Women Rights in the 1920`s


WomenRightsin the 1920`s

The1920s were a remarkable period in marking the freedom of women in theUnited States. There are several changes that took place, touchingfrom political, social, cultural and economic arenas. The changeswere inspired by strong women`s political movements coupled with therising generation of young women who wanted more freedom from socialand cultural practices. The role played by women in the World War I,played an important role in changing the mind of many Americans, whobelieved that women were only fit for domestic work. Women took upjobs in industries and traveled with soldiers to offer support duringthe war. Several women entered the professions that were reserved formen only, including medical and industrial production. 1920s went toAmerican history following the ratification of the nineteenthamendment, which allowed the women`s voting rights. In addition towomen`s voting rights, the period saw the election of the firstfemale governor of the state. This breakthrough came after a longstruggle made by women`s movements such as AmericanWomen Suffrage Association (AWSA) and American Women SuffrageAssociation (AWSA). The two associations combined forces to form theNational Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

The1920s saw the emergence of the &quotflapper&quot generation thatdeviated from the traditional mode of dressing, hair styles,attendance of social and music. The period ushered the period of Jazzmusic that contributed to the changes in marriage and divorce trends.During this period, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed,paving way for a considerable level of equality between men andwomen. For the first time, women were allowed to participate incompetitive sports, including the 1928 Olympic Games. The Women`sWorld`s Fair was opened in 1925 that allowed women to showcase theirtalents and offered young women information and career guidance tohelp them get into a bigger business world. This paper discusses thechanges these changes that took place in the United States in 1920s,a period that was referred to as “the roaring twenties.”


The19thamendment was passed on June 4, 1919 by the Congress and was ratifiedon August 19, 1920. This is the year when the women got thebreakthrough following a long period of agitation and protests.Women`s movements began their suffrage campaigns in the mid 19thcentury. Women suffrage supporters began to write, match, lecture,and to lobby support from the masses. They also practiced civildisobedience in attempts to cause a radical change in theconstitution. From 1880s, women picketed, organized and petitionedtheir right to vote. The amendment granting women rights was soughtfrom the Congress the first time in 1887. The leaders of the womenmovements advocating women suffrage worked very hard, but theirapproaches were different. Some pushed for voting rights in everystate while other groups challenged the men only suffrage in thecourts (Burgan33-36).


Thewomen rights movements began in 1830s and joined forces with thestruggle to end the slave trade. This development gave rise to the19thamendment proposal that was introduced to the Congress in 1878. Forforty years, this amendment was in a stalemate with a lot ofcontroversy surrounding it (Burgan43).During this period, women movements conducted demonstrations andcampaigns to push the Congress to pass the amendment and be ratifiedby the states. Some supporters turned to militant tactics such ashunger strikes, silent vigils and parades. They met strong resistancemany times, and some were heckled, physically abused and jailed.Further support to women`s demands was strengthened by the women’sservice offered in the military during the First World War. Two majorwomen`s rights movements were formed.

TheNational Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA)

NWSAwas formed in 1812 and was founded in New York. It was formedfollowing a split of the previous women movement as a result of thesuffrage for the African-American men. Its founders were ElizabethCandy Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. NWSA was considered more radicalamong the two movements. This movement pushed for reforms in varioussocial matters affecting women, including marriage and divorce.However, the movement’s top priority was securing voting rights forAmerican women. The movement invited other women suffrage societiesto partner as NWSA auxiliaries (Abhinav et al. 3)

AmericanWomen Suffrage Association (AWSA)

AWSAwas a political movement that operated between 1869 and 1890. It wasbased on Boston. Its founders included Julia Howe Ward, HenryBlackwell, Lucy Stone and Higginson and others following the breakupof the woman suffrage due to the difference in goals, tactics andphilosophy. This movement was more conservative between the twobecause it was a supporter of the Republican Party and encouraged thedominance of male officers. Also, the organization sought for only asimple enfranchisement and had abolitionists among its membership.AWSA members believed in agitation for women suffrage at both stateand federal level (Peterson 210). The organization drafted aconstitution that focused on the achievement of voting rights forwomen. They concentrated on organizing the movement at state andlocal levels and encouraged the formation and effectiveness ofauxiliary women suffrage societies to allow effective distribution ofthe information in the grassroots (Cott 20). The movement hadoperated beyond two decades before it merged with NWSA to for theNational Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

TheNational Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA)

AWSAand NWSA had operated independently for 21 years before they merged,in 1890, to form NAWSA. The movement was headed by the leaders of thetwo merged organizations. A major objective for the merger was tostrengthen the push for the ratification of the federal amendmentleading to women suffrage. The strategy for NAWSA was the recruitmentof new members so as to expand the influence of the movement throughincreased membership. Between 1900 and 1904, NAWSA carried out a massrecruitment campaign targeting the politically influential, theprivileged and the educated women. The 1910 push for a single newstate ratification failed, but it the organization managed to lay astrong foundation for the final push of ratification (Cott 20). AlicePaul led a split of the organization to form the National woman’sParty. However, this move did not weaken the NAWSA.

NAWSAdeveloped the &quotWinning Plan&quot that focused on gathering theenthusiasm and energy of the members for the final push for thefederal amendment to be ratified by the Congress. The organizationled by Carrie Chapman re-launched a huge campaign, with the World War1 forming their basis for the argument for full woman suffrage. Theymanaged to clinch the support from President Woodrow Wilson, in whatwas referred as the nineteenth amendment. This move led to theratification of the nineteenth amendment by the Congress and 36states. The amendment was included in the United States Constitutionon August 26, 1920. The ratification marked the end of a 72-yearbattle (Abhinav et al. 2).

TheEqual Rights Amendment (ERA)

Despitethe provisions of the 14thamendment, only male whites enjoyed constitutional rights in the US.The 14thamendment that was ratified in 1868 gave rights to citizenship forall the persons living in the US, whether by birth ornationalization, including the slaves who had just been freed. Also,the amendment barred the states from denying rights of ownership ofproperty without following the due legal process. The states werealso directed against denying any person, within their jurisdiction,the protection of the law. The amendment explained the role of thestates explicitly, thereby extending the civil rights protection toall American citizens, regardless of ethnicity or gender. Theamendment is more elaborate than any other constitutional amendment(Cott 19).

Between1972 and 1982, Equal Rights Amendment supporters marched, rallied,lobbied, picketed and petitioned. They also went on hunger strikes inthe continued struggle for constitutional equality in the US. For along time, equal rights for men and women in the constitution were anissue of advocacy. Much of the constitution provisions accorded morerights to men. Women were treated in accordance with the provisionsof English Common Law and the social tradition. Women were deniedseveral legal rights, including property ownership, having custody tochildren and keeping wages for themselves. The first public demandfor equality was witnessed in 1848 where Lucretia Mott and Stantonconvened a two-day meeting that involved about 300 men and women. Theconvention was held at Seneca Falls in New York and was meant to pushfor women recognition as full citizens and be accorded the rights dueto male citizens.

AlicePaul led the agitation for freedom against legal genderdiscrimination. She required an amendment to that could ensureapplication of the constitution equally to all citizens. In 1923, acelebration of the 75thanniversary of the Women Rights Convention of the 1848 was held atSeneca Falls. During the celebration, Alice introduced the “LucretiaMott Amendment.” This amendment stated “Men and women shall haveequal rights throughout the United States and every place subject toits jurisdiction.” This amendment was presented in every session ofthe Congress until it was passed in 1972.

Followingthe ratification of the nineteenth amendment, a long-fought strugglewas won by women. This breakthrough laid a foundation fordevelopments in other fronts. Several people disputed that womenvoters could engender a massive transformation in politics. In thenew order adjustments, women demanded equal rights, as their leaderCarrie Chapman stressed that they demanded nothing less. Severalpoliticians became nervous following the unfolding prospects,especially the Congressional Committee of 1920, which broughttogether all women organizations that represented 10 million members.In the early 1920s, the Congress ensured that they address the issuesof the new constituency, particularly the laws relating toemployment, where women demanded equal payments for similar positionsin federal civil service. As a result, presidents Harding and Wilsonappointed women in a variety of positions on federal commissions andthe courts (Harrison 11).

Women’sRights after the World War I and Economic Liberation

Aftersuffrage, the women`s community in the early 1920s was not wellunited for a common agenda. Their unified action was thwarted by thepost-war conservatism on whether there was a need for legalprotection and legal equality for women leading to a split of thewomen unity. Following the economic emergency of the late 1920s andearly 1930s, a renewed interest in women`s rights was hamperedbecause unemployment and poverty were given a priority, ahead of anyother problem. However, important changes in the women’s masterswere inevitable at that period, changes that were driven economics asopposed to politics (Cott 22).

Animportant economic change was inspired by the shift from theagricultural economy to a commercial, industrial and corporateeconomy. This change started in 1920s and took a growth curve overthe preceding decades. Through the 1920s, about twenty-five percentof Americans were living on farms. In the firms, women only offeredhelp and partnership with family businesses, revolving from theeconomically essential duties to child care and home keeping. Theurban families relied on a breadwinner-housewife model, where thehusband is the breadwinner, and the wife is a housewife. Very fewwomen engaged in industrial work for pay. Before 1920, only 9 percentof mothers were employed outside their homes. When single women gotmarried while they were still working, they were made to behousewives (Harrison 10).

Duringand after the WW1, the expansion of war industries was forced to drawlabor force from women. In 1920, more than three million women wereworking in textile, food and war industries. The restrictions andtaboos that locked women out of mass production jobs in industrieswere abandoned (Bryant 615). Women were offered new jobs, includingsteel mills, radio operators, streetcar conductor and logging camps.During the war, women took big roles like running the farms for theproduction of a much-needed food. They were exposed to new skillsgalore, and their duties began to change. More than twenty thousandwomen were offered jobs at military camps. Women and girls could washand wash, sew and knit the soldiers’ clothes, including socks,coats and underwear. Women also offered first aid to the injuredsoldiers and nursed their wounds.

Assoldiers began to travel far, women assumed more responsibilities.Factories that were used in the production of items such as suits andcoats were shifted to production of military uniforms. Carmakers wereused to make military trucks and tanks. Women took over theproduction in the industries. Women also replaced men in jobs such asmechanics, barbers, police officers and train conductors. Other womenwere soldiers in the US Army. Women served in several other importantcapacities. For example, some women served as Red Cross to offerassistance during the war. Also, there are women known as &quotHelloGirls&quot who operated the telephones. A group of women musicians,actors and entertainers were employed to entertain the militaryofficers during their rest time (Bryant 621).

Theservice offered by women during the WW1 was not able to open thewomen to deeper roles in the nation. Women were offered jobs inmunitions factories, chemical plants and steel foundries. Other womenwere offered positions in the newly created overseas jobs in the ArmyCorps of Nursing. In 1920s, the proportion of the women working wasabout 20percent. In addition, there was a change in the kind of workthat was done by women. There was a notable drop in the number ofwomen farmhands, household servants, dressmakers and cooks. The 1920screated a big change in the status of women. Some had accepted thenotion that the place for a woman was at home and that men weresupposed to earn more than women. During the WW1, many women wereoffered jobs top replace the places left by the soldiers with theagreement to lose them when on the return of the soldiers. However,following the victory in the WW1, many notions changed. Married womenwere offered jobs (Harrison 11).

Culturalrights and Sexual Liberation

Inaddition to the political changes experienced in the wake of the1920s, the decade ushered in several changes in the cultural sphere.The women movements challenged the gender status quo in the culturalcontext. Young women in the urban areas began to enjoy the fruits ofmass-production as they adopted new lifestyles and as well asdressing and cladding styles that stretched the traditionallimitations. In 1921, the whole group of women changed suddenly andbegan to wear knee-level skirts. Previously, this mode of dress wasconsidered obscene. The hairstyle for change as they adopted theshort “bob’ haircut, a style that later developed to the“flapper” style. The style was more boyish, but it was greatlysupported by the women who flaunted the gender social norms.

Theperiod saw women experience sexual liberation. Cultural barriers thatprevented women from sharing in some cultures, social activities suchas drinking, smoking and dancing Jazz music in clubs were challenged.This development opened the 1920s women in the sexual and socialfreedom. Some Women such as Margaret Sanger, who founded the AmericanBirth Control League advocated for education for young women aboutsex and sexuality, so as to allow them the grip of better control oftheir bodies and their lives. Sanger spread the message by usingcontraceptives wide. This move brought greater sexual freedom amongwomen even though it greatly offended the conservatives who held tothe traditional moral principles and standards. Her contribution madeher remain controversial even several years after she died.

Electionof the First Woman Governor

The1920s opened, the women to political leadership. Following thenineteenth amendment, women were allowed to vote and contest forpolitical positions. During this period, five women managed to getseats in Congress. In 1925, out of about 7,500 elective seats, 150seats were won by women. Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman tosit in the position of a state governor in the US. She also becamethe first woman director of the US mint. Ross was elected in 1924 asthe governor of Wyoming in a succession of her incumbent husbandWilliam Bradford Ross, who had died shortly before the elections. In1926, she lost to a Republican candidate in small, margin, but wasappointed as the vice chairperson of the Democratic NationalCommittee. Occupation of these positions prepared her for anappointment as the director of U.S Mint, which was the firstappointment to that rank awarded to a woman. Her election also openedthe way for other women governors, including Miriam Ferguson, who 16years later became the governor of Texas.

TheWomen’s World Fair of 1925

Thefist Women’s World Fair was held between April 18 and April 25,1925 in American Exposition Palace. About 160,000 visitors attendedthe exhibitions. There were 280 booths that represented one hundredoccupations that women of the time were engaged. The idea wasconceived by Helen Bennett and Ruth Hanna McCormick. Bennett was themanager at Chicago Collegiate Bureau of Occupations while Hanna was aRepublican politician and a clubwoman. The fair was all women affair,including the publication and management as well as the board ofdirectors. The fair had two major objectives. The first objective wasto raise money in support of the Republican Party organizations forwomen. The second objective was to display women’s products, workand ideas. The booths had a display of the accomplishments made bywomen in science, literature, arts and industry (Flanagan2).

Theexhibitions also had a purpose of exposing the young women who wereseeking career guidance and entrepreneurial information. The majorcorporations were featured in the exhibitions, including IllinoisBell telephone Company as well as a major regional and nationalnewspapers. Local banks and manufacturers, shops and stores andhospitals came for exhibitions. Lawyers, artists and women investorsjoined the business organizations in demonstrating the contributionsmade by women in their respective fields and guided them on thepossibilities for employment. Several organizations also reported inrepresentation of the women groups. Such organizations included theVisiting Nurse Association, Business and Professional Women’s Club,Hull House and Young Women Christian Association, among others(Babcock 484). This fair was very successful and encouraged thehosting of a similar event every year for the next three years. Thefair raised about $50,000 (Flanagan 3).

Women’sRights in Sports

The1928 Olympics opened the way for women participation after they werelocked out of the event for a long time. Various journalists andwomen politicians wrote to IOC agitating for women inclusion in theOlympic Games. They lobbied the IOC, trying to demonstrate thegracefulness of the movement produced by the women athletes. Theinclusion of women in the 1928 Olympics was the effort of AliceMilliat, a French sportswoman who facilitated the formation of theFederation Sportive Feminine Internationale (FSFI) in 1921. Alice andFSFI pressured both IAAF and IOC to include the women in the OlympicGames and threatened to organize separate Olympics for women if theywould not be included. Coubertin’s leadership was so adamant anddeclined to accept the request made by FSFI (Carpentier&amp Jean-Pierre 1114).

Ina reiteration to this decision, Alice organized the women`s firstOlympiad in 1921. Women from five countries in Europe participated.The FSFI organized for women`s World Games with the first edition in1922 and the second edition in 1926. Several athletes representedtheir nations, including the United States. However, the womenathletes who participated were on their own, with no support fromtheir nations (Quintillan 27). The pressure and the threat posed byFSFI compelled IOC and IAAF to allow women`s participation in theOlympics and, as a result, five women`s events were included in the1928 Olympic Games. However, Alice was not satisfied and demanded forinclusion of more women`s events. She continued to organize WomenWorld Games in 1930 and 1934 until her movement was weakened by theworld economic depression and the rise of Fascism in Europe. IOC andIAAF agreed to her demands but maintained that they could never haveequal events for men and women (Quintillan 28).

Despitethe setback, it became apparent that women had made a remarkableprogress in challenging the gender structure in sports and provedthat women deserved a chance in the sports competitions. This successcreated a different view about women roles in the society and beganto appreciate their physical abilities. In the United States, womenwere totally excluded from participation in sports throughout the19thcentury. Men used medical claims in justification of women`sexclusion. A woman was stereotyped as a “sick creature.” Whenwomen entered the medical profession, they developed their medicalconclusions concerning women and disapproved the previous claimsconcerning the female body (hour71).

The1920s marked the decline of Victoria Values and paved way for the&quotflapper&quot generation where the new modern American womanemerged. The &quotflapper&quot era opened women to cultural, socialand sexual liberation. It was also a golden age for sportswomen wereseveral. The era saw an increasing number of women take part insports and sports competitions. This development was facilitated by achange in medical discourse, where doctors advocated the importanceof physical exercise for women in the improvement of their health.However, the doctors advocated moderate exercise. They wererestrained from vigorous exercises, and several rest intervals wererecommended. Some doctors claimed that a vigorous exercise wasparamount for the development of a complete womanhood, particularlyfor those yearning to participate in competitive sports. The Americanathlete, Riggin Aileen, shared the difficulty she experienced inconvincing the United States Olympic Committee to allow her toparticipate in the diving event at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. Atthis time, the committee declined to allow women to participate incompetitive sports. The inclusion of women in 1928 Olympic Games wasanother great breakthrough for women freedom in the US. In additionto the five events of the 1928, more women events were featured inthe subsequent editions of the Olympic Games, including the 1932 and1936 (Houry72).

TheRise in Divorce Cases

Shortlyafter the WW1, the statistics were in divorce were resumed after theywere stopped during the war. The new statistics gathered in annualbasis from 1922 revealed new trends in marriage and divorce. Therewas a high increase in divorce cases. Divorce cases were reported innearly all the states (Wattenberg2). The number of divorce cases rose from one per one thousand toeight per one thousand (Wetzel 5). Young married women saw otherwomen enjoy a single life and unattached romantically. The rise ofJazz music facilitated the increase in divorce cases as more marriedcoupled desired the single lives led by other young people. Otherwomen sought to divorce so that they could have the freedom to work.The increased divorce cases were a demonstration of the new era offreedom for women from prohibition. The generation of the time placedlittle importance on marriage life, which was a great relief forwomen who were bound into marriage life.


The1920s was a period of great transformation in America. Theratification of the nineteenth amendment was a big relief for thewomen`s movements who had fought for it since 1880s. This developmentcontributed greatly to other freedoms enjoyed by women in the 1920sand beyond. The role played by the women in the WW1 opened the mindsof men and began to appreciate the need for more freedom for women.Women began to take up jobs in industries as opposed to thelimitation placed on domestic duties. The women entry into themedical profession helped erase the ill perceptions and theories thatheld that women could take part in competitive sports. The abolitionof Victoria Values created a new generation of liberal women and gavefreedom for women to dress in short skirts, change their hair styleand allowed them to participate in social events. Women receivedfreedom from family ties, a factor defined by the high divorce casesrecorded during the period. Ratification of the ERA that grantedequal rights for men and women was an important move in the USeconomic, social and political advancement.


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