Women’s Rights and the Potential of the 1920s

Women’s Rights and the Potential of the 1920s

Kathleen Maniace

Gender equality: A term that has become more and more prominent within the national community in the United States over the past few decades. The desire for women to be seen as equals to men has been a topic of conversation for as long as many of us can remember, but how has this discussion brought us any closer to closing the gap in equality between genders in our country? Most would look to the 19th Amendment as the turning point in closing the gap, saying that legally, by gaining the right to vote in 1920, women received the rights they were fighting for and equality was theirs! But the question here is not if the 19th Amendment helped to close the gap between men and women in this country, but if that is what we are teaching our students.

The 1920s can be viewed as an age of opportunity and scandal in the United States. With the prohibition, gang violence, and changes in appearances, the decade could be seen as a critical change for the American people. When many look at gender equality for the time period, the 19th amendment brings a sense of relief that Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Rights and Sentiments (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 2015) was not all for nothing. With the right to vote, women were granted the ability to voice their opinions and work for equality. In our classrooms, not only do we teach the success of the Women’s Rights Movement at this time but there is also a focus on the changing views of women and the ‘Flapper’ Lifestyle. As quoted by one teenage flapper, “In this ‘age of specialists’ as it has been called, there is less excuse than ever for persons being shoved into niches in which they do not belong and cannot be made to fit. The lives of such people are great tragedies.” (Ellen Welles Page, 1922). The time period leaves the impression that the 1920s provided the gender gap a chance to decrease in size and bring equality to men and women who would not take no for an answer. With the time period’s lasting impression of opportunity, the question is was there more left in the decade than just simply the chance for equality?

The reality of the 1920s is not necessarily what many recall when it comes to how the 19th amendment truly impacted women in America. For starters, the right to vote politically did not work as well in the favor of women’s rights as much as expected. With the ability of a woman’s right to vote, came an important piece of legislation that split political ideals down the middle, the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA. Considered in 1920, this amendment would ensure that laws punishing women, denying women from office or ignoring the financial contributions from women in the nation did not continue past the 1920s (Norton and Alexander, 2003, pgs. 260-261). The arguments of the ERA were spearheaded by two major figures who were fighting for women’s rights: Alice Paul and Florence Kelley. The decision to be made here was clearly biological: should women have exactly the same rights as men (Sally Hunter Graham, 1983, pgs. 665-79)? Or should they have rights similar to that of men but more protective of women’s abilities to bear children (Norton & Alexander, 2003, pg. 262)? These two perspectives of women who were activists of the period shows that there was still a long way to go when approaching women’s rights and a lot more discussion and legislature was going to be necessary in order to close the gap in equality between men and women.

The biological difference between men and women did not only play a role in the ways that women were seen politically but it also greatly impacted the social perspective on women in the 1920s. For a time period focused on the equal rights of women, the gender was still greatly viewed as “eye-candy” rather than another human being deserving of equality in a land advertising freedom and natural rights. While women were granted voting rights, there was still an image that women were meant to ‘ “ Unless she is a woman of more than ordinary ability and energy,  she will elect to do what all her neighbors are busy doing: bridge, tea, gossip… such women have built a complicated system of social rank to which they have become slaves’” (Johnson, 1925, pg. 614). There was this idea at the time that women were so caught up with maintaining social status and appearance that they were not as willing to work and therefore ‘slaves’ to their own social calendars. Not only would this hurt the view that the population had on women from the social perspective, but it would also force dependence on men in a more impactful way.

 The views of women in the early Twentieth century highly influenced the occupations that were available for women during the time period. This impacted the financial status of women who were trying to get a job and greatly influenced the opportunities for work that a woman had access to. Many companies at the time “ … continued to affirm personality patterns and social roles consistent with home, reinforcing the occupational stereotypes that divided administrative and professional networks in those that threatened to negate house roles and those that did not” (Kessler-Harris, 2007, p.126-127). The opportunities for women to succeed were limited and without funding or being able to financially support themselves, women were reliant on men to support them if they were unable to find a job with a proper income. The period left more space for the success of women without the drive or preparedness from women to come together and fight together for what early activists had strived to attain.

Why does this matter? The question we are asked to answer every day to get our students to connect to the material and explain why the information being taught is important. You could make the argument that it matters for context and acknowledging the rights granted by the Constitution. You wouldn’t be wrong. But would you be connecting the material? Would YOU find this to be a truly impactful message that you can now vote if you’re a woman in today’s world? At this day and age, most students might not completely understand how important that right is. It is OUR JOB to explain not only its importance but the impact as well. The ways something so seemingly ‘right’ could be split in the eyes of politics, ignored from the perspective of society, and discriminated against in the realm of independent financial success and occupational opportunity. Students deserve to know why a hundred years after the 19th Amendment was enacted, gender equality and equal pay are still very much a part of the conversation our country is having.

Teaching about women’s history is such a vital part of our job as educators. From just this topic, our students will be able to understand how our nation has kept its people from gaining rights deserving of each individual, how rights are so much more than a choice but the process to enact a right can be multi-faceted, and the ways that perspective and bias play a role in the abilities of individuals to gain equality in a society that preaches equality and freedom for the people by the people. The theme of inequality can be connected to women’s rights in America and tie into various other periods in history that have displayed the ways our nation has pushed individuals away and avoided the idea of equity and equality for copious amounts of citizens throughout the nation’s existence. This cannot be a topic that is ignored. When we see a problem that has impacted a group of people in our nation deeply, as social studies teachers, we must address not only the problem but its effect on the population, nation, and the world around us. The prospect of women’s rights addresses a multitude of issues that our nation continues to face to this day, as we prepare future generations for the world they are going to be living in. They deserve to know what they are inheriting so they can work to make our world a more accepting and understanding world. Teaching the truth behind topics like women’s history and the work behind the societal change towards gaining equality is what we are expected to do to help our students work to build a nation that accepts and fights for everyone’s natural rights.

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