a traditional saloon could safely be called a prostitute. However, during Prohibition “most men no longer associated women’s presence in a bar or club with prostitution.”[5] Prohibition marked an era where men and women were able to interact and drink publicly. In the 1920s it was more acceptable for women to drink in the presence of men. Still, many men were surprised to find themselves surrounded by women at the bar. One night Lois Long took her editor out with her “and he never got over the shock.”[6] Recognizing the growing popularity of public drinking among women bars and restaurants began specifically catering to them as early as the 1910s.[7] Drinks were made sweeter and more colorful in order to appeal to women. Examples include the Goldfish, equal parts goldwasser, gin, and French vermouth. As well as the Zani Zasa, imaginatively comprised of gin, apricot brandy, egg white lemon juice and grenadine.[8] Drinking, smoking, and fashion became ways for flappers to show their sophistication.

Flappers raised their hemlines, bobbed their hair, and applied makeup with abandon, embracing the latest fashions. Her image was plastered all over magazines and newspapers in the 1920s. In cartoons she was “always long, slender, graceful, and in constant motion.”[9] This relentless depiction of the glamorous, thin flappers changed the way American women viewed themselves. To fit into the latest fashions women were now pressured to lose weight. In her columns Long subtly critiques these “Get-Thin-Quick dieting schemes.”[10] She lamented that Parisian designers declared women were “supposed to look like spindles.”[11] Despite her disapproval dieting became very popular as women strove to fit the slim, flat chested flapper image.[12] Cigarettes, a popular accessory among flappers, were marketed as weight loss tools. Women were told that smoking would help curb their appetites. Advertisements for cigarettes targeted women’s insecurities about their weight. One advertisement recommends women “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” In an era of excess and consumption food seemed to be one of the few remaining areas where women still practiced restraint.[13]

Flapper Jane, a creation of journalist Bruce Bliven, asserted, “Beauty is the fashion in 1925.”[14] In 1927 Long was made fashion editor of the New Yorker and began writing a column entitled “On and Off the Avenue.” Long did not shy away from criticizing what was popular in an age where a fashion critic was a glorified advertiser. She had decided opinions on fashion and was aware of the latest trends, yet she did not hesitate to make fun of the fashions she didn’t like.  When talking about the latest designs from Chanel she declares, “You could almost do your hair in a fringe and go to a costume ball in this gown.”[15] Flappers were defined by their clothing:

She did not wear a corset, and she bared her arms. Her skirts went up to her knees… exposing her skin. But she hid her breasts…. It was a peculiar combination of sexuality and boyishness and every young woman who was not very, very serious wanted to be a part of the excitement.[16]

The flapper style emphasized this sexualized androgyny. In “On and Off the Avenue” Long states “The V-neck still persisted… the skirts [are] still short and straight.”[17] Yet she also advises “an invasion of your brother’s wardrobe could see you through very nicely.”[18] It is this unusual image that flappers strove to achieve.

In the 1920s dating began to replace calling as the main form of courtship among men and women. Dating, which had it’s roots in the urban, working class, quickly became the dominant form of courtship.[19] Dating implied a casualness that was never associated with calling. In calling it was understood that the couple would eventually get engaged and then married. “Unlike courtship that was supposed to lead to marriage, any individual date might or might not develop into a more serious relationship.”[20] This change in courting rituals led to a more relaxed attitude towards sexual encounters as well. Women of the 1920s were liberated from the restriction of Victorian era morality. Sexual activity became an integral part of dating for many men and women.[21] Petting-a practice that encompassed most sexual activities such as kissing, fondling, and even oral sex-gained popularity in the 1920s. During Prohibition there was an increase in premarital sex. Former Judge Ben Lindsey reviewed the effects of the moral revolution on young women. He noticed, as did many others, an increase in “premarital sex, birth control, drinking, [and a] contempt for older values.”[22] By World War II nearly 50% of women were engaging in premarital sex.[23] Yet, many who studied the subject found the desire for sexual independence fleeting. “Beneath it all Lindsey suspected that in a few years the lively flapper would become ‘a happy, loyal wife with several children.’”[24]

Flappers gained some social freedoms in their interactions with men, but they had to give up some of the power they had previously possessed. The new type of courtship “took dating out of the female and family realm of the front parlor… and into cabarets and movie theaters of the new entertainment economy.”[25] By moving courting out of the home and into the public sphere men were given the economic power in the relationship.[26] This shift in power was manifested in the growing acceptance of treating. Treating in its crudest form was the exchange of sexual favors for material goods. These favors could be as innocent as a kiss goodnight or for the bolder flapper, sex. Treating was more subtle than it’s definition suggests; the man would pay for commercial entertainments and the woman would, essentially, sell her company. The practice soon became fully incorporated in middle and upper class dating.

Flappers represented a dramatic change in women’s behavior. Previously feminists had been single women determined to create some sort of political change. Pre-World War I feminists focused their efforts on causes such as suffrage, temperance, and equal employment opportunities. Women, such as Jane Addams, wanted to make America better through their dedication to service. Thus, the earlier generation of feminists was not at all happy about the lack of seriousness among the new generation. Women went from service-bound matrons to carefree, consumption-crazed flappers. Journalist, Gail Collins, conjectured, “It was a disturbing time for the older generation who had grown up believing that they had a duty to make the world better.”[27] Flappers viewed pre-War feminists with a cool disdain, flippantly characterizing them as bitter old maids. Zelda Fitzgerald wished that her daughter would not emulate the serious women of the era. “’I want her to be a flapper, because flappers are brave and gay and beautiful.’”[28] Lois Long not only looked like the typical flapper, with her jet black bobbed hair and fashionable dress, she “seemed to embody the flapper’s spirit and style.”[29] She declared, “I like music, and informality, and gaiety.”[30] The flapper was a carefree, spirited young woman.

Flappers lived in an age where they could vote and work, drink and smoke like men, and this gave them a heady sense of freedom. In her column “Tables For Two” in the New Yorker Lois Long revels in the new freedoms that women found in nightclubs: “We women had been emancipated and we weren’t sure what we were supposed to do with all the freedom and equal rights, so we were going to hell laughing and singing.”[31] Flappers were tired of the social inequality and restrictions that had been placed on older generations. Their image, love of excess, and peculiar fashions defined a decade.

[1] Michael A. Lerner, Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 175.

[2] Joshua Zeitz, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), 9.

[3] Harrison Kinney, James Thurber: His Life and Times (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1995), 380.

[4] Lewis A. Erenberg, Stepping Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981), 135.

[5] Elizabeth A. Clement. Love For Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 176.

[6] Kinney, James Thurber, 378-380.

[7] Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York: Scribner, May 2010), 211.

[8] Lerner, Dry Manhattan, 176.

[9] Zeitz, Flapper, 192.

[10] Lois Long, Tables for Two, New Yorker, October 10, 1925, 24.

[11] Lois Long, On and Off the Avenue, New Yorker, August 31, 1929, 40.

[12] Gail Collins, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines (New York: HarperCollins Publisher’s Inc., 2003), 335.

[13] Collins, America’s Women, 337.

[14] Bruce Bliven, “Flapper Jane,” The New Republic, September 9, 1925, 65.

[15] Lois Long, On and Off the Avenue, September 7, 1929, 54.

[16] Collins, America’s Women, 329-330.

[17] Lois Long, On and Off the Avenue, January 9, 1926, 34.

[18] Lois Long, On and Off the Avenue, January 2, 1926, 26.

[19] Beth Bailey, “From Front Porch to Back Seat: A History of the Date,” Magazine of History 18, no. 4 (July 2004): http://www.jstor.org/stable/25163698 (accessed April 17, 2012), 23.

[20] Clement, Love For Sale, 218.

[21] Clement, Love For Sale, 213.

[22] Estelle B. Freedmen, “The New Woman: Changing Views of Women in the 1920s,” The Journal of American History 61, no. 2 (September 1974): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1903954 (accessed April 11, 2012), 377.

[23] Clement, Love For Sale, 213.

[24] Freedman, “The New Woman”, 377.

[25] Clement, Love For Sale, 217.

[26] Clement, Love For Sale, 213-217.

[27] Collins, America’s Women, 327-328.

[28] Sara Evans, Born For Liberty: A History of Women in America (New York: Free Press Paperback, 1997), 176. As cited in Collins, America’s Women, 329.

[29] Zeitz, Flapper, 89.

[30] Lois Long, Tables for Two, October 24, 1925, 24.

[31] Kinney, James Thurber, 378.