Even in the modern day world, women struggle against discriminatory stigmas based on their sex. However, the beginnings of the feminist movement in the early 20th century set in motion the lasting and continuing expansion of women's rights. Our historical thinking performance task, centers around the following question: How did WWI, women's suffrage, and social liberalism in the 1920s contribute to the expansion of the role of women in society in America?
During WWI, women took on extended roles as a result of the demands of the conflict, setting in motion a movement towards female liberalization that would continue in the following decades and into today. For example, a WWI poster depicts a nurse looking towards the heavens angelically with a look of determination and duty on her face. In her hands she's cradling a wounded soldier on a stretcher instead of a baby and the writing says, "The Greatest Mother in the World". This can be seen as being reflective of a change of typical roles for women in motherhood (more as a caretaker for all in need rather than just children). The poster vividly shows the need for nurses, recruiting women to duty out of the home where they are mothers to children onto the battlefield to care for soldiers by appealing to the nobility of their role as women. At the same time, this shows a change in their usual 'place', giving them greater autonomy and responsibility and potential in the workplace. Similarly, the excerpt from the feminist Harriot Blatch's work Mobilizing Woman-Power appeals to the dire need for women to fill men's roles during the war in order to ensure victory. This reveals the expanding role of women in the workforce and also is reflective of the newfound sense of power women were attaining as a result of that expansion of capability in the public sphere. Finally, the women worker photo shows women after the war that remained in the workforce, working in factories. It highlights the continued position of women at work that had been instituted out of necessity during the war. The fact that they are still working, and in a usually male setting, depicts their determination to maintain their autonomy and new capabilities outside the home. As a result of the needs of war, society allowed women to step out of their usually conservative roles and in so doing gave them a first taste of independence and stature that they would not relinquish easily.
Women's suffrage is addressed in the political cartoon "Election Day" which depicts a woman leaving to vote while her husband sits at home with the children. This primary source shows a reversal of roles usually assigned the sexes, highlighting the newfound autonomy of women and their growing role in not only politics but in life. The Kaiser photo likewise brings to light how women stepped out of their usual roles into the political arena through the suffrage movement. The woman shown is protesting the President's neglect of women's suffrage during the war, likening him to the Kaiser by his allowing the suppression of women through the withholding of the vote. It captures how women not only stepped outside their boundaries in the home, but fought for their equality in politics. The Hobby letter also brings up an important argument when the Lieutenant Governor discusses the inevitably of women's suffrage because of their expanding commercial and social autonomy during and after WWI. He additionally discusses how both the President and Congress, showing how other members of society were acknowledging the change in women's position in the United States, were voting women's suffrage into legislation.
Additionally, the social liberalism of the 1920s largely centered on the flamboyant culture that developed after WWI. The 1920s Buick ad demonstrates the new emphasis on women as independents in society by saying that the car is "her" car that she can use to drive her children around. The ad appeals to women by deemphasizing their need for men. It especially appeals to them since cars usually are 'men's' business, reflecting the importance of the individualism and capability of women in society. Next, the flapper picture shows this new place of women in American culture by capturing jovial, scantily clad (for that era), dancing women. They look both provocative and sensational, highlighting the sheer difference (with greater social freedom) in how women behaved. Last, the "Flapper Jane" article further elaborates on how women's activities expanded by describing specific capabilities that the author recognized in women that were more independent than ever before (including clothing, interactions with men, sexuality, etc.).
The effects of WWI, the women's suffrage movement, and the social liberalism of the 1920s, all contributed to the expanding role of women in society. The primary documents reveal how women were able to take on new capabilities socially, politically, and economically, ushering in a new era for women as citizens in America that continues to grow today. Modern issues, like abortion, complicate the struggle for female rights; the abilities gained from the past, however, will support the voice of women in the future.
Created by: Laurel and Stephanie on 10/10/09
We are teacher education candidates at the University of Texas at Austin completing our Student as Historian assignment in order to meet course requirements for Secondary Advanced Social Studies Methods.