A Flapper’s Appeal to Parents Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the 1920s, flappers were young women who demonstrated a radical new style of dress, behavior, and demeanor. They rebelled against the previous standards of Victorian propriety, such as long hair and dresses, tight corsets, and a dismal view of sex and public roles for women. The Gibson Girl of the 1890s, who represented the feminine ideal of the time, was rejected for her tightly cinched waist and domestic aspirations. Instead, flappers cut their hair short, drank alcohol, smoked, danced, drove cars, and flouted traditional sexual roles.

Summary Overview

In the 1920s, flappers were young women who demonstrated a radical new style of dress, behavior, and demeanor. They rebelled against the previous standards of Victorian propriety, such as long hair and dresses, tight corsets, and a dismal view of sex and public roles for women. The Gibson Girl of the 1890s, who represented the feminine ideal of the time, was rejected for her tightly cinched waist and domestic aspirations. Instead, flappers cut their hair short, drank alcohol, smoked, danced, drove cars, and flouted traditional sexual roles.

Although they benefited from the suffrage and feminist movements, and despite viewing themselves as a new type of liberated woman, flappers did not generally participate in political or social reform movements, preferring instead to focus on pleasure. In this article, teenage author Ellen Welles Page defends flappers as youths in need of support and love, dealing with the heavy legacy of World War I and struggling to make the most of the brave new world brought about by women’s suffrage and increasing educational and career opportunities. Page argues for a supportive, sympathetic approach to young people of her generation, urging patience rather than criticism and derision.

Defining Moment

The flapper was, in many ways, both an embodiment and a rejection of the political and social activism of the Progressive Era. After decades of struggle, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, giving women the right to vote; furthermore, feminist Alice Paul proposed an Equal Rights Amendment in 1923. Educational opportunities expanded rapidly, and for the first time, upper- and middle-class women flocked to colleges across the country. Women were able to access information about birth control, allowing them to engage in sexual activity without fear of pregnancy. Those women who had joined the workforce in record numbers during World War I were often reluctant to return to a traditional domestic role.

Another defining aspect of the era was Prohibition, which had gone into effect in 1919, largely as a result of the activism of the women’s movement. Despite this, young women in the 1920s visited illegal bars in record numbers, and the availability of illicit alcohol added to the sense both that the previous generation was out of touch with reality and that rules could be flouted with impunity. Young people were attracted to the fast pace of jazz music and its accompanying dance crazes, as well as the adventure and action portrayed in movies. The increasing availability of automobiles provided them with mobility and allowed escape from adult supervision. The spirit of the age was one of optimism and possibility, with adventure and excitement available to men and women alike.

This spirit was reflected in flapper fashion, with women cutting their hair short and raising their hemlines to the knee or above. Stockings were worn with garters to enhance exposed legs. A long, boyish figure and flat chest emphasized the adolescence of the flapper, and straight, loose clothing without corsets allowed for the freedom of movement required for physically demanding dances, such as the Charleston. Flapper women were also more likely to use makeup than previous generations, as new metal lipstick cases and powder in mirrored compacts enabled them to apply makeup more easily and freely than before. A healthy tan replaced the pale skin that was the ideal during the Victorian era.

Though flappers demonstrated their emancipation in a very literal way–breathing freely without corsets and moving easily without long skirts, freed from long hair and restrictive social customs–they were not embraced universally by feminists, who decried their behavior as frivolous and vapid. Suffragettes argued that they had not fought for the vote to watch young women eschew politics in favor of dancing and drinking. Rather than focusing on activism, flappers took the feminist ideal of freedom into the bedroom and the speakeasy.

More traditional elements in American society blamed the flappers’ loose morals on the women’s movement and viewed the flapper as a degenerate, a fallen woman whose rejection of traditional domesticity would spell the downfall of the American family. The flappers’ willingness to engage in illegal and dangerous activity was a thoroughgoing rejection of the traditional role of women as protectors and defenders of morality. Rather than improving the lot of women, flappers were accused of adopting the worst traits of men.

Author Biography

Ellen Welles Page was born in Brooklyn in 1903 to Robert Page and Emma Florence Wells. She was nineteen when she wrote this article for The Outlook magazine. In 1928, she married Franklin Ives Carter, with whom she had a son, Robert.

The Outlook was a progressive Christian weekly magazine, edited by Congregationalist minister and activist Lyman Abbott until his death in October 1922 and published in New York City. Though it featured stories on a wide variety of topics, it was progressive and liberal in tone and theology. At its peak, The Outlook sold 125,000 copies per week. Its last issue was published in June 1935.

Document Analysis

This article seeks to defend flapper culture from those who find flappers’ adherence to pleasure, fashion, dancing, and sexual liberation a waste of energy at best and a dangerous moral degradation at worst. Page argues that flapper culture grew out of youthful exuberance. In a world transformed by war and by social and technological changes, Page argues, young people are disoriented and need confidence and trust.

Page first defines a flapper by identifying herself as one, though a rather tame ‘semi-flapper.’ She has short hair, loves to dance, wears powder and fashionable dresses in bright colors, and socializes freely with men; however, there are other elements of flapper culture that she does not take part in, such as “petting” (kissing and fondling), smoking, drinking, and wearing rouge or lipstick. When she urges understanding from the older generation, therefore, she is speaking as an insider: “I want to beg all you parents, and grandparents, and friends, and teachers, and preachers–you who constitute the ‘older generation’–to overlook our shortcomings, at least for the present, and to appreciate our virtues.”

Page asks that the energy devoted to flapper diversions be seen as a positive expression of “cleverness and energy,” requiring “self- knowledge and self-analysis.” If this energy is being misdirected, Page places the blame squarely on those authority figures who engage in “destructive public condemnation and denunciation” rather than “constructive, sympathetic thinking and acting.” It is not enough, she says, to blame Prohibition and the war for young people’s disillusionment with traditional values, though she does consider the estrangement of her generation a result of the latter, claiming, “The war tore away our spiritual foundations and challenged our faith. We are struggling to regain our equilibrium.” Page argues that young people must be guided toward a constructive future that will allow them to make the most of their “desire, [their] innate longing, toward some special goal of achievement.”

Parents necessarily have the most important part to play in giving young people the guidance and confidence needed to be successful. Young people, after all, lack the maturity to moderate their experience, Page says. She asks her audience to think back to their youth, to “remember how spontaneous and deep were the joys, how serious and penetrating the sorrows.” Parents should praise and respect their children, study them as individuals, and guide them gently toward “a workable philosophy of life.” Page promises that a close, loving relationship will allow parents to have more influence than an authoritarian one and that above all, parents should set an example that their children will want to emulate.

Essential Themes

In this article, Page depicts the flapper not as a moral degenerate, wasting energy on frivolous and dangerous pleasures, but as a disoriented young person in need of love and understanding. She attributes this to the spiritual and social upheaval caused by World War I, and though she does not specifically reference women’s suffrage or feminist activism, she felt her generation was swept up in the “rapidly advancing and mighty tide of civilization.” Youth is a time of extremes, she argued, and her generation was “more thoroughly developed mentally, physically, and vocationally” than any before them. To be successful, they needed confidence and guidance, not condemnation and criticism.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Comacchio, Cynthia. Dominion of Youth: Adolescence and the Making of Modern Canada, 1920 to 1950. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier UP, 2006. Print.
  • Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. New York: Hill, 1995. Print.
  • Page, Ellen Welles. “A Flapper’s Appeal to Parents.” Outlook 6 Dec. 1922: 607. Print.
  • Zeitz, Joshua. Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern. New York: Three Rivers, 2006. Print.
Categories: History Content