2. Modern Woman
Many eras claim a "modern woman" for their time—the Gibson Girl and "New Woman" of the late 1800s, "true womanhood" of the mid-1800s, and, of course, the "flappers" of the 1920s. Here we're not considering the rebellious young woman exploring new freedoms who came to personify the Twenties in later times (see Modern Youth). Here we view the phenomenon of the "modern woman" as she was revered and reviled at the time—newly enfranchised by the 19th Amendment, entering the job market and the political arena in greater numbers than ever, and redefining marriage, motherhood, and "womanliness" for a new era.
Collected commentary. The broad span of highly charged opinion about the "modern woman" is apparent in this contemporary commentary from periodicals, novels, advertisements, political cartoons, photographs, a sociological study, a European's travelogue, and more. Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. Note the similarities and differences from later debates over women's place in society, especially "women's lib" in the 1960s and 1970s, and the "superwoman" question of today. (16 pp.)
Them Days Is Gone Forever. Before introducing his long-running Sweeney and Son in 1933, Alvah Posen made his debut in the comic strip world with Them Days Is Gone Forever, a lighthearted view-of-the-times that was syndicated in American newspapers from 1921 to 1927. Its innovative format featured modern scenarios in four frames—the first three progressing with rhyming lyrics, the fourth delivering the climactic refrain: "Them Days Is Gone Forever." (The strip was later retitled Them Days Are Gone Forever). Above the strip ran a line of music to which the strip's "lyrics" could be sung. With gentle humor, Posen satirized the everyday foibles of human nature and the distinctly American rites of passage (leaving bachelorhood was a favorite)—and bade farewell to aspects of life "gone forever" in the 1920s, including low prices, legal alcohol, naive well-behaved children, and, as seen in the eight strips presented here, the demure tradition-bound woman of old. (5 pp.)
Sinclair Lewis, Main Street, 1920: Carol Kennicott in Washington, DC. Now an American classic, Sinclair Lewis's best-selling novel Main Street became the decade's statement of the city-town divide in America. Modeling his fictional Midwestern town on his real Minnesota home town, Lewis countered the cozy-and-virtuous image of the small town favored in countless novels with the conservative, complacent, and often self-righteous residents of Gopher Prairie. Yet through his central character, the educated and dream-driven Carol, he brought his readers a more nuanced view of the town, one that Carol gains only by leaving Gopher Prairie to work for two years in Washington, DC, before returning, we are led to believe, for good. In these excerpts, we enter as Carol explains her decision to leave Gopher Prairie while her devoted husband Will expresses chagrin and befuddlement. Why can't she be happy as his husband and her son's mother? What vision of modern womanhood does Carol hope to emulate? Does she know? (10 pp.)
"Are Women's Sports Too Strenuous?" 1925. This brief newsreel takes a witty view of college women's track and field competition and other outdoor activities, suggesting that the reply to its title question is "No, but." No, they're not too strenuous for today's young woman—but the women lose a certain "gracefulness" as they expand their athletic pursuits. Still, the footage and intertitles suggest a "go, girl!" encouragement of the women's modern spirit. (While the newsreel presents British college women, it reflects attitudes widely held in the U.S.) (3:08) BRITISH PATHÉ NEWS
- "Gone are the days when Eve figured as a slow-moving frieze—(and froze!)." [Young women perform a modern dance in a wooded glen overlooking the ocean.]
- "Today Eve is outstripping Adam in more ways than one." [College women run cross-country in a track & field competition.]
- "But is Eve running to the other extreme? Are her sports too strenuous?" [Several women runners stumble. Other track runners complete a sprint.]
- "Once upon a time Adam handled the Motor Cycles. Now—" [Two women motorcyclists demonstrate their riding skills. Back at the track meet, women compete in the discus.]
- "With one bound the girls have reached the front." [Women compete in the long jump.]
- "But somewhere in this wide world they still seek gracefulness." [Return to the sylvan beauties dancing in the glen.]
See also in this collection: Modern Youth.
- Write a short creative or narrative piece (newspaper editorial, newsreel segment, time-travel episode, dramatic scene, comedy sketch, memoir segment, free verse poem, etc.) to encapsulate the range of opinion about the "modern woman" in the 1920s, as reflected in this section's resources. You might begin or end with one of these statements.
- - "Let us be done forever with this nonsense about the equality of the sexes."
John Macy, "Equality of Woman with Man: A Myth—A Challenge to Feminism," Harper's, November 1926
- - "Careers and children are satisfactory to women today when only a short while ago the two were thought incompatible."
Dorothy Ducas, "Women's Economic Freedom Blamed in Marriage Decline," New York Evening Post, Jan. 5, 1929
- - "The house divided against itself does not, we observe, stand. Marriage dissolves in feminism as sugar melts in acid."
Henry R. Carey, "This Two-Headed Monster—The Family," Harper's, January 1928
- - "The girls back in our college days were quite a diff'rent lot,
They couldn't throw the hammer and they couldn't put-the-shot,
They didn't know a hurdle from a hockey-stick, eh, what?
THEM DAYS IS GONE FOREVER!"
Al Posen, Them Days Is Gone Forever, comic strip, Chicago Tribune, October 17, 1922
- - "Exactly what do women want now. Just this. They ask the same rights, in law and in custom, with which every man is now endowed through the accident of being born a male."
Doris Stevens, "Suffrage Does Not Give Equality," The Forum, August 1924
- - "It is a great mistake, however, to think that woman can ever be completely independent of man, no matter what she wishes to believe or have others believe."
Dr. Joseph Collins, "Woman's Morality in Transition," Current History, October 1927
- - "Today Eve is outstripping Adam in more ways than one."
"Are Women's Sports Too Strenuous?" newsreel, British Pathé News, 1925
- - "[S]olitary dishwashing isn't enough to satisfy me—or many other women. We're going to chuck it. We're going to wash 'em by machinery, and come out and play with you men in the offices and clubs and politics you've cleverly kept for yourselves. Oh, we're hopeless, we dissatisfied women!"
Carol Kennicott, in Sinclair Lewis, Main Street, novel, 1920
- - "To begin with, it is very important to realize to the full the special position of women in the United States as contrasted with the rest of the world."
Christine M. Frederick, Selling Mrs. Consumer, 1929
- Chart the similarities and differences between the 1920s debate about the "modern woman" with later debates over women's place in society, especially "women's lib" in the 1960s and 1970s, and the "superwoman" question of today. What core issues apply to all? What distinguishes each?
- Trace the significance of these elements in the debates: money and financial independence, femininity and "womanliness," competition with men, the "sanctity of the home," men's self-image as the family provider, the emotional health of children, birth control and family planning, self-determination and self-actualization, political power, and the modern world and its opportunities and challenges.
Them Days Is Gone Forever____
- What aspects of the "modern woman" did Posen highlight in this comic strip?
- What "side" of the issue did Posen appear to favor? Why?
- How did Posen's humor "work"? What makes the reader laugh, groan, or gain an insight?
- Compare his humor with that of Will Rogers (in the collected commentary) and the newsreel "Are Women's Sports Too Strenuous?" What does lighthearted humor bring to the national discussion of a controversial topic? What is the main benefit? Is there a downside?
____ [Also see Discussion Questions in City & Town
- How does Carol Kennicott explain her decision to go to Washington, DC? In her view, why is a modern woman out of place in Gopher Prairie?
- What vision of modern womanhood does Carol hope to emulate? Does she know?
- Before Carol leaves, she says "that some day I'll come back, but not till I can bring something more than I have now." What is the "something" that she brings back with her to Gopher Prairie?
- Why did Sinclair Lewis characterize Will Kennicott as a reasonable yet befuddled husband instead of an insistent closed-minded spouse? What perspective do we gain from Will, who experiences "uncomprehending loneliness" on her departure?
- How does Carol struggle to answer Will's question "What the devil is it you want, anyway?" Why does she have no clear answer?
- What insights does Carol gain about herself and the "modern woman" from her office colleagues? her suffragist friends? the suffrage leader? the Methodist church members in DC?
- Complete the chart to articulate Carol's insights from her experience in Washington, DC.
|Carol's attitude toward: ||Before leaving Gopher Prairie
||After returning to Gopher Prairie|
|her "self"—her worth, aptitudes, and aspirations
|her roles as a woman, wife, mother, and community member in Gopher Prairie
|Gopher Prairie's negative attributes for a woman
|Gopher Prairie's positive attributes for a woman
|the attributes of the ideal modern woman ||
|her future life as Carol, a modern woman ||
- Which of these statements captures what Carol gained from her two-year absence from Gopher Prairie? Why?
- - Carol: "I keep on running away, and I enjoy it. I'm mad with joy over it. Gopher Prairie is lost back there in the dust and stubble, and I look forward."
- - Suffrage leader: "Here's the test for you: Do you come to ‘conquer the East,' as people say, or do you come to conquer yourself?"
- - [Carol] had her freedom, and it was empty. The moment was not the highest of her life, but the lowest and most desolate, which was altogether excellent, for instead of slipping downward she began to climb.
- - [Carol] felt that she was no longer one half of a marriage but the whole of a human being.
- Of the statements above (#15), which would you select as the first sentence in a short story on the "modern woman" of the 1920s? Why?
- Why is the black silhouette portrait of Carol on the first-edition book cover of Main Street an appropriate representation of the pre-Washington Carol? How might a post-Washington Carol be depicted in a similar image? (See slideshow.)
- What purposes do these details serve in the novel? How does a novelist employ such detail for literary effect?
- - the newspaper notice of Carol's departure paired with an item about a picnic that includes her husband Will
- - the mystery woman in the second-story window in Washington, DC
- - her son's response, "that's foolish," to her imaginative explanations
- - the eyeglasses—"spectacles"—that Carol decides to wear at the conclusion of the novel
Newsreel: "Are Women's Sports Too Strenuous?"____
- How did the newsreel function as news, entertainment, and humorous commentary?
- Define its tone. Is it sardonic? smirking? condescending? applauding? amazed? uplifting? questioning?
- Why do the intertitles refer to "Adam" and "Eve" instead of "men" and "women"?
- Rewrite the intertitles in the British newsreel to reflect a more identifiable American perspective on the footage. What scenes might you remove or add?
- How was modernity defined in the Twenties? What did "becoming modern" mean to the nation as a whole? to people in their personal lives?
- What aspects of modernity were welcomed, resisted, or unrecognized in the Twenties? Why?
- How were the social and political divisions of the period reflected in the debates over modernity?
- In what ways is the decade's experience with modernity familiar and resonant today?
Collected commentary on the modern woman
Al Posen, Them Days Is Gone Forever
Sinclair Lewis, Main Street, excerpts
Newsreel: "Are Women's Sports Too Strenuous?"
Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York)
Al Posen, cartoonist; overviews
Sinclair Lewis, Main Street
, full text
– Women's Industrial Conference, New National Museum, Washington DC, January 18-21, 1926, panoramic photograph (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Women's Trade Union League of America Collection, LC-USZ62-63377.
– Ruth Bryan Owen during campaign to become Florida's first congresswoman, photograph by G. W. Romer, 1929 (detail). State Archives of Florida, RC02972. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.
– Still from "Are Women's Sports Too Strenuous?" newsreel, 1925. Courtesy of British Pathé News.
– Frames from Them Days Is Gone Forever, comic strip by Alvah Posen, as published in the Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1922 & Aug. 21, 1922. United Feature Syndicate/Universal Uclick; in the public domain. Digital images courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– Book cover, Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis, Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1920 (detail). In the public domain.
– Women's suffrage cover, Life, October 29, 1920 (detail). Search in process for copyright holder.
– Winold Reiss, portrait of Elise Johnson McDougald, illustration in Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro: An Interpretation, 1925 (detail). Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Digital ID #1229302.
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