Women in World War I



o The decade following World War I proved to be the most explosive decade of the century. America emerged as a world power, the 19th amendment was ratified, and the expansion of capitalism welcomed the emergence of consumerism. The consumer era was established, which generated new spending opportunities for most Americans in the 1920’s. From the latest fashions to the world of politics, ideologies collided to construct a society based on contradicting principles. These powerful ideologies infected men and women of all classes with an inescapable desire for material possessions; however this ideological tug-of war affected women the most. Although legally declared citizens, society’s assumption of motherhood and domesticity, being the only professions for women, still remained supreme in the country that supposedly promoted equal opportunity. New sex role stereotypes appeared throughout society and women became identified with the consumer culture for they were "major purchasers of products" and "constituted a crucial underpinning of the economy" (Dumenil 144). No group was more responsive to this than the advertising industry, which introduced new images while reinforcing traditional stereotypes. As speculation on women’s rights grew tiresome after suffrage had been won, women separated in search of their own individuality; however a woman’s identity was based on the sex-role stereotypes advertisements continuously portrayed which in turn transformed cultural expectations and thwarted women’s autonomy.
o The emergence of consumerism allowed advertisements to be viewed worldwide. "Across the nation, women in cities, towns and farms paged through issues of mass-circulation magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Home Companion, and the American Home Magazine, studying their often extensive fashion and home décor features and advertisements" (Sterns and Lewis 379). Due to advances in technology, significant changes in advertising appeared in the 1920’s. In the latter half of the 1900’s ads were illustrated in color for the first time and the layout of most magazines changed. Advertisements, in the 1910 Ladies’ Home Journal, were mostly located in the back of the magazine. Though due to the popularization of name brands, ads moved to the front as competition between products produced more revenue.
o The new layout and colorful images proved to be a success as readers were provided with lively illustrations that advertised popular names and fashionable trends. Historian Susan Strasses in her study of American mass-market development "found that by the early 1920’s Americans were requesting brand names from their grocers" (Scanlon 31). In addition to the introduction of new advertising techniques, it has been estimated that 94% of the United States, including African Americans, could read. Even so advertisements only marketed towards the white middle class for they were the one’s generating the money; and "between 1910 and 1929, the average purchasing power of Americans rose 40%" (Scanlon 12).
o Contrary to belief, the independent young woman connected with post-World War I actually emerged in the early 1900’s. By 1930 481,000 women attended college, which is a significant increase compared to the 85,000 women who attended college in 1900; however the courses offered to women differed greatly. At women’s colleges before 1914, "a student might take classes in Urban Social and Economic Conditions or Rural Social and Economic Conditions" but "by the middle of the 1920’s courses in Husband and Wife, Motherhood, and the family as an economic unit" (Parrish 153) were mandatory in many of the prestigious women’s colleges. The statistics reflect society’s expectations regarding a woman’s intellect. The independent woman was now forced to take subjects that pertained to her future occupation in the domestic sphere.
o Women, before 1914, sought independence through working in a profession outside the home. They considered the profession of domesticity as uneventful and simply wanted more. Conversely the older generation held women’s education responsible for promoting this independence and regarded the radical activities of the emerging youth as a threat to the family. One writer of the time defended the youth for she "saw herself and the women around her caught in a ‘maelstrom of feminism’" (Scanlon 85); constantly surrounded by advertisements, pamphlets, and calendars that supported women’s suffrage and independence. From the simple "Votes for Women" commercial advertisement to the "Susan B. Anthony Calendar" lined with sophisticated quotations advocating suffrage, it was a persuasive movement that gradually led