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The Liberation of American Women in the 1920s

15 November 2020

3 mins

by Jade Caublot

As part of my American Century coursework I chose to answer the question “to what extent was the 1920s an era of liberation for American women?”. I argued that the era only saw the partial liberation of a small portion of American women as the majority remained oppressed by sexism and racism. My argument was mostly based around the experience of 3 different groups of American women- Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic women.

This era is often positively represented as the ‘Roaring Twenties’ characterised partly by its progressiveness regarding women’s rights. However, this portrayal fails to acknowledge how the momentum of the feminist movement was limited as a result of persistent racism, and conservative political views. During the lectures I learned that the 1920s was a much divided decade which helped me formulate my argument and structure my research.

Initially, I identified the major events, political organisations and representation of women at the time. I also chose to define ‘liberation’ as sexual, economic and political freedoms, and to analyse the extent to which African-American, Caucasian and Hispanic women experienced these during the 1920s. In order to support my argument I made use of various journal articles- some highlighted the progression of the feminist movement, whilst others explained the social and cultural barriers that restricted change.

On one hand, my essay explored the ways in which the 1920s did witness some liberation for American women. This was firstly achieved through the form of legislation- most notably the 19th Amendment which enabled women to vote. In addition, during this period, the Harlem Renaissance gave some African American women the platforms to express their daily struggles with both sexism and racism.

However, ultimately, I argued that the era gave American women limited liberation as many political groups focussed on ending sex discrimination in laws but ignored the ways in which class and race could also impact women’s freedoms. As a result, the women that benefitted the most from this era were white, middle-class women who lived in urban areas.

The basis of my essay was that women experienced this era very differently to one another as they had varied levels of freedom to begin with. Hispanic women remained constrained as they were in charge of maintaining the Hispanic culture within their communities and were therefore shamed for embracing Americanise modernity and the sexual and economic freedom it entailed. Moreover, most African American women faced occupational segregation which limited them to the domestic, low paying jobs, the exceptions being the few Harlem Renaissance artists.

I really enjoyed researching this topic as it gave me an insight into the reality of first wave feminism. It enabled me to gain a better understanding of the delicate task of fighting for women’s rights in a country with a pronounced North-South divide of wealth and political views, and its impact on women’s opportunities. The experience of Hispanic women was especially interesting to study as it illustrated how national social change can create tensions within minority groups.

Bio: My name is Jade Caublot. I’m French but moved abroad to Perth (Australia) when I was 7 which is where I learned to speak English and then relocated to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) two years later. I spent 9 years living there before moving to Loughborough in 2018 to start university. I’m a third year Politics and International Relations student and I’m about to start my placement as an English Language Assistant in Spain. I will also be completing a TEFL certified course at the International University of Catalonia.

Photo by Kevin Lanceplaine on Unsplash

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