Women and the Modern World Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and smaller groups aligned themselves with labor organizations and immigrant associations to support child labor laws and literacy campaigns, in addition to their main focus on votes for women. They worked with state legislatures to create progressive social policies, even while distancing themselves from some of the racist and nativist strains of the Populist Movement then gaining ground. Their efforts were parlayed into a national campaign to amend the US Constitution, which culminated in 1920 in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote. By the time of ratification, then, some seventeen states already allowed for women’s suffrage. Still, the Amendment was a momentous occasion, putting women on equal political footing with men–in terms of rights, that is, if not in terms of power.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and smaller groups aligned themselves with labor organizations and immigrant associations to support child labor laws and literacy campaigns, in addition to their main focus on votes for women. They worked with state legislatures to create progressive social policies, even while distancing themselves from some of the racist and nativist strains of the Populist Movement then gaining ground. Their efforts were parlayed into a national campaign to amend the US Constitution, which culminated in 1920 in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote. By the time of ratification, then, some seventeen states already allowed for women’s suffrage. Still, the Amendment was a momentous occasion, putting women on equal political footing with men–in terms of rights, that is, if not in terms of power.

There was still much work to do, of course, and suffrage did not immediately produce any major changes. It did, however, give impetus to another key issue for women and families: access to birth control. A key player here was Margaret Sanger, who in 1916 attempted to open a birth control clinic only to see it shut down and herself jailed briefly. In the wake of the Great War and the voting amendment, though, attitudes had begun to change, and an honest public discussion about birth control was deemed appropriate. As more women joined the workforce, it became untenable to view them primarily as child-bearers and child-rearers. Thus, when Sanger opened a new birth control clinic in 1923, it was allowed to operate. Sexuality was still something of a loaded issue, but it was no longer the absolute taboo it had been in previous eras.

Young women known as “flappers” took advantage of the new social mores and appeared in public in short skirts, cropped hair, and heavy makeup. They sought to break out of the behavioral mold assigned women of the past, freely associating with men, driving around in cars, drinking, smoking, and engaging in sexual liaisons. They listened to jazz and danced with abandon in new, modern styles. In many ways, flappers came to epitomize the 1920s and the dawn of modernism.

In the present section we encounter all of these subjects, from the struggle to win and make use of the vote to the development of birth control and the nature of life as a flapper.

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