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Tuesday, 6.22.04: 1920s - Women Get Dangerous

(Preparing for my James and Orpha project)

Yesterday I wrote about how Americans floated into the 1920s on a tide of post-War Americanism, idealistic yet so afraid of radicals that intolerance was allowed to flourish.

But the post-War Red Menace seemed to contain itself abroad and the country relaxed. In fact, prosperity trumped radicalism. The new invention of radio was a great entertainer, as were tabloid newspapers. People went crazy over sports, bathing beauty contests, mah jong, and King Tut.

Women may have gotten the vote, but they threw off the dowdy asexual dress of the suffragettes -- including their corsets -- in favor of short skirts, short sleeves, and sheer  stockings. They cut their hair and painted their faces. The wool and cotton industries crashed. The silk, rayon, and cosmetic industries flourished.

Lenin fell out of favor as the most dangerous European in exchange for Dr. Freud. Women interpreted Freud as saying that lots of sex was needed for good health. Parents were appalled as they slowly learned about the popularity of petting parties. While saloons used to be the exclusive haunt of men, women crowded into speakeasies. The cigarette industry boomed.

I wonder if the old suffragettes were horrified. I know that the first generation of 1960s "women's libbers" were disappointed when they saw Generation X women trivializing their hard-won "equal rights." Baby boomers claimed bras and high heels were symbols of male oppression. Then came the Wonder Bra and the resurgence of stilettos. There is something about the description of young 1920s women that reminds me of "Sex and the City." Girls out on the town, loving their freedom and their own gorgeousness.

This was Orpha's time. She didn't hang out in speakeasies, but her liberation came through getting to go away to college at Cornell. Her letters and diaries don't spout a lot of rhetoric about the times. I guess few people are aware of how their lives reflect the era they live in. But she threw off the yoke of Victorian expectations and became a "Modern." While she was dating James at Cornell, she maintained two boyfriends in Glens Falls. She was an actress and a member of the crew team. She resisted tradition. While she couldn't avoid a church wedding, she insisted that it be held in the evening. Her wedding gown was a short blue silk shift.

[Link to James and Orpha Letters]




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