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Women of the 1920s


  1. America in the Early 20s
  2. Legislation for the Voting Woman
  3. Marriage, Family, and Activism

America in the Early 20s

The early 20s were a time of great national change. World War I had just come to an end, bringing with it the end of war-supported industries, something which hit farmers particularly hard.1 It was also the first time in history that urban populations outnumbered the rural.2 Ruth's story of a small town girl moving to the city to better herself was not unusual, especially in the increasingly industrialized Northeast. This was a time when nativism increased in direct response to immigration from non-English speaking and non-Protestant countries. In 1921 a quota system was passed by Warren Harding, and immigration restrictions became more stringent with the Johnson Bill in the Coolidge era.3 This was also a new world for women. Prohibition had gone into effect, in large part thanks to women's support. Most importantly, the suffrage movement had finally succeeded, and legislators were confronted with a whole new set of constituents that they had to please. Women's societies, like Ruth's "Daughters of Maine," were not simply social clubs, they were also forums for political debate.

The 1920s saw the rise of dozens of women's clubs and the evolution of several others already in existence. The National League of Women Voters, founded in 1919, saw Republican president Warren Harding into office on the platform of supporting equal pay for equal work and welfare for mothers and children. By the 1920s, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, first founded in 1890 in New York (their first state branch was in Maine),4 had 2,800,000 members working on legislation to improve the conditions of children and women in the workplace.5 In 1920, the Women's Joint Congressional Committee (WJCC) was founded to propose federal legislation on behalf of its members.

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Legislation for the Voting Woman

Group portrait of eight women holding a sign listing the planks to be presented by the National League of Women Voters to the Democratic Platform Committee6

The first piece of legislation that the WJCC saw successfully to Congress was the Sheppard-Towner Act, a measure that proposed to provide federal funds for women's medical care and match funds provided by the state. It was one of the first federal welfare programs. The United States at the time was losing 18,000 mothers annually to childbirth.7 The WJCC "drafted letters and their members deluged congress",8 and the bill passed with President Harding's support in 1921.

The measure was not without its detractors and ultimately not wholly successful. Massachusetts and Connecticut were two of four states that refused to ratify the bill. The Boston Globe published an article in 1923 saying that the law, which required states to contribute tax dollars to the program, would place the burden of tax support largely on industrial states such as Massachusetts. Mrs. Harriet A. Frothingham of Boston even brought the case to the Supreme Court, saying, if the law is "enforced, she will be compelled to pay for advantages enjoyed by other states."9 The case was dismissed, but illustrates a strong state-centric feeling in industrial Massachusetts. The Maine legislature at the time was not a proponent either. In 1922 the Daughters of Maine had hosted an event where this bill was critiqued, in favor of support for women at the state and county level.10

The only other major piece of women's legislation to pass in the 1920s was the Cable Act of 1922, which allowed women to retain their citizenship after marrying a man of foreign extraction. This was a reversal of a 1907 bill that unfairly targeted women who married foreign men. The law still was not completely equal, since women, unlike men, could not retain their citizenship if they married a man who was not eligible for US citizenship (such as an Asian man), or if they lived for more than two years in their husband's country.11

The success of women's legislation in the 20s after this was limited, but not for want of women's activism. The Boston papers were filled with debates on issues that were relevant to women. The first Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to congress in 1923, 1924, 1925, and 1929. It simply stated, "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."12 It never passed due to fears from both sides about women being taken out of the home, and also that they would lose special state protections governing women's labor.13

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Marriage, Family, and Activism

Dorothy Dix14

Women were involved in a variety of other more specific causes as well, both politically and socially. They sponsored bills for making marriage and divorce law uniform at the federal level. In 1923 Dorothy Dix, the first Dear Abby, saw her marriage advice column for women appear in the Boston Globe, thanks to a deal with the Ledger company.15 She dealt with topics of love, but also stressed a woman's need for education and the importance of standing up to, or leaving, an abusive or negligent husband.16 Furthermore, it was not only women who sought out her advice.

The WJCC, the League of Women Voters, and the YWCA were also passionate supporters of the Child Labor Amendment, and from 1923-1924 members testified at Congressional hearings and distributed pamphlets. Ultimately they were unsuccessful in Massachusetts, coming up against the National Association of Manufacturers, the journalists of the Catholic Diocese's Pilot, and of the Woman Patriot, a right-wing women's publication, all claiming "unwarranted state intrusion into the family and interference with the traditions on the family farm."17

The woman's birth control movement, led by Margaret Sanger and the American Birth Control League from New York, gained momentum in the papers and women's clubs of the 20s, and worked to submit legislation to Congress, mostly focusing on a woman's right to contraception education. On December 15, 1921, Sanger spoke in Boston, stating that "she was tackling the most difficult states first"18 of which Massachusetts was number one. She also stated that she did not mean to "drop a bomb on conservative Boston"19 (paraphrased by the Globe), but that she believed "90 percent of the persons in the US would vote for birth control if it were just up to them."20 Despite Sanger's claim, her reception in New England was always mixed, and in 1923 the Globe reported that she was unable to lecture in New Haven, Connecticut, due to an inability to find a hall in which to meet.21 In 1929, however, a Simmons professor of economics, Dr. Norman E. Himes, gave a talk where he asked, "How can we most effectively found more clinics in the United States? Shall we 'crash through' as Margaret Sanger did in New York? Or shall we pussy-foot as they are doing in Boston?"22

The birth control battle, along with other hot women's issues in the 1920s, paints a very interesting picture of the urbanizing Northeast. The women's college movement in the Northeast was initially an answer to the male Ivy League schools, to prove that women "were the intellectual equals of men."23 Women who attended these colleges, were primarily wealthy members of the upper middle class. Increasingly, however, there was recognition that women in the lower working class needed education that could help them advance in the workplace, leading to a "press for vocational education"24 in 1920s New England. Ruth, a well-educated farmer's daughter, and Simmons itself, were part of a wider movement. Boston and the rest of the Northeast, while well known as bastions of conservatism and state-centrism, provided a platform for women's voices to be heard, and were at the forefront of the debate for the diverse body of voting women trying to find their role in a rapidly evolving world.

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1 Ronald Allen Goldberg, America in the Twenties, 1st ed, America in the Twentieth Century (Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 2003), 4.

2 Goldberg, America in the Twenties,19.

3 Goldberg, America in the Twenties, 54.

4 "History," GFWC: Maine Federation of Women's Clubs, accessed April 21, 2017, http://www.gfwcmaine.org/history.html

5 Dorothy M. Brown, Setting a Course: American Women in the 1920s,(Boston: Twayne, 1987), 51.

6Hartsook Photo, Group portrait of eight women holding a sign listing the planks to be presented by the National League of Women Voters to the Democratic Platform Committee. Papers of Maud Wood Park in the Woman's Rights Collection, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, accessed April 21, 2017, https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library/collection/papers-maud-wood-park-in-womans-rights-collection

7 Brown, Setting a Course, 52.

8 Brown, Setting a Course, 53.

9 '"Will Save Babies"-- "Unconstitutional".'Boston Daily Globe (1923-1927), Apr 22, 1923, accessed April 21, 2017, https://search.proquest.com/docview/497256322?accountid=9675

10"Wardwell Defends County Institutions." Boston Daily Globe (1872-1922), Feb 24, 1922, accessed April 21, 2017,https://search.proquest.com/docview/504313301?accountid=9675

11Meg Hacker, "When Saying 'I Do' Meant Giving Up Your US Citizenship," Prologue-Quarterly of The National Archives and Records Administration 46, no. 1 (SPR 2014): 56-61.

12"Texts of the Equal Rights Amendment, 1923 and 1972," Women and Social Movements in the U.S. 1600-2000,, last modified 2017, http://asp6new.alexanderstreet.com.ezproxy.simmons.edu:2048/was2/was2.object.details.aspx?dorpid=1000690370

13"Document 4: Industrial Equality, 1924," Women and Social Movements in the U.S. 1600-2000, las modified 2017, http://asp6new.alexanderstreet.com.ezproxy.simmons.edu:2048/was2/was2.object.details.aspx?dorpid=1000683214

14Dorothy Dix.Dorothy Dix Collection, Felix G. Woodward Library, Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tennessee, accessed April 21, 2017, http://digital-library.apsu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/dix/id/88/rec/11

15 "Finding Aid," Dorothy Dix Special Collection, accessed April 21, 2017, http://library.apsu.edu/Dix/research/guide.htm

16 "Dorothy Dix' Letter Box: Shall She Give Up a College Education to Marry a Piker?" Boston Daily Globe (1923-1927), Dec 23, 1924, accessed April 21, 2017, https://search.proquest.com/docview/498067171?accountid=9675
"Dorothy Dix' Letter Box: The Wife Who Submits to Abuse," Boston Daily Globe (1923-1927), Dec 27, 1924, accessed April 21, 2017, https://search.proquest.com/docview/498084349?accountid=9675

17 Brown, Setting a Course, 58.

18 "To Win Bay State to Birth Control," Boston Daily Globe (1872-1922), Dec 15, 1921, accessed April 21, 2017, https://search.proquest.com/docview/504256326?accountid=9675

19 "To Win Bay State to Birth Control."

20 "To Win Bay State to Birth Control."

21 "New Haven 'Halls' All Shut to Margaret Sanger," Boston Daily Globe (1923-1927), Mar 05, 1923, accessed April 21, 2017, https://search.proquest.com/docview/497172601?accountid=9675

22 "Birth Control Topic of Simmons Instructor," Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960), Jun 02, 1929, accessed April 21, 2017, https://search.proquest.com/docview/758625362?accountid=9675

23 Brown, Setting a Course, 135.

24 Brown, Setting a Course, 136.