In the Jazz Age of the 1920s a cultural shift confronted America. In the cities and in the countryside, females began letting their hair down, wearing skirts, and treating themselves and their fellow men in different ways. These new ways of action and treatment of others reflect a greater cultural shift, one that simply manifested itself in the behaviors of women in certain areas of the US. Such evidence arose most acutely in jazz clubs, places of special change in the cultural fabric of the nation. Two transitions especially mark this time period, transitions that may be the most important or significant for women then and today.
The first transition is self-awareness. Women in the Jazz Age started to see themselves in a way that they had not seen themselves before. What is known as self-awareness, means that a person views herself in a certain way, and at an inaugural point, she actually understands that she is an independent being. Cobble attempts to re-describe the labor politics of the US in the early twentieth century. She accuses early accounts where “U.S. labor politics in the early twentieth century emphasized the lack of class consciousness in the United States and contrasted the greater sex or feminist consciousness in the United States with the greater class consciousness of European men and women.” While Cobble demonstrates that this account does not necessarily cohere with all of the evidence. She nevertheless affirms that some of it was true.
The class and gender divide between the continents surely describes one aspect of transition in the early part of the century. However, the gender awareness in the US was and is more prominent. This still occurs today, where the full fledged feminist movement of the 1970s has passed and given way to a concentration on sexuality and gender that no other place in the world has experienced.
The second major transition is the role of women in public spaces. Todd writes that as early as the turn of the century, some women “bypassed marriage for careers and woman-centered social and political activities, [and] young immigrant women expanded the traditional boundaries of permissible heterosexual interaction.” Here we see both social roles change, in the private and the public sphere. Both were huge but the public sphere especially made waves in the 1920s Jazz Age.
In support of this, Blee studies the presence of females in the Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s. Her study demonstrates the varied and complex reasons behind many women’s movements throughout the United States. The odd appeal of the KKK in the 1920s shows that simplistic values do not and cannot stand as an explanation for the activity of female groups and ideologies. They hold complex and multilayered views on such topics of race and gender. Blee’s study also shows the dominance of public rather than private transition for women in the Jazz Age.
The Jazz Age of the 1920s marked a turning point in the cultural landscape of the US. Women wore skirts, let their hair down and even got jobs normally reserved for males. Two transitions especially stand out: the movement towards gendered self awareness and the change in women’s public roles. These have carried over into today’s society. The current age looks at women pushing boundaries as more normal than those who lived during the Jazz Age, but it seems that both eras see a dramatic shift in the social fabric of the world. The Jazz Age in one sense has ended, in another it simply continues.
- Blee, Kathleen M. “Women in the 1920s’ Ku Klux Klan movement.” Feminist Studies 17 (1991).
- Cobble, Dorothy. “A Higher ‘Standard of Life’ for the World.” Journal of American History (2014): 1052-1085.
- Todd, Ellen Wiley. The “New Woman” Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.