|The New Woman
|Digital History ID 3400|
In 1920, after 72 years of struggle, American women received the right to vote. After the 19th Amendment passed, reformers talked about female voters uniting to clean up politics, improve society, and end discrimination.
At first, male politicians moved aggressively to court the women's vote, passing legislation guaranteeing women's rights to serve on juries and hold public office. Congress also passed legislation to set up a national system of women's and infant's health care clinics, as well as a constitutional amendment prohibiting child labor--a measure supported by many women's groups.
The early momentum quickly dissipated, however, as the women's movement divided within and faced growing hostility from without. The major issue that split feminists during the 1920s was a proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution outlawing discrimination based on sex. The issue pitted the interests of professional women against those of working class women, many of whom feared that the amendment would prohibit "protective legislation" that stipulated minimum wages and maximum hours for female workers.
The women's movement also faced mounting external opposition. During the Red Scare following World War I, the War Department issued the "Spider Web" chart which linked feminist groups to foreign radicalism. Many feminist goals were unachieved in the mid-1920s. Opposition from many Southern states and the Catholic Church defeated the proposed constitutional amendment outlawing child labor. The Supreme Court struck down a minimum wage law for women workers, while Congress failed to fund the system of health care clinics.
Women did not win new opportunities in the workplace. Although the American work force included eight million women in 1920, more than half were black or foreign-born. Domestic service remained the largest occupation, followed by secretaries, typists, and clerks--all low-paying jobs. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) remained openly hostile to women because it did not want females competing for men's jobs. Female professionals, too, made little progress. They consistently received less pay than their male counterparts. Moreover, they were concentrated in traditionally "female" occupations such as teaching and nursing.
During the 1920s, the organized women's movement declined in influence, partly due to the rise of the new consumer culture that made the suffragists and settlement house workers of the Progressive era seem old-fashioned. Advertisers tried self-consciously to co-opt many of the themes of pre-World War I feminism, arguing that the modern economy was filled with exciting and liberating opportunities for consumption. To popularize smoking among women, advertisers staged parades down New York's 5th Avenue, imitating the suffrage marches of the 1910s in which young women carried "torches of freedom"--cigarettes.
Copyright 2021 Digital History