Influential Women of the 1920s — MyCharleston (2023)

Over the years, there have been many influential women who have broken social boundaries and obliterated gender stereotypes in order to try and make a positive change to the way that women are viewed in society in the hope that one day they will be seen as equal. From those who we learn about in school like Harriet Tubman and Emmeline Pankhurst to the women of the 1920s who are often hidden and forgotten about such as Virginia Woolf and Ma Rainey; there is still so much more to learn about these incredible women of the Jazz Age.

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What is Feminism and why is it important?

Feminism is defined as ‘The advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.’ This is a concept that has gained popularity throughout the 21st century, with many individuals incorporating feminist values into their core beliefs. Despite the common use of the phrase, it still gets mistaken with the idea of, ‘hatred towards men’ which is the main contributing factor as to why there is so much more work to do in terms of women’s rights; even today.

Feminism in the 1920s

The ‘Roaring Twenties’ was no stranger to the concept of Feminism and was an important decade for radical change in terms of women’s history. Uptight Victorian values were being slowly forgotten about, and society was changing in ways that had never been seen before. Women’s right to vote came into force in 1920 which was a long-awaited pivotal moment and, to some extent, gave them autonomy over the way they expressed themselves within society. As their newfound political confidence grew, so did their daring attitudes and the demand for social and liberal change was at the forefront of women’s minds. As a result of this, despite the lack of equal opportunities within the workplace, the population of women in work had almost doubled by 1921.

Virginia Woolf: an inspirational author

Virginia Woolf, a female of author of the 1920s, was known for her radical ideals in terms of women’s rights and through her written works, paved the way for women to have an active role in literature. Despite her lack of socialist values, Woolf was named the, ‘Foremother of the Feminist Movement’ due to her belief that women should be provided with an education and allowed to make their own money without being tied into marriage. Woolf’s depiction of a married women was highly rejected throughout the 1920s as she removed the idea of the traditional, submissive housewife and replaced it with a ‘rebellious’ woman who demanded for equal treatment within the family home and in wider society as a whole.

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Woolf also made sure to rewrite the rules of literature within her works through including aspects of her own life to portray the prevalence of mental illness in women. This was a topic that was not openly spoken about during her time of writing. Woolf, herself, suffered from bipolar disorder but, like many other women with mental health conditions in the 1920s, she was refused treatment and viewed as ‘insane’ by medical professionals as they believed she was just a woman who was, ‘hysterical and overly emotional.’ The lack of medical intervention consequently led to an early death, which was a common occurrence for women with mental illnesses during the 1920s.

Furthermore, Virginia Woolf was also part of the Bloomsbury Circle which was a group of literary eccentrics who actively advocated for the LGBTQ+ community and their rights. Woolf herself had romantic relationships with women which inspired her 1928 novel, Orlando, which is one of the first novels recorded to ever explore gender fluidity and is also known to be the first novel in the English language to have a transgender character.

Josephine Baker: a 1920s icon

When you hear the name ‘Josephine Baker,’ immediately banana skirts, iconic performances and pet Cheetahs come to mind but what you don’t think of is everything else that went on in between her successes on stage which makes Josephine Baker one of history’s biggest icons who we should all know and appreciate.

From a young street performer to civil rights activist later on in life, the question is, was there anything that Josephine Baker didn’t do? It appears not. From the moment she was born in 1906 to her unfortunate death in 1975 Josephine achieved what many couldn’t and made history, not only for African Americans but also for women.

From very early on, Baker was subjected to extreme racism and horrific abuse and at a young age was put to work, cleaning for rich, white families. To make her situation more bearable she began to create little routines to perform on the streets in exchange for money; little did she know that this would be the beginning of a life on the stage. At the age of 13, she travelled solo to New York and got a job in two black stage shows, ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘The Black Dandies.’ These shows became a huge success as they were two of the first Broadway performances to feature black, African Americans. By this time Baker was beginning to embrace the full originality of the Jazz Age yet the rest of American society were still sceptical of women and their new-found sense of freedom that they often mocked her quirky style of dance.

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In addition to her life in show business, Josephine Baker was also a civil rights activist and a spy for the French Resistance where, in World War II, she used her status to travel Europe to infiltrate Military bases in order to divulge secret information, which she would then write in invisible ink on sheet music to bring back to the French officials. In order to gain respect from the male soldiers, she would perform for them in the hope that, “if they applaud [her] they would never acquire a hatred for colour.”

From the very beginning of her life, Josephine Baker went against societal norms and pushed boundaries in terms of female sexual expression which, in turn, paved the way for liberal change. She took pride in the power of being different and made total disregard for the idea that women should be silent.

Ma Rainey: The woman who changed Blues

Although Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey was a huge success in the 1920s, many don’t know the name of this Blues Singer who eradicated racial segregation through her revolutionary music. With her satin gowns, capped gold teeth and necklaces made of gold coins, Ma Rainey became an instant success and was given the title, ‘The Mother of Blues’ which she upheld right the way through her musical career and into her retirement.

Despite the success of her works, she was heavily mocked by the music industry for being a black woman and was frequently told that she would never make it and as a result, only performed and made music for 5 years. However, even though her career was short lived, she recorded over 90 singles, and many had become world hits by the time she retired. Due to the immense scale of her popularity, white people defied the rules of segregation in 1920s South America to watch her shows. These performances were some of the first few occasions that the integration of race occurred in South America.

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Ma Rainey was also a pioneer for black women who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community and fought for them to have the opportunity to actively participate in the music industry. Identifying as bisexual herself, Ma Rainey was able to represent a group of individuals who were often overlooked in society and gave them a voice to speak up about injustice. However, identifying as anything but heterosexual during the 1920s was illegal and as a result, Rainey was arrested for having a relationship with another woman.

It is clear from the beginning of her career that she was unafraid to go against the law and the societal pressures that were present at the time as she sang about dark, taboo, and controversial topics such as murder, mental health, drinking and femininity as well as being unapologetically open about her sexuality and gender expression.

I think it is safe to say that all of these women are nothing less than iconic and highlight how women uphold the power to change the world, but who is your favourite? Are there any other women of the 1920s that you admire?

We would love to hear your thoughts.

By: Eleanor O’Donnell

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