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Women in the Twentieth Century and Beyond 

In looking back at the eras we have studied we see that common patterns of thought regarding gender have run though the course of history, so we shouldn’t be surprised that we still are influenced by and experience the effects of these beliefs. 

At the onset of the 20th century, the ideas of the 19th  century regarding the separate, and indeed opposite, natures of men and women, which had been further exaggerated by the industrial revolution in defining mechanized labor (and its invention) as the province of men and the domestic responsibilities as the natural domain of women,  men and women’s relationships to and with each other and society change.  As held true in the past, we see that in times of anxiety, such as the intense and rapid change industrialization brought, there is a resurgence in the enforcement and belief in classical, or traditional, gender roles.

Frida Kahlo's The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Me and Senor Xolotl, 1949
from http://www.artchive.com/artchive/
K/kahlo/kahlo_love_embrace.jpg.html

As in the past, there were also advocates of change; in fact, the modern feminist movement, reanimated by Wollstonecraft, was gaining momentum with its advocacy for suffrage when it was largely derailed by the Civil War, in the United States. By the early 20th Century suffrage was again an issue, as women began participating more in public life.  Still, everything that was important, in terms of power and prestige, was under male control: politics, economy, etc.

When Vassar opened in 1865, the first college aimed exclusively at educating women, the ideas of equality began an upswing. With more education, more women were allowed to participate in society, but it was really only upper class women, whose families could bear the expense of the education. The success of Vassar and the other women’s colleges that followed in its success, germinated the idea that in education, if nowhere else, the roles could be equal. Women could be the intellect partners of men, even if they couldn’t be professional partners.  From the late 1860s to the early twentieth century, women began to press to be allowed into professional occupations, as doctors and lawyers.  (In the beginning, they could get the degrees but not the licenses to use them.)

Underlying all of these theories about women’s suitability or lack of suitability for professional public work, was the idea of suffrage. Voting was seen as symbolic of all the rights women were denied, and they believed voting would allow them to get into other areas of influence in society.

For the most part, men didn’t want women to vote, usually for a number of reasons. They feared a loss of the control of women. They didn’t want women to vote as a block, a very logical fear as women represent 51% of the population. Some men (and some women) as well) didn’t believe women were capable of understanding all the ramifications of situations they would be voting on— remember logical reasoning was not seen to be in their natures. Finally, some people saw that allowing women to vote and have a voice in governmental decision-making eroded part of their traditional way of identifying themselves, i.e., they literally conceived of men as the opposites of women and women as the opposites of men, as defined by nature and their actions.

The perception of the time (not necessarily the reality) was that women were more moral than men; they were the upholders of the moral standard.  Women were seen to be more religious than men. Even though the religious leaders of day were all male, women were the strongest component of the congregations.  This was important because, as in the nineteenth century, women were the ones to uphold morals in the family. In part due to this belief about themselves, perhaps, women did begin to act politically as the men feared, introducing moral legislation which advocated regulations in labor laws, so there could be no child labor, etc..

Another debated issue of the time was birth control and its degree of morality (or lack of morality). As a general rule, birth control was seen as immoral; many believed that women did not have the right to control family size, as that was the prerogative of the husband/father and God, Himself.  The church saw it as a sin akin to murder, and the government controlled it, as materials even mentioning pregnancy prevention techniques were thought “obscene.”  Many people worked for the right for women to gain access to birth control, such as Margaret Sanger, who helped found Planned Parenthood.

Some recent historians have suggested that the government did not just control the access of birth control for moral reasons but as a method of controlling the economy, as keeping women out of the workplace by having them at home raising lost of children, kept them out of position where they could gain power, potentially, and allies, and it kept the rate of unemployment steady, since the perception was that only men needed jobs.

The political battle for suffrage—equal voting rights—took many years with women and men working together, but the 19th amendment was eventually passed in 1920. At this point, after women voted in their first federal election in 1922, many women believed that they were the political equals of men, and the target of their activism shifts, and women begin to pursue more personal freedoms.  Women begin engaging publicly in “male” activities. They begin to drink publicly, which was also an illegal activity at the time, since it was during the Prohibition, when alcohol consumption was a crime. Skirt lengths went up, and thus were less constraining of women’s movements. Their hair was cut shorter than in the past, to be more associated with men’s traditionally shorter hair, and indeed the “bobbed” hair became a symbol of freedom. Women began smoking, and they worked toward attaining sexual freedom, as well, trying to combat the traditional double standard which saw men who had taken many lovers as healthy but women who had many as evil or flawed. Cosmetics and change in dress styles are marketed to women during this time period to represent that new freedom, and that freedom was ultimately represented by the flappers of the time.

The feared voter block never materialized, as women voted with their husbands or fathers, a logical occurrence since, after all, women tend to share the same concerns, economically, socially, and politically, as the men in their lives. The automobile’s invention and mass production also added to the feeling of liberation for all Americans, as it allowed families and individuals access to a larger world.

This era of good feeling ended somewhat abruptly in 1929, when the stock market crashed.  Prosperity vanished almost over night, and very quickly, gender roles tightened up again. Many people blamed the crash on the loose morals of the previous decade, and the employment crisis--too many laborers, too few jobs—seemed to dictate a return to the “natural” roles. At the height of the depression, 33% of labor force was out of work. This meant vast economic hardships, which lasted for years, creating crises for most Americans.  There was an emotional crisis, as well, especially as men had been traditionally defined by working—especially since the industrial revolution—but couldn’t find work. In other words, without work, they couldn’t see themselves as men.  To this end, many areas enacted laws to privilege men over women in regard to employment. Women were thrown out of work, and many states had laws mandating that if men were available, women couldn’t legally work—or if a woman’s husband worked, she couldn’t.

The idea of women being equally entitled to labor, or supplanting men in labor, was unheard of.  These restricting laws were the logical response to the national crisis, given the ideas about gender. While gender roles became more traditional within families and at the local and state levels, there is some change toward equality at the federal level. FDR, as president, is thought to have been the salvation of the nation through his New Deal work programs; he was also a humanitarian, and his wife was, too.  Together they opposed racism and advocated women’s advancement in politics. Under FDR, the first female federal judge was appointed, and women filled other governmental positions. The president, in effect, was admitting that women could be in important decision-making positions, even in a time when most work was slotted for men.

After the Depression, the traditional gender role differences were exaggerated further, as fashion trends show. Women’s’ hair is worn longer again, sometimes in curls and ringlets. Their dress becomes more feminine: frilly, loose, and blousy. During this period, there is no substantial change in men’s dress.

As Americans moved into the 1940s, the participation in WWII changes gender roles once again. In time of crisis Americans altered their understanding of roles and gender appropriateness, as the men went to war and the women filled in the production and wage-earning gaps. The escalation of the war furthered these changes. Whereas before the attack on Pearl Harbor, only single women worked in labor force, after the attack, married women were also pressed into outside employment.  Women working was seen as a national necessity and a patriotic duty.  The media and government propaganda worked to convince women that they could retain their femininity and still hold men’s jobs. These women were given new training and became very skilled. Women also become better educated, as a group, during this time, as since the younger men (18 to 21-year-olds) were at war, women needed to fill college seats to keep colleges open. By the end of 40s, however, the war had ended and men wanted their old roles as leaders, breadwinners, and workers back, and justifiable felt entitled to this, as they had risked their lives for democracy and American values.  Again, many women were fired and removed from their jobs—after all leaving those jobs was now their patriotic duty—but this time many women were angry and resentful because they had found a degree of self-definition they had not previously known.

The 1950s was a great era of consumerism. Americans found great prosperity, producing and creating needs for many consumer items.  Items were marketed toward the idea of providing women with more time and freedom, as vacuum cleaners, toasters, and washing machines—even baby formula and cake mixes—could satisfy their needs for technology and help them become more efficient at their domestic duties. Men worked designing, manufacturing, and marketing these items, while women stayed home and worked to create a “haven” for men who would come home tired and exhausted from these endless need to produce.  The goal it seemed for all Americans was to produce a happy family. The baby boom increased the population and exacerbated the difference in gender roles.  Large families became the norm, forcing men to work longer and harder to provide for them and keeping women more firmly tied to the home, as the more kids for which they were responsible, the more work they had and the more exhausted they were likely to become.  These great demands set the stage for the 1960s, when both women and men begin to rebel against these rigid expectations.

The 1960s was an era of rebellion. Students protested the establishment’s decision on American involvement overseas, and activism increased on national issues like civil rights, as well.  Most of these protests were male–dominated, however, and women  began to protest on their own, but they begin to protest their exclusion from male arenas and leadership roles in addition to the concerns of the male protesters. Women were particularly incensed that even male protest leaders (who wanted equal civil rights) felt that women were only good as menial subordinates or as sex objects.

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 fueled the feminist movement, which had been nearly dormant after 1920, and women began to demand change in politics, education, and business, and brought the gender role debate into the national conscience. 

In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, proponents of the bill wanted to eliminate discrimination—on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, and age. Gender was not initially included as people were still debating whether there could be discrimination on basis of sex, when sex was a clear natural difference. Southern congressional leaders added Title VII, which included sex, as a joke with the intention of sabotaging the whole thing. Surprisingly, when the time for the voting came, it passed, and then became a symbol of the issues women faced. When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission refused to enforce the legislation, Friedan and others founded the National Organization for Women, which lobbied politicians, who eventually compelled the EEOC to enforce these laws.

By the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, there were male movement groups as well as female ones, because men were beginning to realize how restricted they had been by these rigid gender roles. Men were being pressured to spend more time at work, even if they wanted to be at home and/or family-centered.   The gender debate became a media event, as talk shows, newspapers, and magazines debated the issues, wondering, for instance, if men could cry, and if they could, should it be allowed? Men were supposed to be logical and unemotional, after all, not emotional, could men’s emotionalism be a sign of femininity?  Within this climate the ERA was reintroduced, having been proposed initially in 1923 and then abandoned when that activist force died after women felt equal when they gained the right to vote.  The ERA would mandate that equality of rights under the law should not be abridged by the US or any state on account of sex. In that social climate, the ERA was quickly ratified by 28 states in 1972.

By 1973, however, the climate was changing again, as political conservatives, devoted to the traditional status quo and believing that the state of the nation was reflected in the condition of the family, began to devote themselves to its defeat. Phyllis Schlafly, a respected female lawyer organized the “Stop the ERA” group and traveled around the country—willing to sacrifice her family’s moral health, apparently, for the larger threat of a national crisis of potentially motherless families--organizing and propagandizing about the negative effects of passing ERA. As a political tactician and strategist, she was brilliant.  She convinced people that its passage would result in men and women serving side by side in war together, using the same public restrooms, and allowing homosexuals into the classroom with young children.  Although she had no statistical facts to back up these fears, she was persuasive enough. In order to pass, the ERA needed 38 states to ratify it. By 1975, only 35 had. By 1982 it was a dead issue: the time limit expired.

When the ERA died, the public opinion shifted toward acceptance and complacency. Many believed that all issues had already been settled, that the activism coupled with the influx of women into professional positions had created equality; the ERA was unnecessary where people were content with status quo. Unfortunately, that perception was not realized, and in the 1980s, many achievements of the equal rights movement—both racial and sex-based—were eroded.  Additionally, social problems for women accelerated. Domestic and other violence against women increased, as did violence in the culture at large, and women’s poverty increased, rendering many women and their dependent children homeless.  At the same time, women in the professions began to realize that their advancements in their fields were being curtailed by the glass ceilings.

The increased economic rift between the social classes began to affect attitudes at this time, also. Educated employed middle and upper class women saw women who stayed home as being too stupid to work, while at the same time there seemed to be an attitude of choice. The culture seemed to tell the more educated women that they had choose between work or kids, as they couldn’t do both, as “Supermoms” began to have breakdowns. Many of these women, of course, felt resentful of the idea of choice, as they were working longer and harder in the same jobs for fewer wages than men. They, like their husbands, felt the very real necessity to work, as they were trapped into long-term mortgages.  By the middle of the 1980s, working women were still in traditionally feminine professions, like nursing and teaching, where their chances of advancement were few and their pay did not increase commensurately with the economy.  Novels of this period tend to show females being increasingly depersonalized and disempowered.  Women, at this time, were not only under pressure to prove that they could be as successful as men in the workforce, but to keep the home fires tended and  keep their appearance up, too, to remain attractive to men.

The 1990s have been characterized by great changes in gender definitions.  Worldwide, we have seen Israeli women accepted as soldiers in their armies; in fact, much like ancient Egypt, both men and women are compelled to serve. However, in Afghanistan, we saw the religious fundamentalist group, the Taliban, seize control and compel educated women into leaving their professions and wearing the veil, much like ancient Assyrian women, whenever they have to be out in public.  They are being denied access to medical treatment, as well, since it is inappropriate for the male doctors to examine other men’s wives or daughters. 

In the 1990s, American women learned that they can rise to leadership roles, but surveys show that it requires more effort, that they have to be exceptionally better, and that they must devote a great deal more time, than men.  In addition, conservative groups like the Promise Keepers formed, and conservative movement picked up, as more people are striving for the ideal of family values. The 1990s showed that race and gender are still problems in the society during the 1991 Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings, a political fiasco so large that for the first time women were more likely to vote as a block, and their efforts helped to removing President Bush and elect more female representatives to government positions than ever before.

In Illinois, Carol Mosely Braun was elected, becoming Illinois’s first black, first female, senator.  That attitude toward the importance of equality, however, did not last, as she was defeated in 1998 by an arch-conservative devoted to family values.

Even the popular treatment of new President William Jefferson Clinton underscored a marked hostility toward non-traditional women. During first term in office, he appointed his extremely educated and qualified wife to a political position and fell under criticism for not being able to control her and insinuations that she, not, he, was the real acting president. Savvy judges of the importance of popular support, the Clintons changed their public behaviors. The first lady held back her political opinions, softened her hairstyle, and wrote a book about how to best raise children. She topped the bestseller list and even won a Grammy for her It Takes a Village.

The 1990s, then, has been a time of both gains and losses for equal rights.

Phyllis Schlafly, an Alton, Illinois, resident, is still actively involved in the conservative movement and has spent the last two decades working against efforts geared toward equalizing opportunity and roles for men and women. She has lobbed against issues such as shelters for abused and battered women and federal funding for daycare centers, testifying repeatedly before congress to slow efforts for gender equality in the belief that if women leave their homes, the family will further deteriorate, and thus so would the nation. She doesn’t want women to have easier access to divorce or public aid, believing that men and women are equally subject to violence and that men and women should stay together to work out their problems—all of this in spite of sociological evidence that suggests that most women who ask for shelter are in a dire need, under a real fear of death. 

On the side for increased equality, Hilary Rodham Clinton was able to win a senate seat in New York, acting in a public professional political role. However, in the Republican White House sex-dictated dress codes were reinstated—female White House employees are not allowed to wear pants—and funding has been restricted to any organizations associated with abortion and/or family planning. The future of gender roles in the twenty-first century are, of course, up to us.

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek, the instructor of Women in Literature, at Kimberly_Radek@ivcc.edu

This page was last updated on 30 May 2006 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek, 2001.