Flappers, Liberation of Women, Margaret Sanger, Birth Control

The invention of contraception pills and the development of the "flapper" image in the 1920's represented the modern woman's deviation from her strictly defined traditional role, which confined her primarily to the family and household. Although more conservative generations frowned upon the movements and held them responsible for the supposed break-down of respectable society, the nation's women felt liberated in their new image and lifestyle, and the culture of the flapper era promoted social unity and harmony among young people.


The Problem:
-The Comstock Laws of 1873
-prohibited perscription and promotion of contraception by any person, including physicians
-criminalized possesion of contraceptive items; the penalty could be fines of up to $1000 and/or up to 5 years in prison
-approximately 1 in 4 maternal deaths was related to self-induced abortions

By 1938 Federal Law recognized the right to provide contraceptive information
Mississippi, Massachusetts, and Connecticut still withheld this right under state law.

Magaret Sanger

  • Leading advocate for women's rights, specifically birth control
  • Established the American Birth Control League, a precursor for Planned Parenthood
  • Author of a magazine, The Woman Rebel and The Birth Control Review
  • Opened the first legal birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1923, although it was only for life-threatening pregnancies


  • With the independent woman came the image of a woman who didn't want to be burdened with an excess of children
"Society, in dealing with the feminine spirit… can resort to violence in an effort to enslave the elemental urge of womanhood, making of woman a mere instrument of reproduction and punishing her when she revolts. Or, it can permit her to choose whether she shall become a mother and how many children she will have. It can go on crushing what is uncrushable, or it can recognize woman's claim to freedom, and cease to impose destructive barriers." Margaret Sanger
  • Many women equated birth control with social freedom
  • Additionally, Sanger and her supporters argued that without legal birth control, reproduction was proportionally too high in the lower classes
    • Birth control would help improve and "purify" general society
  • Because it was illegal, contraceptives were sold in the guise of hygienic products, but were often unreliable and dangerous
  • "Some have feared that if Birth Control knowledge were given to the world, there would be no more babies…. People want homes and babies, but want them under proper conditions" -Ella K Dearborn

Why not?
  • Many worried that these would mean the end of the traditional family and would lead to the loss of a generation
  • Many prominent religious groups believed that birth control was immoral
  • A woman's role was considered by many to be entirely based in raising a family. It was inconceivable that she should not wish to do so.
  • The shift in the role of a woman was not supported by many, who feared allowing birth control would expand the woman's role even more, creating less of a defined line between men and women.



What is a flapper?

-The term “flapper” came from Europe, originally describing girls of an “awkward age” in their late teens and early twenties.
-In the carefree mood of post-war America, the term was transformed to describe women of youth, beauty, and daringness.
-Authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald helped to glorify the flapper as an icon.
-The ideal woman, said Fitzgerald, is "lovely, expensive, and about nineteen ."

The flapper lifestyle:

-The fashion consisted of simple dresses with much shorter skirts than had previously been considered acceptable.
-The style was boyish; young women cut their hair into bobs and bound their chests.
-Flappers smoked cigarettes, drank bootleg liquor, and spoke in slang—habits considered improper previously restricted to men.
-Flappers danced in a wilder and freer style, inspired by jazz music. The Charleston was a popular dance.

The rise of the flapper image was intertwined with the consumerism of the 1920’s. Female “equality” combined with the nation’s love of the aesthetic and glamorous advertisements opened a new consumer group in America.

The “flapper” was a new image of women…but it did NOT represent what feminists and women’s rights activists had envisioned.

Women’s rights reformers had envisioned:
Equal work opportunities
Greater authority In marriage and in the community
Greater respect and less objectification of women

Flappers stood for:
More similar social behaviors to men
A more casual and carefree lifestyle
Luxury and beauty

Many older generations were shocked by the loose lifestyle of the flappers
Considered them immoral
Worried about their effects on traditional family

While acceptable behaviors were certainly less strictly defined, the flapper was not the independent and respected woman the female reformers had imagined, but rather a glamorous new type of objectification of young women.

Although the flapper is a familiar icon of the twenties, it stood for a very wealthy lifestyle that was not representative of the majority of the population during the ‘20s.

“Your mind is merely emotion

Vainly striving to be discreet..
Because you are twenty years old
Life is still a pleasant tenor voice
Bounding from a shrouded singer,
Who promises you romantic gambles
With human outlines in filmy costumes.

Philosophers and intellectuals
Regard you with scorn and sneering amusement.”
By Maxwell Bodenheim, 1922


  • The battle for birth control continues has not been entirely put to bed
  • The issue of whether abortion (legalized in 1970) and the day after pill should remain available is still prominent in American politics
  • The separation between generations, with the older generation being shocked by the behavior of the younger generation has been ever present throughout time, remaining true today.
  • The distinction between gender roles is still present, if to a lesser extent
  • A society based on a less strict moral code (like the flappers) is still popular