Women made social gains in the 1920s, but not without opposition from a society that was becoming increasingly conservative. In the late 1910s during World War I attitudes were more tolerant towards working women as their husbands were off fighting to defend their country. However in the 1920s attitudes changed after the war ended. Although they had gained the right to vote, the prevailing attitude was that women should settle back home and quietly care for their husbands and children.
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The life of the woman as a political participant in the electoral process began on August 26, 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, which after years of fighting through a male-dominated legislative system granted women the right to vote. However, according to North Carolina Museum of History curator Louise Benner, more conservative women resisted the change. Some women felt that it was best to leave the political sphere to men. They thought that their place was in the fields of child care, housework, and church.
Nevertheless women continued to make gains in the political arena beyond simply the right to vote. They pushed for laws ending child labour abuses, and for improving conditions in prisons. Even more significantly in the 1920s women first received election to public office. Middle Tennessee State University Professor Ken Middleton cites Nellie Tayloe Ross, who won election as the first female governor of Wyoming in 1925 and Bertha K. Landes, who emerged as mayor of Seattle two years later.
Women attended college in the 1920s, albeit not in the large numbers characteristic of modern times. Benner reports that society did not expect women to aspire to professions other than teachers and nurses, but evidence does exist to suggest that women attended law school during the 1920s. According to Cornell women's historian Cynthia Grant Bowman the major law schools such as New York University, Cornell, and Boston University admitted female law students prior to 1920 but the largest number of the women who studied law during that time attended part time schools such as Portia School of Law in Boston and Washington College of Law in the United States capital. However, as Bowman points out, an education didn't necessarily mean a job. As women graduated and began to apply for jobs they often encountered disappointment in finding out that employers -- who were mostly men -- did not take them seriously as applicants.
Homemaking was still a large part of life in the 1920s for women. Society expected women to clean, cook, and produce and raise children. According to Professor Lynn Dumenil the ads for home appliances targeted women specifically, and almost anytime advertisers produced radio commercials or print ads their aim was to let women know how their new products would make life as a housewife better.
All women did not simply submit to the social mores of the day and an underlying rebellion of the status quo was occurring. The "flapper" movement challenged the paradigm of the morally pure woman, who shunned alcohol and tobacco and remained refined. The flapper was usually a woman in her late teens or 20s who drank, smoke, cut her hair short, and participated in swing dances.
In the job market women flourished in the arts and entertainment fields. Zora Neale Hurston copyrighted her first play, "Meet the Mama," in 1925. Two years later Dorothy Arzner directed her first film, Fashions for Women, and in 1929 Mildred Wirt signed a contract to write her first three Nancy Drew mysteries.
Outside of the arts arena women made gains in the work force, although they met strong resistance from male employers. They often found employment as sales clerks, secretaries, and telephone operators but often met with disappointment if they attempted to advance into law. According to Dumenil, society was still hostile towards women who worked for personal fulfilment rather than dire need.
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