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How Flappers Invented the Modern Woman

Women in History | October 25, 2018

Actress Nanette Fabray dresses as a Flapper -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

One of the most memorable and endearing images of the 1920s is that of a Flapper. Flappers were often depicted as fun-loving, carefree, party girls who could drink and smoke as much as the men who flocked to dance with them. What this generation of young women was doing by cutting their hair, shortening their skirts, taking jobs and breaking societal rules was redefining the role of women in our culture. They were inventing the modern woman. Here’s how. 

Flappers Dodged Victorian Traditions

Flappers were coming to age just after the Victorian Era…known for its rigid, conservative rules. A Victorian woman was expected to follow unquestioningly traditions. She would dress modestly, wear her long hair pulled up in stern buns, marry early and devote her life to serving her husband and raising her children. Flappers discarded this lifestyle in favor of one in which women were not pigeonholed into a pre-determined life. 

Flappers Drastically Changed the Outward Appearance of Women

The long, full skirts and high necks of the Victorian dresses were too bulky and cumbersome for Flappers. They preferred to wear dresses with lower necklines and higher skirts. Flappers rebelled against the restrictive and uncomfortable corsets and pantaloons that women wore under their Victorian Era dresses. Instead, Flappers wore panties and bras…to the shock of their mothers and grandmothers. The curvy, hourglass figures that were appealing a decade or so before were now out of fashion in favor of flat-chested, straight, boyish figures. Hairstyles drastically changed, too. In the Victorian Era, a woman rarely, if ever, cut her hair and wore it in a heavy knot of braids pinned atop her head. Flappers brazenly chopped off their hair and wore short, bobbed hairstyles. 

Flappers Redefined Dating and Marriage

Flappers famously cast off the old ideas that woman should be passive participants in the courting process. They rebuffed chaperones and openly flirted with men. Flappers went to dances, nightclubs, and speakeasies where they listened to the new jazz style of music and danced with many different men, all because it was fun. They were not too timid to initiate a conversation with a man. In fact, as Ruth Gillette's song “Oh Say! Can I See You Tonight?” demonstrates, Flappers could even ask a man out on a date. Flappers were also experimenting with sexual freedoms. During the Roaring Twenties, more women were engaging in premarital sex than ever before. 

Flappers Proved They were not Dependent Upon Men

More and more Flapper women were finding employment outside the home and were upsetting the traditional ways in which society viewed women’s roles. In the past, women rarely worked outside the home. Instead, they married and were financially dependent upon their husbands. But the Flappers took control of their own money…earning it and spending it. Flappers purchased automobiles and traveled alone. In the workplace, Flappers proved that women were capable, dependable workers. They laid the foundation for gender equality in the workplace that is still a hot-button issue today. 

Flappers Advocated for Social Change

Women were finally granted the right to vote in the 1920s and Flappers discovered that their collective voice could be heard on women’s rights issues. They began to take active roles in politics and protests, such as protests against Prohibition. They sought out higher education and many women became doctors and lawyers and engineers. For the first time in history, women were free to pursue their own dreams and were no longer confined by domestic roles. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.