Greta Garbo shares into camera

1924/2024: The Flapper’s Unlikely Influence on the Women’s Rights Movement

Today (March 8th) is International Women’s Day. March is Women’s History Month. Are we simply paying lip service to the role and advancement of women in society, or are we truly paying homage to the female value, contributions, and equality? I’m not so sure the struggle is moving forward as fast as one would hope.

When you hear the words ‘Women’s Movement,’ I think most people think of the 1960s with the advent of birth control pills, outspoken feminists such as Gloria Steinem, and the publication of The Feminine Mystique.

The right to vote notwithstanding, I think that the women’s movement was truly launched during the tumultuous era of the 1920s, when a cultural phenomenon emerged that not only left an indelible mark on society but also inadvertently contributed to the ongoing struggle for women’s rights: the flapper. With their bobbed hair, shortened skirts, and rebellious attitudes, flappers became emblematic figures of the Roaring Twenties, challenging traditional gender norms and paving the way for greater gender equality.

Greta Garbo shares into camera
Greta Garbo

At first glance, the flapper may seem like a superficial and frivolous archetype, more concerned with fashion and frivolity than with political activism. However, a closer examination reveals that the flapper subculture played a significant role in advancing the cause of women’s rights, albeit in unexpected ways.

One of the most striking aspects of the flapper lifestyle was its rejection of Victorian-era values that confined women to the domestic sphere. Flappers openly defied societal expectations by participating in activities traditionally reserved for men, such as smoking, drinking, and engaging in casual dating. By rejecting the notion of female purity and modesty, flappers challenged the double standards that constrained women’s behavior and autonomy.

Moreover, the flapper’s embrace of independence and self-expression inspired many women to assert their own agency and demand greater freedoms. The flapper ethos encouraged women to pursue education, careers, and personal ambitions outside the confines of marriage and motherhood. In doing so, flappers helped to dismantle the prevailing belief that a woman’s primary role was to be a wife and mother, opening up new possibilities for female self-determination.

The visual aesthetic of the flapper also played a crucial role in reshaping societal perceptions of femininity. With their bobbed hair, minimalistic makeup, and boyish silhouettes, flappers presented a stark contrast to the idealized feminine image of the time, which was characterized by long hair, elaborate clothing, and delicate features. By rejecting conventional standards of beauty, flappers challenged the notion that women should conform to narrow and restrictive ideals of femininity, paving the way for greater acceptance of diverse expressions of gender identity and presentation.

The 1920s saw the flappers riding the wave of the suffrage movement, which culminated in the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920. Flappers used their newfound political power to advocate for further changes and assert their independence, setting the stage for future political activism among women.

Of course, the flapper “lifestyle” was in itself elitist to a degree. While flappers represented a significant departure from traditional gender roles, they were predominantly white, middle-class women whose experiences were not representative of all women, particularly women of color and working-class women who faced intersecting oppressions based on race, class, and gender.

Nevertheless, the flapper’s legacy as a symbol of female independence and liberation cannot be denied. By challenging societal norms and expectations, flappers helped to pave the way for the feminist movements of the 20th century, laying the foundation for the ongoing struggle for gender equality and women’s rights. In doing so, they remind us that even seemingly frivolous cultural trends can have profound implications for social change.

I have been fascinated by the lives of some women of the Jazz Age, in particular, the silent film star Louise Brooks who broke all manner of societal rules of her time and lived life on her own terms. I’d like to imagine some of these women of the Roaring Twenties meeting with us today, having a conversation, and passing on their observations, wisdom, hopes, and dreams.

flapper and a modern woman talking in an art deco room

In one hundred years, have we made a difference ladies?

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One Comment

  1. Really interesting post! I wonder if both women getting the vote and the flappers were a legacy of WWI as well, which shattered the entire pre-war world order?

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