Contact Us Find Us on Facebook Follow Us on Twitter Subscribe to our RSS Feed


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 on the modern woman PDF file
  • 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 PDF file
  • 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 PDF file
  • 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

    Intertitle text:

    - "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.

Discussion Questions

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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____
  1. What aspects of the "modern woman" did Posen highlight in this comic strip?
  2. What "side" of the issue did Posen appear to favor? Why?
  3. How did Posen's humor "work"? What makes the reader laugh, groan, or gain an insight?
  4. 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?
Main Street ____ [Also see Discussion Questions in City & Town.]
  1. 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?
  2. What vision of modern womanhood does Carol hope to emulate? Does she know?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. How does Carol struggle to answer Will's question "What the devil is it you want, anyway?" Why does she have no clear answer?
  6. 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?
  7. 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          
  8. Which of these statements captures what Carol gained from her two-year absence from Gopher Prairie? Why?
  9. 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?
  10. 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.)
  11. What purposes do these details serve in the novel? How does a novelist employ such detail for literary effect?
Newsreel: "Are Women's Sports Too Strenuous?"____
  1. How did the newsreel function as news, entertainment, and humorous commentary?
  2. Define its tone. Is it sardonic? smirking? condescending? applauding? amazed? uplifting? questioning?
  3. Why do the intertitles refer to "Adam" and "Eve" instead of "men" and "women"?
  4. Rewrite the intertitles in the British newsreel to reflect a more identifiable American perspective on the footage. What scenes might you remove or add?

Framing Questions

  • 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?"
16 pp.
 5 pp.
10 pp.
     View online.
31 pp.

Supplemental Sites

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.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.