Early 1900s

What’s going on in the early 1900′s?

By Chelsea Mageland


The Progressive era (1910-1919) brought the new woman to the scene: a woman who worked, thus had more economic independence, making her less reliant on her husband or father (Hill, 2008).  Their jobs were generally low paying, and the settings were usually in factories or department stores.  These jobs did give them freedoms they didn’t previously have, such as a broader social life including going out with friends, as well as developing their own identities.  We see this continue on into the 1920′s and beyond.   Working women often went to dance halls, although upper and middle class women looked down upon the women who broke away from the traditional Victorian woman, as Hill (2008) describes as a “passive, proper, demure ‘lady.’”

The "New Woman". This picture was taken from http://www.loc.gov/shop/index.php?action=cCatalog.showItem&cid=23&scid=114&iid=2648

There were many notable events that occurred during the early 20th century for women.  This timeline lists some of the important ones, such as the passage of the amendment allowing women the right to vote and laws improving the working conditions for women (Imbornoni, 2007).  These events show the power in how women’s roles were changing during this time period.  Also present on this timeline is the opening of the first birth control clinic for women, led by Margaret Sanger in 1916.  It is also important to note that the clinic was shut down ten days later, and the next one was not opened until seven years later, in 1923.  This shows the conflicting opinions towards sexuality during this early part of the century.

World War I Influence on Gender Roles

Leading up to the 1920s was World War I (1914-1919), which created a Zeitgeist that was full of nationalism in the United States and a recognition that any day could be your last, especially for men.  It was not unusual for men to eat, drink and be marry, for they did not know when they would be recruited for war or die on the battlefield (Rosenberg).  Men who returned home from war tried to attain the normal life they once lived, which was a difficult task.  It was difficult for women as well, as many of them attained jobs while the men were away at war.  This generation of people had fallen away from the traditional male and female roles in society.

Views toward sex were changing during this time.  Feminists from the World War I era criticized the idea of a family, and to some degree accepted the idea of a “sexual revolution”, that carries on in the 1920s (Tone, 1996).  This included divorce being a more normal occurrence, the acceptance of premarital sex that would not ruin a woman’s reputation, multiple partners, the use of contraception, and dating (Tone, 1996).

Havelock Ellis 

Havelock and his wife. This picture was taken from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/TUhavelock.htm

Havelock Ellis was a psychologist, as well as physiologist, during this time period, and he specifically studied human sexuality while challenging the taboo nature of sexuality that existed in the Victorian Era (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011).  Specifically, his views on homosexuality made him a hero to some, as he claimed that homosexuality was inborn and irreversible (Boeree, 2009).  He is also known for his views that women enjoy sex and have sexual needs, as much as men do.  He was even called an “Olympian” by Margaret Sanger (Boeree, 2009).  He wrote Studies in the Psychology of Sexwhich copyrights back to 1901, and is comprised of seven volumes.  It discusses different topics including things that were very taboo before this time, i.e. homosexuality, masturbation, and the physiology of sexual behavior (Ellis, 1921).  Ellis views that sexual inversion, or homosexuality, was more harmless than people made it out to be (Chiang, 2010).  He also views that it was biological, and not a psychological phenomenon.  One of his goals was to change society’s attitudes about sexuality, and to increase awareness in regards to sexual education.


Boeree, C. G. (2009).  Sexuality. Retrieved from http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/genpsysexuality.html

Chiang, H. H. (2010).  Liberating sex, knowing desire: scientia sexualis and epistemic turning points in the history of sexuality.  History of Human Sciences, 23(5), 42-65.

Ellis, H. (1921). Studies in the psychology of sex.  Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=-tgTAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Hill, C. A. (2008).  Human Sexuality:  Personality and social psychological perspectives. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=tUYBe2s9d3MC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Human+Sexuality:+Personality+and+social+psychological+perspectives.&hl=en&ei=fhTmTo7-CYK62gWti73BBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Human%20Sexuality%3A%20Personality%20and%20social%20psychological%20perspectives.&f=false

Imbornoni, A. M. (2007).  Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.. Retrieved from http://www.infoplease.com/spot/womenstimeline1.html

Parks, L. J. (2005).  Human Sexuality [PDF document].  Retrieved from http://www.speedyceus.com/ceus-courses/material_detail/206/#toc7.

Rosenberg, J. Flappers in the Roaring Twenties.  Retrievedfrom http://history1900s.about.com/od/1920s/a/flappers_2.htm

Tone, A.  (1996).  Controlling reproduction: an American history.  Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=Ul95_vT5Sl4C&pg=PA211&lpg=PA211&dq=Tone,+Andrea.+1996.+%E2%80%9CContraceptive+Consumers:+Gender+and+the+Political+Economy+of+Birth+Control+in+the+1930s.%E2%80%9D+Journal+of+Social+History+29.+485-506.&source=bl&ots=Sb5qYq07fR&sig=w72uabS8ZsDJGGz2O2zpcXVzOJE&hl=en&ei=lnfTTrWnLsLosQLWiKXbDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=illegal&f=false

Whitley, P. (2008).  1900-1909.  American Cultural History.  Retrieved from http://kclibrary.lonestar. edu/ decade00.html

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