Images and Issues of Women in the Twentieth Century

Four stars, read in April/May 2012.

They look like your average bland textbook, but I loved these books by Catherine Gourley (nonfiction writer of social history, national director of Letters About Literature and principal curriculum writer for The Story of Movies, a visual literacy initiative of The Film Foundation, Los Angeles and New York City). There’s one for each period of the 20th century, and I included the summaries from Gourley’s website:

Gibson Girls and Suffragists: Perceptions of Women from 1900 to 1918

“Gibson Girls were flirtatious and feisty. They drove motor cars and donned bloomers to play a new game called basketball. Some were ladies of polite society, while others were immigrants who did their best to be fashionable on their paltry earnings.

The Suffragists, on the other hand, were more concerned with social justice than fashion. They fought for the right to vote for all American women, demanded safe work conditions and better wages for working women, and called for better living conditions for impoverished families.

Mass media was coming into its own at the turn of the century. Magazines, sheet music, and celebrities idealized femininity and fashion and while the Gibson Girls might have paid close attention, the Suffragists tossed aside popular culture and marched into the world to change it.”

Flappers and the New American Woman: Perceptions of Women from 1918 through the 1920s

“The Flapper shocked society by flagrantly defying the gentle image of femininity. She danced the Charleston, doing so with bared knees, bobbed hair—and without a corset! The New American Woman also danced—though to a more sedate tune. She represented Mrs. Consumer, more aware of her decision-making ability and her purchasing power than her mother had ever been. And she was, for the first time ever, a fully enfranchised citizen who cast her vote in the polling booth.

As the girls and women of the postwar decade asked themselves “Who do I want to become?” the media tried to influence their paths. Magazine advertisements showed them how to look younger, books advised them on proper etiquette, and movies offered entree to exotic new worlds. Many women, however, looked beyond the stereotypes, using their newfound power to open health clinics, to fight for equal rights, and to protest Jim Crow laws.”

Rosie and Mrs. America: Perceptions of Women in the 1930s and 1940s

“The Great Depression challenged women in their homes, as Mrs. America  had to learn how to “make do” with less. And as men left for battlefronts, World War II propelled women to take their places in factories, becoming Rosie the Riveter.

As girls and women of the 1930s and 1940s searched for their own identities, the media of the times tried to influence their paths. Magazine advertisements and mail-order catalogs showed women how to be both fashionable and frugal. Screwball comedies on the movie screen and romantic soap operas on the radio portrayed women who took life lightly. But many women ignored these stereotypes and forged paths that women had never pursued before, in careers as pilots, foreign correspondents, musicians, and social activists.”

Gidgets and Women Warriors: Perceptions of Women in the 1950s and 1960s

“Popular media of the 1950s and 1960s was doing everything possible to undo the strong, work-oriented Rosie the Riveter image of the 1940s and to bring women back into the domestic fold. The young, blonde Gidget image offered young girls a role model for carefree living before they settled down to fulfill their patriotic duty as wives and mothers.

Yet many women weren’t buying the media images that advised them on how to catch husbands and become dutiful wives and mothers. Instead, they pursued the Woman Warrior persona to emerge as astronauts, activists, and challengers of bigotry and racism.

White their 1940s sister had asked, “Who am I? Who do I want to become?” females of the 1950s and 1960s began to ask, “Who are we? What will society allow us to become?” their search for answers to these questions would radically change the American woman’s role in society.”

Ms. and the Material Girls: Perceptions of Women from the 1970s through the 1990s

“The term Ms. was adopted by feminists—women who believe in equal pay for equal work, freedom from sexual harassment, and equal employment opportunities. The Materials Girls wanted all this and more. They wanted to be wild, sexy, and outrageously fashionable—a modern version of their Flapper sisters of decades earlier. And they also wanted control over their own lives—the kind of control that could only be achieved through money and power. Ms. and the Material Girls walked different paths, but together they brought about major changes for women.”

The books seem to be written for teenagers, as they include definitions of words most adults wouldn’t need explained—but then, since many of them come from different time periods and aren’t necessarily still in use, they can be useful for adults as well. The books include some really great photos, ads from magazines, posters for movies, and other memorabilia from the time. And it’s just such a novel experience to read about the history of women and realize how much they are left out of regular history books. These are a fantastic resource for learning a more realistic and inclusive version of history, and it’s so interesting to see the dramatic changes women went through in just one century.


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