THESIS: The situations of women during the 1920’s and 1950’s were different in many ways, but quite similar in others. For younger women of the 1920s the social role was that of a “flapper” lifestyle which was a form of rebellion that was not seen in the 50s which more upheld the traditional and conservative role of the housewife. The political advances in the 1920’s were far greater than the limited achievements of the 50’s, but the 50s set the stage for incredible advances to come in the near future. The main difference between these two eras was the expression of the women themselves, for the men didn't really change their treatment so much as the women changed how they reacted to the treatment. In the twenties they resisted more openly to the unfair treatment and generalizations, but the fire lit behind the resentment of those in the fifties was on the brink of exploding into the new feminist movement which would more than outshine any advances made in either the 20s or the 50s. Overall the dissatisfaction of women gave them a common goal to work towards, but they were not unified as a voting block or beyond racial lines, and had many different ideas in terms of tactics and also created more, and sometimes even violent divisions between those who supported them and those who didn't, namely men.


The 1920s was a decade of great achievements and liberation for women. At the start of the decade women finally won the right to vote, supposedly giving them a voice in government, although that was not the case. As the years progressed women started to liberate themselves from the cultural restrictions of the past thanks to an Austrian psychologist, Sigmund Freud. The "flapper" look became popular among the younger generation of women as well as smoking, drinking, and driving cars. While being a mother/ homemaker was still the popular 'profession' for women, some were taking the step into the workforce along side of men. Women started to rise themselves up to a degree of equality with men, taking control of their lives and changing what they thought was unfair. The fact that women started to get a handle on their own future and fight against the restrictions of society for their own equality was the defining factor of the 1920s.

In the Progressive Era if a women was married she was not allowed to have a job; however, many women in the 20s had both a marriage and job.
-22% of women were working and 25% of those women were also married

The restrictions that society had put on the way women acted in public were lifted because women started to resist them
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-Middle class women started sharing more of their husbands social lives
-Women went out to clubs, drank, smoke, danced, and drove cars
-Sigmund Freud, started the idea that repressing sexual desires was a "mental illness", began an
era of increased promiscuity
-advances in birth control
-Women wore dresses hemmed at the knee and cut their hair to the chin, this was the "flapper" look
-Motherhood became less of a demand, less all-consuming, because it was now acceptable to rely on help from teachers, doctors, etc. (mothers did not know/could not do everything)

There was very little emphasis on women's education during this period
Women were only allowed to work certain jobs, none of them holding any kind of authority
-They were nurses, social workers, factory workers, secretaries
-Majority of middle class married women were still homemakers/mothers
Even though they earned the right to vote, women weren't very effective in politics
Blacks and immigrants were not included in this movement

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Nineteenth Amendment

“The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
This amendment was voted upon a total of four times. The first time, it did not get pass the House of Representatives. However, in the 3 votes after, it passed but was stopped by the senate often by one or two votes. This amendment was not the final goal of the suffrage movement, although it was a huge victory. Voting rights had been denied to women for years and finally in 1920 this was passed by the Senate with 56 to 25 votes.

Leser v. Garnett: After the passage of the 19th amendment two women in Maryland attempted to secure their voting rights.They were sued by Leser and the case was taken to the Supreme Court. He argued that the states constitution did not allow for ratification. Secondly,he claimed that the amount of people voting in elections would grow without the consent of the state of Maryland. Finally, he argued that both Tennessee and West Virginia did not ratify the amendment correctly. The Supreme Court overturned each of Leser’s claims. They came to the conclusion that federal law was not subject to state constitution, that the 15th amendment also increased the electorate so therefore it did not matter whether or not Maryland gave consent, and that two more stateshad ratified the amendment so it was immaterial if Tennessee and West Virginia did so.Thetwo women were able to gain their right to vote.

The Sheppard-Towner Act: This provided funds for child care. This gave funds to states to help build women’s health care centers. It was an important step as it allowed women to devote less time and worry to childcare, and could focus more on careers and other areas of importance in their lives. It was signed by President Harding on November 23, 1921.

1923 National Woman’s Party proposes Constitutional amendment: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and in every place subject to its jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

“The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) also fought to improve women's labor conditions in the 1920s. The WTUL argued that protective legislation based on women's special position as child-bearers not be used to jeopardize women workers by restricting their access to certain jobs.”

Alice Paul (1885-1977) After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and receiving degrees from the Washington College of Law and American University, she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Paul determined that the lobbying tactics of the NAWSA were unsuccessful
Alice Paul
Alice Paul
and decided to create a new group called the National Woman’s Party. A large part of the focus of this party was in England, but when the presidential election of 1916 was running, they decided to picket the White House. She was also the original writer of the Equal Rights Amendment. Although this was never passed, it was eventually adopted into many state constitutions.

Nellie Tayloe(1887-1977) The first female to govern a state and remains the only woman to ever govern Wyoming. Tayloe worked and studied as a teacher until she met her husband, politician William Bradford Ross. He became governor of Wyoming in 1922 but died two years into his term. The Democratic Party decided to nominate his wife to run, and she won on November 4th 1924 and served as a governor until 1926. She remained an activist politically and served as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee and later became the first female director of the U.S. Mint.

Margaret Sanger: (1879-1966) One of the greatest advocates for birth control, Sanger devoted a great part of her life to fighting for women’s rights. Her philosophy included the idea that keeping contraceptives from women was another way for men to force the into submission. She created the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control in 1923, gave lectures, wrote pamphlets became the president of the Birth Control International Information Center and authored two works on the subject. As a result of her workings, in 1965 birth control was judged legal for marred couples. However, Sanger has been criticized on her thoughts towards the mentally retarded and minorities. She promoted Eugenics (the idea that traits can be improved with social intervention such as segregation.) These beliefs tended to alienate minority women from her cause.


Any progress women had made in terms of their roles in society and the economy during WW2 was pretty quickly and entirely erased when their husbands came back from the war and they were forced once again into the role of the "suburban housewife"

Rosie the Riveter
Rosie the Riveter
The Ideal housewife of the 50s
The Ideal housewife of the 50s

---The male perceived role of women in the home was only enforced by the new media available
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Lucy = stereopypical housewife always needing her husband to bail her out and spending too much and causing trouble for him while trying to be perfect

--Woman's role was in the home to take care of the kids which was a very large number resulting from the baby boom after the war
--to cook and clean and be ready to wait on their husbands when they got home from work
--held this role in fear of doing the wrong thing because in many cases, husbands controlled their weekly allowances
--these standards really only applied to white middle class women

An excerpt from a 1950's American High School Home Economics textbook "How to be a Good Wife":

external image 50sfam2.gif Have dinner ready. Prepare yourself. Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people. Be a little gay and a little more interesting. Clear away the clutter -- run a dust cloth over the tables.

Prepare the children: Take a few minutes to wash the children's hands and faces, comb their hair, and if necessary change their clothes. They are God's creatures and he would like to see them playing the part
Minimize all noise…eliminate the noise of the washer, dryer, dishwasher or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet.

Some Don'ts: Don't greet him with problems or complaints. Don't complain if he is late for dinner. Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soft, soothing and pleasant voice.

Listen to him: You may have dozens of things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first. Make the evening his. Never complain if he does not take you out to dinner or other pleasant entertainments.

--There was an increase in women in the workplace, but still treated as second class by men employers
-saw them as mothers and wives first
-still much less pay
-32% of women were in the workforce by the end of the 50s and that number continued to grow throughout the following decades

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

Betty Friedan (1921-2006) The author of The Feminine Mystique. The creation of this book actually started during the mid 50’s when Friedan decided to survey some College graduates about their situation at home as she felt as though her life was unfulfilled in some way. She determined that there was a “problem that had no name.” Friedan realized that women were dissatisfied by their lives and that they desired a better experience educationally and socially. Before the publication of this work, Friedan attended the all women’s college Smith, and went to University of California, Berkeley. From a young age she wrote for newspapers and created her own local magazine while still young.

Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995) The First woman to be elected to both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Early on in her life, she worked as a school teacher and telephone operator. She attended Colby College and in 1930 married Clyde Smith. Smith was elected to the House of Representatives once her husband died in 1940. Through her distinct service to the country (actively promoting freedom through her service to the House Naval Affairs committee) she was elected to the senate in 1948. She served from 1949 to 1973, a record for women holding a seat until January 5th 2011.

Dissatisfaction grew as the decade progressed and set the stage for the New Feminism Movement in the 60s and 70s

"It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for grocerieexternal image femmininemystique3.jpgs, matched slip cover materials, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask of herself the silent question -- 'Is this all?'"
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)

The Presidential Commission on the Status of Women (1961): JFK created this piece of legislation. He intended it to be used for the President to be advised on the status of women, and this commission help to pass important legislation later on. This legislation included equality in the work place and the legal use of contraceptives. This piece of legislation helped to compromise between the two schools of thought on women's rights.