Sexuality

Woman getting into carThe concept of the "new woman" possessed a sexual connotation, reflecting changing ideas about female sexuality. Led by young working-class women and encompassing women of all social and economic classes, a sexual revolution of sorts was taking place in the United States by the 1920s. Different from the Victorian era, a middle ground between prostitution and celibacy emerged for unmarried heterosexual women in the early twentieth century. Their parents most likely did not approve of the change, and police forces, juvenile courts, and Progressive reformers sought to curb young women's participation in new social opportunities beyond the purview of adult supervision. Some policewomen and Protestant reformers who monitored young women's public activity and instigated alternative forms of recreation were themselves, ironically, "new women" who had stepped outside of traditional gender roles. Conflict among women who had competing visions of women's roles in modern society was thus significant to the transformation of gender roles. A model of dispute between two generations captures one of the dynamics of the 1910s and 1920s, but it does not fully explain the complex ways that change occurred. Within each generation were great differences among women--and for every young woman who rebelled against her mother's ways there was probably another who chose restraint. Exploring new women's sexual attitudes further shows how the "old" and "new" were not easily separable categories.

Marriage is one aspect of sexual life in which there was continuity between generations. Young and unmarried women on the whole by the 1910s and 1920s preferred to participate in a consumer-oriented, heterosocial (or mixed-sex) culture situated in the public sphere and saturated with heterosexuality, but they tended to settle into family life upon marriage, much as earlier generations had. Unlike their predecessors, however, these women could flirt and date in the world of cheap amusements, which catered to sensual pleasures and small pocketbooks. Meanwhile, the female solidarity of nineteenth- and twentieth-century women's reform movements, clubs, and colleges--the late Victorian new woman's realm of activity-declined in popularity.

       
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