The Women's Movement in the 1920s: American Magazines Document the Health and Progress of Feminism
***** BONARD *********** EJC/REC Vol. 4, Nos. 2-4, 1994 ****
THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT IN THE 1920S: AMERICAN MAGAZINES
DOCUMENT THE HEALTH AND PROGRESS OF FEMINISM
Carolyn Ann Bonard
University of Missouri, Columbia
Abstract: Textbooks commonly state that,
following women's gain of the right to vote in
August 1920, their movement collapsed. However,
magazine articles published in the following
decade show that the women's movement was a
vibrant force that was shaping the beginning of a
new social order and preparing women for
assimilation into the political system.
The women's rights convention held in 1848 at Seneca
Falls, New York commonly dates the beginning of the women's
movement in the United States. The convention sparked a
72-year struggle for women's right to vote which culminated
in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution in August 1920. Twenty-seven million women had
gained the right to vote. Thereafter, the women's
movement seems to have been cast aside by recorded history.
A government textbook states: "Having won its major battle
for the right to vote, the women's movement virtually
collapsed. Only a few groups continued to work for their
cause." A history textbook states that "women's united
efforts failed to create an interest group solid enough or
powerful enough to dent political, economic, and social
systems run by men." What happened to the women's
movement in the decade following the adoption of the
Nineteenth Amendment? Could magazine articles published in
that decade have recorded the pulse of the women's movement,
either explicitly or implicitly?
Magazine articles that might answer these questions
were located through _Readers' Guide to Periodical
Literature_. Fourteen varied headings were selected,
some of which reflected the issues of the decade: "Education
of Women," "Feminism," "Married Women: Employment," "Woman:
Employment," "Woman: Equal Rights," "Woman: Occupations,"
"Women and Politics," "Woman Suffrage: United States," and
"Working Girls and Women." Other headings were more
general: "Married Women," "Wives," "Woman," "Woman: Social
and Moral Questions" and "Woman: United States."
Magazines were chosen that collectively represented a
diversified content and audience: two women's magazines,
_Ladies' Home Journal_ and_Good Housekeeping_; two general
interest magazines that had a similar format and content to
the selected women's magazines, _Saturday Evening Post_ and
_Collier's, the National Weekly_; and three intellectual
magazines, _Harper's Monthly_, the _Nation_ and _Atlantic
Monthly_. The initial step of this study, then, involved
locating articles published between August 1920 and August
1930 in seven selected magazines listed under 14 specified
headings in _Readers' Guide_.
As a further step, all issues of _Harper's Monthly_ and
_Ladies' Home Journal_ published during this decade were
searched. In _Ladies' Home Journal_, seven articles were
found through _Readers' Guide_. A complete search of the
120 issues of the decade found two additional articles,
which might have been listed in _Readers' Guide_ under
headings other than the 14 headings selected for this study.
In _Harper's Monthly_, eight articles were found through
_Readers' Guide_. A complete search of the 120 issues of
the decade found four additional articles. The complete
searches through these two magazines confirmed that using
_Readers' Guide_ to locate articles relevant to this study
had been a sufficiently thorough method of research. These
two steps located 33 articles that might indicate what
happened to the women's movement in the decade following the
adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Social and Economic Aspects of the Women's Movement
The women's movement, or feminism, was an attitude that
emphasized the individual and recognized the importance of
the job. In the April 1925 issue of _Harper's Monthly_,
Elizabeth Breuer stated:
In this country feminism, as an organized movement
of women in great active groups, is over. But in
its place is rising a feminism which is a point of
view. This point of view expresses itself not so
much in sex-consciousness as in the personal
self-consciousness of women who are trying to
straddle two horses and ride them both to a
victorious finish. One of these is the
Job--through which woman can express herself as
an individual in a world of masculine standards;
the other is her love life, which she cannot leave
behind if she is to be happy as a woman.
Breuer wrapped up her definition of feminism by
stating: "The woman who attempts complete fulfillment in
both aspects of her life is a feminist."
The women's movement challenged the traditional social
order. Ethel Puffer Howes stated in the April 1922 issue of
_Atlantic Monthly_ that society "tacitly assumed that
marriage barred or terminated a career." Why did a woman
have to choose between marriage and career? This was an
issue that Nancy Barr Mavity addressed in the July 1926
issue of _Harper's Monthly_. She stated: "The choice has no
meaning unless marriage implies of necessity the bargain of
financial support on the part of the husband for domestic
services on the part of the wife." Concerning the
attitude of society toward a woman who worked outside the
home, Mary Roberts Rinehart, in the April 1921 issue of
_Ladies' Home Journal_, stated: "The family pride suffered.
It reflected on the pride of the masculine portion of it, as
indicating their failure to support their womankind."
Mavity suggested the ultimate conclusion to the
marriage-career issue in this question: "Is the chance to
choose one's work as a person instead of a sex-being worth
the long and complex struggle to amend our entire social and
The women's movement allowed women freedom to seek
fulfillment in both the home--marriage and motherhood
comprehensively considered--and career or to freely choose
either home or career. In the June 2, 1926 issue of the
_Nation_, Eunice Fuller Barnard stated:
The party of the left suggests that women make
parenthood and profession coordinate but
independent, as men have done; the party of the
right that they develop parenthood itself to a
professional status. The compromise party
believes that along with their major profession
of parenthood women may as a minor interest still
cherish and develop their individual talents.
In the October 1927 issue of _Harper's Monthly_,
Dorothy Dunbar Bromley recognized that the economic
independence a woman obtained through a job "spells her
freedom as an individual, enabling her to marry or not to
marry, as she chooses--to terminate a marriage that has
become unbearable, and to support and educate her children
if necessary." More picturesquely, in the August 1921
issue of _Good Housekeeping_, Anne Shannon Monroe stated:
"Men have cried out in alarm, `With all this suffrage, with
all this entering of professions, with all this throwing
wide of the world's doors, women will rush out of the
homes!'" Monroe upheld this rush because those women
will "find their rightful places, and the home-job will
eventually fall to those who should hold it." Women
were no longer bound to tradition for tradition's sake. In
the August 1920 issue of _Ladies' Home Journal_, Harriet
Abbot stated: "Now, our conduct shall be the result of
intelligent choice, and when we elect to live according to
the older doctrines it shall be because we recognize truth
even when it comes to us in some of the shackles of
The women's movement overturned the traditional social
order. In the November 1921 issue of _Harper's Monthly_,
Alexander Black vividly stated one point of view concerning
The whole theory of taking care of woman involved
her occupying a `place,' so that one who played
the part of a showman exhibiting the world might
be free to say that over there, in a cage, were
the women. But the women broke out of the cage.
They roved over the whole picture. This made it
exceedingly difficult to go on thinking about
taking care of them.
Black added that women have "smashed the tradition of
'place.' They have overrun the forbidden industries and
professions." In the May 1929 issue of _Harper's
Monthly_, Lillian Symes presented a flip side of this
radical change, stating that feminists' "attempts at
economic and social emancipation" have put them in the
position of "playing both a man's and a woman's part.
Instead of achieving freedom, they have achieved the right
to carry two burdens, to embrace a new form of servitude."
 Concerned about the future of the social order, Symes,
in the June 1930 issue of _Harper's Monthly_, stated: "Old
values are giving way to what seems a loss of all values.
Intellectually and socially we are in a chaos of conflict."
 Similarly, in the March 1929 issue of _Harper's
Monthly_, Floyd H. Allport stated: "For while the
sophistries underlying our present sex-stereotypes are being
exposed, there must arise the question of what is to take
The women's movement emphasized the individual in a new
social order. In the December 1925 issue of _Harper's
Monthly_, Beatrice M. Hinkle stated: "The great movement
which is now sweeping over the land, affecting the women of
all classes, carries with it something immeasurable, for it
is the destroyer of the old mold which for ages has held
women bound to instinct." The emphasis of the
traditional order, the "old mold," was on the woman as wife
and mother; the emphasis of the women's movement was on the
individual. Hinkle stated that women have "cast aside the
maternal ideal as their goal and are demanding recognition
as individuals first, and as wives and mothers second."
The new social order recognized man's as well as woman's
individuality, as Hinkle stated:
Women have escaped from the authority and
restrictions imposed upon them as the result of
the unalterable convictions of man that his wife
was his property, and that she must live her life
as he wished it. The twain are no longer one
flesh--the man being `the one'--but instead
they are two distinct personalities, forced to
find a new basis of adaptation to each other and a
new form of relationship.
Similarly, in the January 1925 issue of _Ladies' Home
Journal_, Ruth Scott Miller stated concerning Joseph Sabath,
a county court judge "who holds the world's judicial divorce
record with over twelve thousand decisions":
Judge Sabath insists, perhaps more vehemently than
most, that the world must recognize the new social
order of things; must realize that when a marriage
occurs today new relationships are set up that are
entirely opposed to those which obtained fifty
However, the declaration of women's individuality was
not the vanguard of the women's movement. In the October
1926 issue of _Harper's Monthly_, R. Le Clerc Phillips
stated that women "who were the voices of the feminist
movement" concentrated "on rights of citizenship, rights of
economic independence, and, above all, on the right to give
practical expression to their political opinions," rather
than speaking out about their "rights as women."
Phillips defined "rights as women" as "their rights to the
open expression of their individuality as women absolutely
untrammelled by all male preconceptions--and
misconceptions--of what that individuality really is."
Women's gain of the right to vote advanced, rather than
caused, the new social order. In the September 11, 1920,
issue of _Saturday Evening Post_, Elizabeth Frazer stated
The woman-suffrage movement...was perhaps the
greatest single influence in sharpening and
bringing to a point those other more subterranean
and unconscious forces that were advancing woman's
cause. The whole tide was setting in the
direction of the freedom of women; and the
suffrage movement called attention to but did not
produce that tide.
In the July 20, 1927 issue of the _Nation_, Mary
Austin referred to the "forward turn of twentieth-century
feminism" and defined this phrase when she stated: "All
that votes for women seems to mean at the moment is a marker
for the turn at which the redistribution of sex emphasis
begins." Austin explained:
Now that the turn is accomplished, and nothing
startlingly political or professional seems to be
determined by it, what does stand out in the
nature of an achievement is the escape not of one
sex from the other but of both from a social
complex unwholesomely driven and informed by sex
These magazine articles indicate that the women's
movement in the decade following the adoption of the
Nineteenth Amendment was a new attitude that was shaping the
beginning of a new social order, not in a determined,
organized manner, but as a natural result of women's
collective individuality--the individuality of each woman
who expressed her uniqueness, independence and equality with
Political Aspects of the Women's Movement
This study has examined the social and economic aspects
of the women's movement through the more specific aspects of
marriage, motherhood, and career. In the February 1921 issue
of _Atlantic Monthly_, Mary Van Kleeck stated that
feminism's "essence is voluntary choice" in these three
aspects as well as in politics. Although women did not
organize as a faction, articles disputed women's failure in
politics with two points. First, women's right to vote was
their right as U.S. citizens. Whether they exercised that
right was not, in itself, a measure of their achievement or
failure in politics. An editorial in the May 17, 1930,
issue of _Collier's, The National Weekly_ stated: "Suffrage
for women or men was an act of justice which can neither
succeed nor fail. Whether men or women vote stupidly or
wisely, for good measures or bad, is beside the point. The
right to vote is inherent in our kind of government."
Another point that disputed women's failure in politics
was that their indifference was gradually being overcome
through political education and involvement in politics. An
editorial in the August 1930 issue of _Ladies' Home Journal_
attributed women's indifference to politics to the fact that
"women who were to be given suffrage had not been brought up
to use it." Similarly, in the October 1924 issue of
_Good Housekeeping_, Ida M. Tarbell stated: "One handles a
new subject shyly and awkwardly. One does not know the
vocabulary, etiquette, principles." At first, women
were not motivated to become involved in politics. In the
February 1921 issue of _Ladies' Home Journal_, Elizabeth
Jordan stated: "It had not yet occurred to them that they
could affect the politics in their local environments.
Least of all did it strike them that they needed training as
a preparation for their new responsibility." In the
September 1922 issue of _Good Housekeeping_, Frazer stated
that, initially, women's political influence would be in
municipal affairs more than in higher political divisions
because "such affairs touch most closely the home," and
this primary area is the "the amoeba of political life."
National organizations educated and involved women in
politics. In the April 1922 issue of _Good Housekeeping_,
Frazer stated: "In this task of educating the women in the
abc of practical, every-day local politics, two agencies,
the National Federation of Women's Clubs and the National
League of Women Voters, have done yeoman service." In
the August 1924 issue of_Ladies' Home Journal_, Frazer
quoted Maud Wood Park, president of the National League of
Women Voters: "The actual work of the League, the end, for
which all the other things are the means, is first of all
training in citizenship." Eventually, women's
involvement in politics affected legislation even at the
national level. In the April 1922 issue of _Ladies' Home
Journal_, Charles A. Selden listed the National League of
Women Voters and the General Federation of Women's Clubs as
the national women's organizations with the largest number
of members among the 14 organizations of the Women's Joint
Congressional Committee. Concerning the purpose of this
greater organization, Selden stated: "When, on occasion, the
women organizations see that it is necessary to act
unanimously on any measure, as was the case in the
[Sheppard-Towner] Maternity Bill fight, they put into action
the most powerful lobby that has ever operated on the
The women's movement was raising women's political
status. In the December 1923 issue of _Harper's Monthly_,
Breuer stated that women's political education was a "task
leading to the more subtle emancipation of women." In
noting that two women had been elected as state governors,
Emily Newell Blair, in the October 1925 issue of _Harper's
It shows the way by which a woman can move into
office, namely by becoming identified in the
public mind with issues of which it approves and
by winning that public's confidence as to
performance--which is exactly the way by which a
man comes into office. It is equality.
Thus, to say that the women's movement failed to dent
the political system run by men is to be looking for a
women's bloc and not see that, rather than denting the
system, women were being assimilated into it as they became
sufficiently knowledgeable and capable.
Controversy over the Equal Rights Issue
Within the women's movement, a secondary aspect of
women's political education and involvement in politics was
the issue of how women could gain equal rights. Van Kleeck,
in defining feminism, stated:
Feminism is not, and has not, a definite
programme. Like democracy, it is a spirit and not
an invention--not an institution, but a changing
life within the changing forms of institutions.
And feminism, like democracy, busies itself with
the issues that the times create.
The main issues for women during the first decade of
the Nineteenth Amendment were economic and legal equality.
In the June 1924 issue of _Ladies' Home Journal_, Selden
quoted Ethel M. Smith, the national legislative
representative of the women's trade unions: "It is the
economic fight that is the bitterest of all. Men may be
quite willing to let women vote, but it is quite another
thing to pay them the same wages as men, or allow them to
secure a shorter workday."  Concerning the married
woman's legal inequality, Rheta Childe Dorr, in the July
1928 issue of _Good Housekeeping_, stated:
She could own no property, real or personal; her
wages, if any, belonged to her husband; he was the
sole guardian of her children and could give them
away if he chose, could apprentice them to trades,
forbid their marriages, or force them to marry
without the mother's consent. In fact, as the
legal phrase had it, a married woman was civilly
The Seneca Falls convention in 1848 drew up demands for
equal rights, but, as Inez Haynes Irwin stated in the March
1924 issue of _Good Housekeeping_, the "only right we have
gained for all the women of the United States is the right
to vote." Likewise, in the February 1926 issue of
_Harper's Monthly_, Edna Kenton stated: "The Nineteenth
Amendment gave women as a matter of legal fact, just one
thing--the power to vote." Women's struggle for
equality since they acquired the right to vote had two
conflicting strategies. Irwin and Kenton upheld one
strategy, the Equal Rights Amendment backed by the National
Woman's Party. Breuer, in her 1923 article, stated:
The Woman's Party is regarded by many women's
organizations as their common enemy, being as it
is the radical wing of the woman's movement in the
United States. This attitude proceeds from the
intention of the Woman's Party to remove from the
statute books all laws which discriminate for or
against women on sex lines, and that destruction
accomplished, to create other laws which shall
give necessary protection in industry, marriage,
and other legal and social relationships, to men
and women alike as human beings, regardless of
sex, but regardful of the minimum of physical
endurance for both. To accomplish this it seeks
to tear down the whole body of protective
legislation which has been built up through years
of painful struggle by the majority of women's
organizations, and the women's organizations are
therefore fighting its program tooth and nail.
This controversy within the women's movement over how
to obtain equal rights indicates that the movement was very
Magazine articles published during the first decade of
the Nineteenth Amendment indicate that the women's movement
was a vibrant force, a new attitude that was shaping the
beginning of a new social order, and a medium for women's
assimilation into the political system. Why these
conclusions have not been recorded in history can be
explained in two ways: attitude and assimilation are not
easily transferred to recorded history, and, furthermore,
the women's movement was an undercurrent which historians
might have overlooked, concentrating, rather, on the vote
and what women accomplished with it.
 "What Do the Women Want Now," Ladies' Home
Journal, January 1921, 29.
 Richard A. Watson, Promise and Performance of
American Democracy, 5th ed. (New York: John Wiley & Sons,
 Mary Beth Norton, David M. Katzman, Paul D.
Escott, Howard P. Chudacoff, Thomas G. Paterson, and William
M. Tuttle, Jr., A People and a Nation, vol. 2, 2nd ed.
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 605.
 Elizabeth J. Sherwood, ed., Readers' Guide to
Periodical Literature, vol. 5 (New York: H.W. Wilson,
1922); Alice M. Dougan and Bertha Joel, eds., Readers' Guide
to Periodical Literature, vols. 6, 7 & 8 (New York: H.W.
Wilson, 1925, 1929, 1932). Abbreviated as Readers' Guide in
 Elizabeth Breuer, "Feminism's Awkward Age,"
Harper's Monthly, April 1925, 545.
 Ethel Puffer Howes, "Accepting the Universe,"
Atlantic Monthly, April 1922, 445.
 Nancy Barr Mavity, "The Wife, the Home, and the
Job," Harper's Monthly, July 1926, 190.
 Mary Roberts Rinehart, "A Home or a Career,"
Ladies' Home Journal, April 1921, 25.
 Mavity, 198, 199.
 Eunice Fuller Barnard, "Home--Job--or Both? The
Woman's Problem," The Nation, 2 June 1926, 601, 602.
 Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, "Feminist--New Style,"
Harper's Monthly, October 1927, 554.
 Anne Shannon Monroe, "The Woman Who Should Marry,"
Good Housekeeping, August 1921, 30.
 Harriet Abbot, "What the Newest New Woman Is,"
Ladies' Home Journal, August 1920, 154.
 Alexander Black, "The Truth about Women," Harper's
Monthly, November 1921, 756.
 Lillian Symes, "Still a Man's Game," Harper's
Monthly, May 1929, 684.
 Lillian Symes, "The New Masculinism," Harper's
Monthly, June 1930, 103.
 Floyd H. Allport, "Seeing Women as They Are,"
Harper's Monthly, March 1929, 407.
 Beatrice M. Hinkle, "The Chaos of Modern
Marriage," Harper's Monthly, December 1925, 13.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ruth Scott Miller, "Masterless Wives and Divorce,"
Ladies' Home Journal, January 1925, 20.
 R. Le Clerc Phillips, "The Real Rights of Women,"
Harper's Monthly, October 1926, 609.
 Elizabeth Frazer, "Encore Les Femmes! Woman: A
Political Animal," Saturday Evening Post, 11 September 1920,
 Mary Austin, "The Forward Turn," The Nation, 20
July 1927, 59.
 Mary Van Kleeck, "Women and Machines," Atlantic
Monthly, February 1921, 255.
 "Ten Years of Woman," Collier's, The National
Weekly, 17 May 1930, 94.
 "Ten Years of Suffrage," Ladies' Home Journal,
August 1930, 22.
 Ida M. Tarbell, "Is Woman's Suffrage a Failure?"
Good Housekeeping, October 1924, 242.
 Elizabeth Jordan, "Education for Citizenship,"
Ladies' Home Journal, February 1921, 27.
 Elizabeth Frazer, "A Political Forecast," Good
Housekeeping, September 1922, 161.
 Ibid., 159.
 Elizabeth Frazer, "Politics Begins at Home," Good
Housekeeping, April 1922, 120.
 Elizabeth Frazer, "The Rising Tide of Voters,"
Ladies' Home Journal, August 1924, 132.
 Charles A. Selden, "The Most Powerful Lobby in
Washington," Ladies' Home Journal, April 1922, 93.
 Ibid., 95.
 Elizabeth Breuer, "What Four Million Women are
Doing," Harper's Monthly, December 1923, 120.
 Emily Newell Blair, "Are Women a Failure in
Politics?" Harper's Monthly, October 1925, 517.
 Van Kleeck, 255.
 Charles A. Selden, "Four Years of the Nineteenth
Amendment," Ladies' Home Journal, June 1924, 138.
 Rheta Childe Dorr, "Free and Equal Citizens," Good
Housekeeping, July 1928, 217.
 Inez Haynes Irwin, "The Equal Rights Amendment,
Why the Woman's Party is for It," Good Housekeeping, March
 Edna Kenton, "The Ladies' Next Step," Harper's
Monthly, February 1926, 366.
 Breuer, "What Four Million Women Are Doing," 121,
Acknowledgements: This article was the winner of the 1993
Top Undergraduate Paper Prize awarded by
the Magazine Division of the Association
for Education in Journalism and Mass
Communication at the annual meeting held
in Kansas City, MO in August 1993.
Author Information: Carolyn Ann Bonard
PO Box 285
Fulton, MO 65251
Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.
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