By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Culture and Consumption
Progressives and the
Culture of the Twenties
VII. New World
and a New Woman
Back when the elders were young, Carter declared, life "was bright and pleasant," and everyone could believe in the pieties of progressivism:
[T]hey had their little tinpot ideals, their sweet little visions, their naive enthusiasms, their nice little set of beliefs…Man was a noble and perfectible creature. Women were angels (whom they smugly sweated in their industries and prostituted in their slums). Right was downing might. The nobility and the divine mission of the race were factors that led our fathers to work wholeheartedly for a millennium, which they caught a glimpse of just around the turn of the century. Why, there were Hague Tribunals! International peace was at last assured.2Everything back then, "masked by ingrained hypocrisy and prudishness, seemed simple, beautiful, inevitable." But now, Carter proclaimed, "my generation is disillusionized, and, I think, to a certain extent, brutalized, by the cataclysm which their complacent folly engendered…We have in our unregenerate youth learned the practicality and the cynicism that is safe only in unregenerate old age. We have been forced to become realists overnight, instead of idealists, as was our birthright." In short," Carter argued, anticipating Krutch almost a decade later, "we have seen the inherent beastliness of the human race revealed in an infernal apocalypse."3
So, "forced to live in an atmosphere of 'tomorrow we die,'" Carter asked, didn't it make sense that his generation had decided to drink and be merry? Every other generation in human history, he pointed out, has thought the one after them had gone to Hell. The only real difference this time was "our devastating and brutal frankness…We are frank with each other, frank, or pretty nearly so, with our elders, frank in the way we feel toward life and this badly damaged world. It may be disquieting and misleading habit, but is it a bad one?" Whether it was or not was beside the point -- it was now a fact of life. Oh, Carter noted, speaking of the older generation, "[t]hey'll make us good. Prohibition is put through to stop our drinking, and hasn't stopped it. Bryan has plans to curtail our philanderings, and he won't do any good…The oldsters stand dramatically with fingers and toes and noses pressed against the bursting dykes. Let them!...[W]e shall not trouble ourselves very much about them any more."4
Precocious Ivy League-educated twentysomethings have a tendency of purporting to speak for their generation. But in this case, Carter was probably on to something. As historian Paula Fass noted in her study on the subject, "[i]n the 1920s youth appeared suddenly, dramatically, even menacingly on the social scene…Youth suddenly became a social problem." One writer in 1924 declared that "'Something ails' the youth of today. This opinion was in evidence for several years before the Great War, and since the War it has become an alarmed conviction." As Devere Allen, the editor of Young Democracy, told The Survey on New Year's Day 1921, his generation "had seen something of the works of the fathers during the last few years and it has not found them altogether edifying." Young people were now "examining social institutions to the very bottom as the preliminary to a thorough housecleaning." As a result, "social progress" moving forward "will depend largely on the opportunities young people find." In short, Allen argued, "we have abundant evidence of a world-wide revolt of youth."5
To be fair, this revolt had not begun with the collapse at Versailles, or even with American entry into the World War. In 1913, according to Current Opinion, it was already "Sex O'Clock in America." The following year, a writer in The Atlantic Monthly bemoaned the "Repeal of Reticence" happening nationwide. In June 1917, only two months after American entry into the war, then-journalist Ray Stannard Baker (age 47) was disgusted by what he had seen on a trip to Minneapolis -- "a whole common people rolling carelessly and extravagantly up and down these streets in automobiles, crowding insipid 'movie' shows by the tens of thousands - there are seventy-six such houses in this one city -- or else drinking unutterable hogsheads of sickly sweet drinks or eating decorated ice cream at candy shops and drugstores! All overdressed! All overeating! All overspending!" Baker hoped entry into the War might set things right. "We need trouble and stress!" he wrote. "I thought once it could be done by some voluntary revolt from comfort and propriety…But it was not enough. The whirlwind had to come."6
By New Era standards, the Minneapolis street scene Baker had complained about was almost comically innocent. But even before the 1920s began, working-class women in the cities had already adopted what would become known as the "flapper" look and lifestyle -- short skirts, bobbed-hair, make-up, and unescorted evenings involving alcohol, cigarettes, dancing, and sundry other licentiousness.
In early 1920, young author F. Scott Fitzgerald would make the cultural phenomenon official with the publication of his coming-of-age tale This Side of Paradise -- which had its female characters wearing sleeveless "petting shirts" and mouthing "Girls Gone Wild" bromides like "I've kissed dozens of men, I suppose I'll kiss a dozen more," and "I'm just full of the devil." "None of the Victorian mothers," Fitzgerald declared in a line cited by Frederick Lewis Allen eleven years later, "had any idea how casually their daughters were accustomed to be kissed." Along with sparking a good bit of consternation, The Side of Paradise sold 40,000 copies -- not nearly as well as Main Street but enough to make an impression -- and quickly earned Fitzgerald such monikers as "Flapperdom's Fiction Ace," America's "Expert on Flappers," the "Flapper King," and "the recognized spokesman of the younger generation -- the dancing, flirting, frivoling, lightly philosophizing young America."7
"I sometimes wonder whether the flapper made me or I made her," Fitzgerald once said afterwards. The answer was the former -- The word "flapper" first came into existence in 1915. But in chronicling their meteoric ascent in youth culture, Fitzgerald gave an intellectual imprimatur to what had been an organic working-class movement and awoke elite opinion to the rumblings from below. "Smoking, dancing like Voodoo devotees, dressing décolleté, 'petting,' and 'drinking', wrote one college student in 1922, "[w]e do these things because we honestly enjoy the attendant physical sensations." "[A]rmed with sexual knowledge," she told the Ohio State Lantern, she "kisses the boys, she smokes with them, drinks with them, and why? Because the feeling of comradeship is running rampant."8
Ohio State was not alone. One study of female college students found that 92 percent admitted to "petting" or "spooning." Sociologists Robert and Helen Merrill Lynd reported from Muncie, Indiana that a third of teenage girls -- liberated from the front porch by that chariot of Satan, the automobile -- admitted to attending "petting parties." Writing in The Survey in 1925, Eleanor Roland Wembridge reported in "Petting and the Campus" that senior and junior women "did not advise young classmen not to pet -- they merely advised them to be moderate about it, not lose their heads, not go too far." That suggestion didn't always take. The Kinsey report, published three decades later, found that the number of women born after 1900 who admitted to premarital sex before the age of twenty-five jumped to over one in three - 36% -- as opposed to 14% of women born before 1900. Women's sexual enjoyment showed a corresponding leap.9
"Is 'the old-fashioned girl,' with all that she stands for in sweetness, modesty, and innocence, in danger of becoming extinct?" queried the Literary Digest in a May 1921 roundtable. "Or was she really no better nor worse than the 'up-to-date' girl -- who, in turn, will become 'the old-fashioned girl' to a later generation? Is it even possible, as a small but impressive minority would have us believe, that the girl of to-day has certain new virtues of 'frankness, sincerity, seriousness of purpose,' lives on a 'higher level of morality,' and is on the whole 'more clean-minded and clean-lived' than her predecessors?"10
To be sure, quite a few observers of the period were in the aghast column. The Educational Journal told of students in Indiana being "jazzed to death," while another correspondent in a subsequent roundtable on the same issue warned that "Society is not only undergoing a revolution, it is experiencing a devil-ution. Not only is it undergoing, but it is going under…Women paint and powder and drink and smoke, and become an easy prey to a certain class of well-groomed and well-fed high livers whose chief business is to pluck the blush of innocency from off the cheek of maidenhood and put a blister there."11
A number of progressives of a certain age were also within this camp. "Excessive indulgence in sex-waste has imperiled the life of the race," argued Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who lamented that "Man is the only animal using this function out of season." In 1922, a writer in The Survey urged settlement houses to begin hiring younger women to "go among the poor girls and give them a good time of it - young workers who dance and play games and who will bring them in touch with the sort of young men who don't accost them in the subways."12
Senator Hiram Johnson was also disturbed -- and mystified -- by the new libertinism. "Now, you can call me by all the names you want, and designate me old fogey," he wrote his son Hiram, Jr. after attending a boxing match where women were present, "but really, I prefer the womanhood of old to the non-child-bearing, smoking, drinking and neurotic creature sitting at the ring side in admiration of the nakedness of two horrible human beasts." While Senator Johnson thought the view of the anti-suffragists "that we have unsexed them with suffrage, equal rights, etc." was nonsense, "there has been some subtle change in womanhood, a change which I cannot accurately define, but which I know exists." William Allen White, also a concerned party, thought the problem might just be boredom. "The next time I hear of a man or woman going wrong," he told the editor of the Topeka Capital, "I am going to look and see if that man or woman isn't bored to a nice, crisp brown and see if he wasn't seeking excitement rather than anything else."13
Jane Addams, meanwhile, once against saw the effect of the World War at work in the new morality. "It was impossible…that experiences of war should not have made changes," she noted in 1930, arguing that "under the post-war conditions young people demanded personal happiness as theirs by right, decried sentimentalism and exalted sex.; they were opposed to all hampering social conventions and even to established reticences." Lamentably, "in their revolt against Victorian prudery, against innuendoes and distrust of natural impulses," Addams thought "the younger generation had "made a cult of frankness." "Freudian theories as to dangers of repression," she wrote, "were seized upon by agencies of publicity, by half-baked lecturers and by writers on the new psychology and finally interpreted by reckless youth as a warning against self-control."14
What disturbed Addams most about the young men and women she met was not their lack of morals but their desire to fit in - "the spirit of conformity" had become "a sort of protective coloring" -- as well as their utter disinterest in the old, progressive notion of freedom as enlightened citizens engaging in self-government. After WILPF's trip to Haiti, Addams recalled, the committee "had come back to urge public opinion in favor of self-government of Haiti," and tried to enlist a magazine who had expressed interest in the plight of the island nation to take up the cause. "Political liberty, however, seemed of no consequence to this journal, so committed to the liberty of individual, and as we talked to them about it we seemed to be speaking two different languages. Apparently, to this set of people…freedom meant unlimited opportunities for self-development…The desired freedom and development was always associated in some way with the breaking down of sex taboos and with the establishment of new standards of marriage."15
Disappointed as she was by these conversations, Addams conceded that "[o]ur self-righteousness was pretty well disabled when we were reminded by the Youth Movement that of all the generations of men who have lived upon the face of the earth, our generation has the least claim to advise the next. The responsible adults living in the world in 1914 had been unable to avert the great war which resulted in the annihilation of ten million young men."16
For all the tsk-tsking and disappointment felt by older progressives, others saw in the loosening of conventional morality and the ascendance of this New Woman something much more healthy and fundamental happening in the culture -- the rise of a real equality between the sexes. In 1925, Bruce Bliven -- by then the editor of The New Republic -- wrote an imaginary interview with "Flapper Jane," a 19-year-old whose minister thought her "a perfectly horrible example of wild youth - paint, cigarettes, cocktails, petting parties" and whatnot. When Bliven asked his construct why she behaved this way, Jane answered:
In a way, it's just all honesty. Women have come down off the pedestal lately. They are tired of this mysterious feminine charm stuff. Maybe it all goes with independence, earning your own living and voting and all that. There was always a bit of the harem in that cover-up-your-arms-and-legs business, don't you think? Women still want to be lived, but they want it on a 50-50 basis, which includes being admired for the qualities they really possess.17In short, Bliven suggested, "a good deal more smoke than fire" surrounded the controversy over the new sexuality. "Women have highly resolved that they are just as good as men, and intend to be treated so." The Ohio State co-ed who had confessed her petting in 1922 concurred. "The girl does not stand aloof," she explained of the new social mores. "She and the man meet on common ground." Similarly, writing in "These Modern Women," a collection of essays published in The Nation in 1926 and 1927 under the auspices of editor Freda Kirchwey, psychoanalyst Beatrice Hinkle saw an obvious double standard at work in all the consternation about flappers and women's liberated sexuality. "A general weakening of traditional standards of ethics and morals has long been observed in other activities - in business affairs and in the world of men's relations with each other," she noted. "These aspects of morality belong to the masculine world in particular and produce little agitation, while the upheaval in sex morals particularly affects the feminine world" and was thus receiving all the attention. "We see women assuming the right to act as their impulses dictate with much the same freedom that men have enjoyed for so long…The old morality has failed and is disintegrating fast."18
This, Hinkle argued, was both a welcome development and a reflection of another, more fundamental change in American life. "[T]his overthrow of old customs and sex ideals," Hinkle argued, "must be chiefly attributed to the economic independence of women brought about through the industrialism of our age…As long as women were dependent upon men for the support of themselves and their children there could be no development of a real morality, for the love and feelings of the woman were so intermingled with her economic necessities that the higher love impulse was largely undifferentiated from the impulse of self-preservation."19
In other words, young women's libertine attitude toward sex was not just a reflection of a young generation's amoral world-weariness. Rather, it was one of the most controversial facets of a more encompassing and important transformation. Having at last secured the vote after over a century of struggle, women now reached towards more equality in other facets of American life. To make that happen, some facets of the neo-Victorian culture of pre-war progressivism had to change.
In the 1920's, women were more likely to have received a college education and to hold down a wage-earning job than ever before. (In fact, the percentage of women in the workforce decreased once more in the 1930s as a result of the Depression.) While only eight percent of 18-22 year-olds attended college in 1920 (up from four percent in 1910), women among this number rose from forty percent in 1910 to close to half in 1920. Women also rose from six percent of PhDs in 1900 to eighteen percent of the total in 1930. The number of women working in "professional service," where they comprised forty percent of the total workforce, rose from 8.2 percent to 14.2 percent in 1930, much of it attributable to the women-dominated professional fields of teaching, nursing, and social work. Factoring in the third of all working women who worked as domestic help and the nineteen percent who held clerical and sales jobs, the total percentage of working women rose from 20.6% of all women in 1900 to 25.3% in 1930. In total the number of women working outside the home rose by 27% over the decade, from 8.3 million in 1920 to 10.6 million in 1930. By 1927, women comprised one in five wage-earners.20
One of the most pronounced transformations in this regard was the number of married women working outside the home, which rose from fifteen percent of the female labor force in 1900 to 29 percent in 1930 -- six times faster than the comparable rate for single women over the same period. While this still only amounted to ten percent of married women, the rise of the two-income household accompanied other changes happening in the home. The 1920's saw the ideal of "companionate marriage" become embraced by the culture at large, meaning that, instead of two persons who had simply come to a mutually satisfactory and beneficial social arrangement, husbands and wives were now meant to be true friends and lovers. They should take pleasure in each other's company rather than just tolerating each other out of conjugal duty.21
"[M]arriage has now become the entrance into a fuller and richer life," argued social scientist Phyllis Blanchard, "an opportunity for sharing joys and sorrows with a mate who will not merely be a protector or a provider but an all-around companion." Now that women "are demanding positive values of marriage" and "setting higher ideals than ever before and will probably not be content unless they realize them," she suggested, "[t]he modern union of man and women is visioned as a perfect consummation of both personalities that will involve every phase of mutual living." "The nuptial relation must be kept romantic," recommended birth control advocate Margaret Sanger similarly. "Do not be afraid to take the brakes off your heart, to surrender yourself to love. Unclamp this emotion; let it have full, healthy exercise."22
Writing in The Nation in 1924, Joseph Wood Krutch, not yet afflicted with the existential terrors of The Modern Temper, argued that this new ideal of marriage made life more interesting, but also created new expectations that must be satisfied. "As long as marriage is a matter of contract," Krutch argued, "the importance of the inward harmony of personalities is of the slightest, for children may be begotten and reared whether the parents love or hate. As long as passion is generally conceded to be a shameful concession to unregenerate humanity, the average man is not likely to be concerned if he finds that the ideal of the poets is not realized in his own nuptial couch." But now, Krutch concluded, the stakes were higher, for "when love is free and unashamed then it is made ten times more difficult, for lives are recognized as frank failures which once would have seemed useful and satisfactory." Thus fiction was more important than ever -- As "the record of individual souls in search of a successful way of life," it now constituted "the best and perhaps only really important material for the study of that art of life which grows ever more complicated as we demand that it be more complete and beautiful."23
"The distinguished feature of the modern family," Ernest Groves and William Ogburn argued similarly in their 1928 book American Marriage and Family Relationships, "will be affection. The new family will be more difficult, maintaining higher standards that test character more severely, but it will offer richer fruit for the satisfying of human needs." This new vision of family life extended not only to the relations between husband and wife but also to parent and child -- instead of a household run by and catered to the whims of a domineering patriarch, now, social scientists, argued, the child should be the focus of the home. "It is the child's right," wrote J.F. Hayden in 1926's The Art of Marriage, "to be wanted, and to have a chance to grow up under conditions assuring the proper mental, spiritual, and physical health."24
For every child to be wanted, however, usually required some sort of planning on the part of families. Accompanying both the rise of this new ideal of family and the decreased cultural inhibitions on matters of sex was a growing debate over access to birth control. A 1922 study taken by the Bureau of Social Hygiene Committee found that three-fourths of the one thousand married women surveyed approved of "voluntary parenthood," as it was called then, and almost all the middle-class respondents had taken advantage of contraception of some kind or another. Robert and Helen Merrill Lynd, in their study of Muncie, Indiana, found a class divide on the question: Middle-class couples took birth control "for granted" and working-class families, due to either ignorance or religious belief, did not.25
Birth control, thought Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was "a free ticket for selfish and fruitless indulgence, and an aid in the lamentable behavior of our times, affecting both men and women." But for renowned contraception advocate Margaret Sanger, access to birth control had very little to do with enjoyment of sex at all. Rather, in her 1920 book Woman and the New Race and the 1922 follow-up The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger argued instead that birth control was integral to feminism and the true emancipation of women, if not the freedom of the entire world.26
"The most far-reaching social development of modern times is the revolt against sex servitude," Sanger wrote in the first of these. "The most important force in the remaking of the world is a free motherhood." An active Socialist (and one of eleven children) who had opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916 and founded both the Birth Control Review and the American Birth Control League in 1921, Sanger declared that woman had "chained herself to her place in society and the family through the maternal functions of her nature" and become a "brood animal for the masculine civilizations of the world." "Unenlightened, submissive maternity" had thus "perpetuated the tyrannies of the Earth," by creating the overpopulation -- "Battalions of unwanted babies" -- which had spawned "war, famine, poverty, and oppression of the workers." As such, "the most immoral practice of the day is breeding too many children."27
But now, however, "woman is rising in fundamental revolt…Millions of women are asserting their right to voluntary motherhood. They are determined to decide for themselves whether they shall become mothers, under what conditions and when." This, Sanger argued, was "for woman the key to the temple of liberty," with which she could "pay the debt" caused by overpopulation and "consciously and intelligently undo that disaster and create a new and a better order." In other words, almost all of the ills of the world, from poverty to militarism to the subjugation of workers and women, would continue until contraception was widely available. "We must, therefore, not permit an increase in population that we are not prepared to care for to the best advantage -- that we are not prepared to do justice to, educationally and economically. We must popularize birth control thinking. We must not leave it haphazardly to be the privilege of the already privileged. We must put this means of freedom and growth into the hands of the masses."28
As long been charged against Sanger ever since, there is a touch of the eugenicist in her prescription. In her discussion of immigrants in the United States, Sanger is mostly quite complimentary of new arrivals -- men and women who "bring in their hearts a desire for freedom from all the tyrannies that afflict the earth….They have the simple faith that in America they will find equality, liberty, and an opportunity for a decent livelihood. And they have something else. The cell plasms of these people are freighted with the potentialities of the best in Old World civilization. They come from lands rich in the traditions of courage, of art, music, letters, science and philosophy." Americans, meanwhile, had hailed these new arrivals as "a lot of ignorant foreigners,' we have shouted at, bustled and kicked them. Our industries have taken advantage of their ignorance of the country's way to take their toil in mills and mines and factories at starvations wages…We have huddled them together like rabbits to multiply their numbers and their misery. Instead of saying that we Americanize them, we should confess that we animalize them."29
Nonetheless, Sanger also spends a good bit of time delineating the ethnic composition of these new immigrants, and arguing that voluntary motherhood was the vehicle by which to enhance and ensure racial purity. "Motherhood, when free to choose the father, free to choose the time and the number of children who shall result from the union, automatically works in wondrous ways. It refuses to bring forth weaklings; refuses to bring forth slaves…It withholds the unfit, brings forth the fit…Instinctively it avoids all those things which multiply racial handicaps." Allow mothers to choose when to have a child, Sanger asserted, as "it will save the precious metals of racial culture, fused into an amalgam of physical perfection, mental strength and spiritual progress. Such an American race, containing the best of all racial elements, could give to the world a vision and a leadership beyond our present imagination."30
Sanger would hit the eugenics note more stridently as the decade progressed. As historian Dorothy Brown points out, by 1922, in The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger was decrying "the lack of balance between the birthrate of the unfit and the fit" and by 1925 was writing that "those parents who are least fit to reproduce the race are having the largest number of children, while people of wealth, leisure, and education are having small families." Not for nothing was Dr. Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color, on the Board of the American Birth Control League.31
It was on this eugenics argument for birth control that Catholic Church officials, such as Archbishop Patrick Joseph Hayes of New York, made their stance against the movement. "The Christ-Child did not stay His own entrance into this mortal life because His mother was poor, roofless, and without provision for the morrow," Hayes told the faithful in December 1921. "Even though some little angels in the flesh, through the moral, mental, or physical deformity of parents, may appear to human eyes hideous, misshapen, a blot on civilized society, we must not lose sight…that under and within such visible malformation there lives an immortal soul to be saved and glorified for all eternity among the blessed in Heaven." In short, contraception was an interference with the laws of nature and the will of God. "To take life after its inception is a horrible crime," he averred, "but to prevent human life that the Creator is about to bring into being is satanic."32
That Christmas of 1921, the issue of birth control had a reason to be foremost on the Archbishop's mind. Urged on by Hayes, who thought Sanger and her fellow birth control advocates were advocating "the degradation of the moral life of the entire social body," New York police had broken up what was meant to America's first conference on birth control at the Town Hall Theater in New York in November 1921, and arrested Sanger and another speaker. This attempt to silence Sanger backfired massively. "I consider my arrest in violation of every principle of liberty that America stands for," an unbowed Sanger told the press, "and I shall take this case to the highest courts, if necessary, to preclude the possibility of it ever happening again."33
The following day, a Judge dismissed the case against Sanger on the grounds that no crime was committed. Nonetheless, as the ACLU and other civil liberties advocates flocked to Sanger's standard, the Town Hall incident sparked a considerable publicity wave for the cause. "The attempted denial of the open forum to birth control shows the fundamental weakness" of the Church's position, editorialized TNR. "There would be no divorce laws in the United States, if the same opposition could have its way." To help ease the sudden controversy, Hayes agreed to send a representative to debate Sanger on the issue the week after the Town Hall raid, further drumming up publicity.34
Sanger also took the opportunity of Hayes' Christmas letter to respond once more. The Archbishop "knows no more about the fact of the immorality of the soul than the rest of us human beings," she wrote, and "we who are trying to better humanity fundamentally believe that a healthy, happy human race is more in keeping with the laws of God than disease, misery and poverty perpetuating themselves generation after generation." In her autobiography, Sanger noted the "columns and columns" of free ink birth control had gained as a result of "the blundering of the opposition." Now, instead of her having to wrestle the ghost of Anthony Comstock and other moral reformers aghast at the idea of free love, "[i]t was now a battle of a republic against the machinations of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church."35
While Sanger's pivot against the Catholic Church in 1921 served to amplify the movement (and brought it in accord with a number of other cultural happenings in the decade, few of them progressive), a later alliance worked less well. In 1925, she made common cause with the decidedly un-Socialist American Medical Association, securing their public endorsement of contraception in exchange for an ABCL proclamation that "instruction in Birth Control should be given by the medical profession…We do not favor the indiscriminate diffusion of unreliable and unsafe Birth Control advice." She also offered, in the words of The Survey, "to place the direction of the medical activities of the American Birth Control League in the hands of a representative medical group." In return, the medical community -- whose eminent scholars attended the 1925 birth control conference in droves -- lauded "the splendid work of Ms. Margaret Sanger, the pioneer and leader of the birth control movement in America. Under difficulties and vicissitudes which would have completely disheartened a less courageous soul, she has kept up the fight and won a succession of victories which even a few years would have seemed impossible." Even as the praise flowed both ways, this April 1925 conference had the mood of a handoff. As The Survey reported, "Now it is up to the doctors." But while the medical establishment effectively pushed Sanger out of the forefront of her own cause, the AMA did very little to move the issue forward from then on.36
Unlike Sanger's ABCL, Mary Ware Dennett's Voluntary Parenthood League -- a sister organization with which Sanger held an uneasy relationship -- preferred an inside game. Until their dissolution in 1927, the League lobbied legislatures for the repeal of state and federal indecency laws that prevented open and frank discussion of birth control and abortion, usually by emphasizing women's rights and the type of maternalist arguments that had worked so well to pass the Sheppard-Towner Act. Their letterhead argued that obscenity laws "besmirch…the question of intelligent parenthood by including it with penalized indecencies," and that they should be repealed "so that the birth of children may occur with due regard to health…income, choice, environment, and the well-being of the community."37
While the Voluntary Parenthood League aspired to less confrontational tactics than Sanger's ABCL, they had an equally hard time moving Congress on the issue of birth control. One week after the inauguration of Warren Harding, Dennett wrote William Borah asking him to take up the subject of repealing obscenity laws. Soon thereafter, the Senator's office was deluged with postcards and letters on the subject. "The application of scientific knowledge in this field," argued one, "is more important and far-reaching, I believe, than any other single issue now up for consideration." "In view of the opinion of many deep students of sociology that the high birth rate among the poor classes must be checked" suggested another, "it seems deplorable that there are laws which brand as a felony the giving of information by means of which such restriction might be brought about." One "Woman Physician" from Minnesota told Borah how she had "seen the need of intelligent Birth Control in a great many pathetic instances. Sponsoring this Bill would be a very real contribution to the progress of civilization, and towards the solution of some of our most heart rending national problems."38
Several others appealed to Borah's new status as America's champion of disarmament and argued that repealing the obscenity laws would be "one more proof of the progressive open-mindedness that has characterized your activities in the Senate." "[Y]our proposal for a naval holiday make[s] it easy to believe that in you the women of the country have found a leader on whom they count to take this step in freeing them from an outworn code," one writer suggested. "I hope that in you we have found that friend who will not be under the dominion of this tabu." "This is bill is so in line with modern thought," concluded another from Pittsburgh, "that you need for no reason hesitate to stand back of it. On the contrary you would be regarded with the highest esteem by those who have admired your courage for your stand on disarmament, economy of the inaugural, and other matters of importance." The Idaho Senator was unmoved by these appeals -- In fact, he didn't even reply to Dennett personally. "Senator Borah directs me to say that he is so crowded with other matters of importance that it is impossible for him to agree at this time to take any more work," read the form response.39
This was not Dennett's first rejection. In fact, she had been looking for a sponsor for the legislation since 1919, to no avail. Joseph France of Maryland, one of the only physicians in the Senate, seemed interested but also didn't think he had the time. George Norris was a supporter of the bill, but thought the unpopularity of his other progressive stances on the Judiciary Committee made him a poor champion for the issue. France and Norris had sent Dennett ping-ponging back and forth to various potential sponsors -- Thomas Sterling, William Dillingham, Morris Sheppard, Arthur Capper, William Kenyon -- all of whom would deliberate for awhile than tell the League that, while they were in sympathy with the cause, they just did not have the time to take up this legislation. ("I'm mighty sorry," said Senator Kenyon in a representative response, "but I am just loaded down with bills that are taking every moment of my time.")40
Undeterred, Dennett and the VPL instead began to work on Will Hays, then still Harding's Postmaster General, to enlist him in the cause of liberalizing mail codes. When Hays left Washington for Hollywood, however, Dennett turned her attention back to the Congress. Borah, in typically exasperating fashion, suggested to the League that he might be able to append the legislation to another bill, calling for stricter mail controls on race track betting materials, if it made it out of the Judiciary committee to the floor -- but he then helped to kill the race track bill in committee. Finally, after the 1922 midterms, she at last secured the sponsorship of Albert Cummins of Iowa and lame duck Representative John Kissel of New York, but the Cummins-Kissel bill received no attention before the session ended, in part because a quorum on the Judiciary Committee had suddenly disappeared when Cummins said he was bringing the bill to a vote. ("They just faded away," he told Dennett after the fact.)41
With new House sponsor William Vaile of Colorado, the Cummins-Vaile bill was reintroduced in January 1924, and once again, members of the Judiciary Committee received multitudes of letters pro- and con-. "When the universal trend of intelligent people is to get and make use of the contraceptive knowledge which the laws forbid," the VPL asked in a twelve-day "daily dozen" series of talking points in favor of the bill, "-- that is to become law-breakers -- is it not high time to change the law?" Cummins-Vaile, they argued, would give "first class medical experts…a lawful and decent opportunity" to offer "dignified, reliable, scientific, hygienic information" instead being of "obliged to resort to the undignified process of boot-legging their scientific teaching." In short, the VPL asserted, "[t]his country is founded upon faith in the people. Does Congress wish to maintain laws which repudiate that faith?"42
These appeals to science and sophistication were lost on the opposition. "I hope, my dear Sir, that you are not one of the 'sophisticated' Congressman," Marguerite Stewart, head of the National Christian League for the Promotion of Purity, wrote Borah. Rather than being archaic nostrums, Stewart argued, the laws on the books had held back the "flood of the old world obscenities and immoralities" which had "made of the French nation the moral and physical plague-spot of Christendom." "For many years the French people have practiced birth control by contraceptive methods and have taught it to all comers. Today she is in the death-grip with venereal disease and a rapidly falling birth-rate which threatens national extinction." "[T]he practices this literature is intended to teach," another argued, "are in violation of the law of God as expressed in both religion and nature and cannot but be fraught with serious danger to the individual, the home and our country." "Will you be treating us as your children," the East St. Louis Woman's Club asked the Senate, "when you place in our hands knowledge that would make us a nation of moral degenerates?"43
When hearings were held in April and May of 1924 on the Cummins-Vaile bill -- the May date was added to appease irate Catholics -- Marguerite Stewart was one of those who testified against the bill. She was joined by someone who carried more weight in progressive circles, Father John Ryan of the National Catholic Welfare Council. In 1916, Ryan had argued that "limitation of these families through these practices is injurious to the race" and "debasing to those who employ them, inasmuch as they lead inevitably to loss of reverence for the marital relation, loss of respect for the conjugal partner, and loss of faith in the sacredness of the nuptial bond." The use of birth control, Ryan continued, "leads inevitably to an increase of softness, luxury, and materialism and to a decrease of mental and moral discipline, of endurance, and of the power of achievement."44
An old-school progressive argument reminiscent of Colonel Roosevelt, but one wonders if the committee was even listening. As one of Sanger's aides reported back about the debate, the Cummins-Vaile bill had become "the laughing stock of the cloakroom." Eventually, in January 1925, Cummins -- now the Chairman of the Judiciary -- moved the bill though his committee without a report, whereupon it still languished on the floor, never came to a vote, and thus died at the end of the session in March.45
A dismayed Dennett folded up shop, ceding the issue to Sanger's ABCL -- either way, the birth control issue was stymied for the time being. "The way out of the ethical difficulty," a writer in The Survey argued in 1923, "seems to lie in recognizing that the sex function serves as high a purpose, if associated with genuine affection and exercised in moderation, in making human happiness as in making human beings." While conforming to the companionate ideal and the sensibilities of the younger generation, a number of progressives and politicians were not yet ready to make that leap.46
While the question of birth control separated old and new progressives, the animosity it engendered was relatively minute compared to one of the major clashes of the decade involving the emergence of the New Woman -- the furor over the Equal Rights Amendment. Looking back at the decade, one WTUL organizer lamented how she and her fellow progressives "had to lay aside the work they were doing to improve conditions for women and spend their time combating the equal rights amendment." No other issue so divided the former suffrage movement against itself in the 1920s.47
The controversy over the Equal Right Amendment began not just in differing approaches to reform but lingering resentments from the suffrage battle. In 1914, 29-year-old suffragist Alice Paul had led a dissatisfied contingent out of the National American Woman Suffrage Organization (NAWSA) and formed the Congressional Union, soon renamed the National Women's Party (NWP). As the more militant wing of the movement, Paul's NWP adopted protest strategies from the British campaign for suffrage, such as hunger strikes and protests of the Wilson administration during wartime, which unnerved the often older and more staid reformers of NAWSA, who thought NWP methods were ultimately counterproductive.48
Paul made further enemies through both her single-minded focus and her iron-fisted approach to the NWP. Reporting on the 1921 Party convention, The Nation's Freda Kirchwey, in an article entitled "Alice Paul Pulls the Strings," deplored what she saw there -- "[T]he leaders acted on the amiable contempt for their followers, the rank and file, either cynically or enthusiastically, watched the wishes of their leaders become the law of the convention:"
The rank and file…do not know what their party will do; they only know that no action was taken in behalf of the Negro women, who have not yet got the vote in spite of the Nineteenth Amendment; that birth control and maternity endowment and most of the questions that stir the minds of modern women were ignored; that disarmament was ruled out; and that the program finally adopted - the majority report of the resolutions committee - declared vaguely against 'legal disabilities' and for 'equality' leaving the future definitions of those terms and their translation into action to the executive board.49Eventually, Kirchwey reported, both birth control advocates and a delegation of African-American women got a chance to be heard on the control floor. But "they were simply an interruption, an obstacle to the smooth working of the machine…The attitude of Alice Paul and her supporters toward these disturbers of the peace - Negro women and birth control advocates alike - was the attitude of all established authorities. 'Why do these people harass us?' asked Miss Paul. 'Why do they want to spoil our convention?' The answer that never occurred to her was this: 'For the same reason that made you disturb the peace and harass the authorities in your peculiarly effective and irritating way: because they want to further the cause they believe in."50
These tensions -- simmering throughout 1921 and 1922 as the NWP publicly worked out its amendment strategy -- boiled over in November 1923. Then, in a ceremony at Seneca Falls, New York to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments, the NWP unfurled its new "Lucretia Mott Amendment." It read: "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction." This amendment, argued supporter Crystal Eastman, "would blot out of every law book in the land…sweep out of every dusty court-room…[and] erase from every judge's mind that centuries-old precedent as to women's inferiority and dependence and need for protection; [and] substitute for it at one blow the simple new precedent of equality." There was no path forward, Eastman argued, "so long as women are classed with children and minors in industrial legislation."51
Older reformers and trade unions balked at this line of reasoning. In a debate for The Survey, New York reformer and Al Smith confidante Frances Perkins -- who had been crucial in passing the 1911 Triangle Fire Reforms that augured a wave of protective laws across the nation -- argued they had been "initiated because of observed and striking facts: namely, the overwork, exploitation, and unhealthful surroundings of the working women who crowded into factories in the latter part of the nineteenth century." Everything from the "traditional and usual height of a workbench," which was "based on the average male stature and is too high for the comfort of the average woman worker," to the fact that women were often left out of unionization efforts, Perkins noted, argued in support of protective legislation. "[T]o compete fairly with men who have by habit and greater experience most of the advantages in any competitive struggle," she concluded, protective legislation was a woman's "only hope of a reasonably satisfactory life in industry…on the basis of the prevention of fatigue by short hours, good wages, and healthful conditions."52
Florence Kelley, the head of the National Consumers' League and a longtime advocate for protective legislation, was particularly livid at the NWP. "There is at this moment an insanity prevalent among women where we would least expect it," she wrote to Roscoe Pound, Dean of Harvard Law School, about what she would later call the "miserable amendment." "The insanity expresses itself in eager demands for identical treatment with that according to men." Such "[b]lanket amendments to the U.S. Constitution," Kelley declared at another venue, were "monstrosities" and "atrocities" that threatened all the decades of work her National Consumers' League, the WTUL, and other progressive groups had put in to secure protective legislation for women in the workplace. "The Supreme Court definitions of 'equal rights' in the so-called 'Negro' amendments," she wrote Lavinia Dock in 1923, 'have been consistently injurious, first, to the Negroes, and afterward to White women and children…I am in principle averse to giving the Court any fresh opportunities to interpret ambiguous terms." In a list of "Twenty Questions" Kelley circulated to members of Congress in response, she asked Members to consider what effect their amendment would have on both protective legislation and a host of other areas. "Will husbands need to continue to support their wives?" she asked. "Can deserting husbands be brought back and compelled to support wife and child?" "Will women be subject to conscription?" "What will become of the penalties (a) for seduction? (b) for violation of the Mann Act? (c) for rape?"53
To Kelley and her colleagues, the Mott Amendment and its adherents were also pouring salt on another painful wound. In April 1923, the Supreme Court overturned a minimum-wage law for women in the District of Columbia in the Adkins v. Children's Hospital decision, penned by Harding appointee George Sutherland -- later one of the nemeses of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. This 5-3 decision (with Brandeis abstaining and Chief Justice Taft and Holmes in opposition for different reasons) concluded, in the manner of the Lochner case, that this proposed minimum wage interfered with the liberty of contract purportedly upheld by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In fact, the Court went so far as to call the law "a naked, arbitrary exercise of power" by the State - Rather than serve any social benefit, it was deemed "simply and exclusively a price-fixing law, confined to adult women…who are legally as capable of contracting for themselves as men."54
That was the rub. In fact, Justice Sutherland, speaking for the Court, also suggested that it might be time to revisit the Court's 1908 decision in Muller v. Oregon, which had upheld a law mandating that women could work no longer than ten hours a day. "The ancient inequality of the sexes, otherwise than physical…has continued 'with diminishing intensity," the Adkins decision read. "In view of the great -- not to say revolutionary -- changes which have taken place since that utterance, in the contractual, political and civil status of women, culminating in the Nineteenth Amendment, it is not unreasonable to say that these differences have now come almost, if not quite, to the vanishing point." In fact, "the present day trend of legislation, as well as that of common thought and usage," Sutherland declared, was towards women being "accorded emancipation from the old doctrine that she must be given special protection or be subjected to special restraint in her contractual and civil relationships."55
Progressives were stunned by the verdict. "The minimum wage decision is the most severe blow which progressive American labor legislation has yet received at the hands of the Supreme Court," wrote Henry Seeger in The Survey. "[I]t was not a new and untried experiment that was to be passed upon…The decision involved rather a reversal of what had come to be accepted as an established constitutional principle." Louis Hart, the Governor of Washington, noted that the case "if it results in the wiping out of our minimum wage laws may be in its effect upon our economic and industrial life second only to the famous Dred Scott decision." Samuel Gompers said the Court had "trampled" the law "underfoot, together with the great army of women wage-earners of our country." "Every genuine lover of justice and every competent student of industry has been shocked by the decision," wrote Father John A. Ryan, arguing the Court had stepped far outside its bounds. "The business of the judge is to interpret law," Ryan thought, "not to determine legislative policy. "Adkins, lamented Frances Perkins, "is a most surprising and shocking step backward in the history of social legislation in the United States."56
In the years prior to the Adkins decision, Florence Kelley and the League had fought to see twenty-four states adopt minimum wage laws -- twelve before the War, twelve after. When the Adkins case came up, Kelly had put the full force of the League into fighting it, and, once he offered his services, had Felix Frankfurter "jumping high jumps twice daily" on its behalf. But, as Frankfurter told Kelley aide Mary Dewson after the verdict had been handed down, "Molly, you must learn that if the U.S. Supreme Court says a red rose is green, it is green. That's final."
And the reformers had not only lost this case. They now saw the work of their lives in danger of being overturned by the Court - of nine men and no women, as Kelley noted - in the very near future. In fact, Adkins paved the way for similar state laws being overturned all across the country - By 1930, the number of states with minimum wage laws (excluding the District of Columbia) dwindled down to six. The National Woman's Party, meanwhile, applauded the Adkins decision as a step forward for women and equality. "[O]ne can feel that at last the world is beginning to realize that women are adult human beings," Alice Paul said of the verdict. It was in this climate that, eight months later, the NWP put forward the Mott amendment, which threatened to accelerate even further the rollback of protective legislation.57
Especially in the face of Adkins, old-time reformers were enraged. "I could not help comparing you as you sat there, sheltered, safe, beautifully guarded against even the ugliness of life, with the women for whom you demand 'freedom of contract,'" an irate Alice Hamilton, the former Hull House settlement worker who in 1919 had become the first woman on Harvard's faculty, wrote to one ERA proponent. "[T]he great army of waitresses and hotel chambermaids, unorganized, utterly ignorant of ways of making their grievances known, working long hours and living wretchedly" would be the victims of the NWP's line of thinking, she argued. Similarly, Mabel Leslie of the WTUL thought ERA's backers were "merely theoretical ultra-feminists who [did] not have to work for a living," while one AFL member suggested its supporters would view things differently after one day in the mines or at a piecing machine.58
In fact, Paul -- who herself had advocated for protective legislation at an earlier time ---had originally urged Massachusetts members fighting for a state-level ERA in 1921 to "be very certain that none of the legislation which you introduce in any way disturbs any protective legislation that may have been passed in your state for the welfare of women":
I do not think we want to interfere in any way with the so called welfare legislation that has been passed at the instance of the Consumers League and other organizations for the purpose of protecting women from night work and from too long hours of labor…That is, it seems to me, when there is an inequality in which the position of women is better than that of me, we do not want to bring that standard for women down to that of men, but want, on the contrary, to bring that of men up to the standard existing for women. 59But, in the final analysis, Paul and her allies found the principle of equality before the law too fundamental to hedge on behalf of earlier gains. "Would you regard it as 'protection'," NWP member Harriet Stanton Blatch asked Anne Martin, a woman running for Senate in 1918, "were you when elected to the Senate excluded from debates extending over eight hours, taking place Saturday afternoons or at night?" For similar reasons, Blatch thought, "in many highly paid trades women have been pushed into the lower grades of work, limited in earning capacity, if not shut out of the trade entirely by these so-called protective laws." By November 1921, Paul told a friend she no longer believed in "special protective labor legislation for women. It seems to me that protective labor legislation should be enacted for women and men alike in a trade or in a geographical district and not along sex lines. I think that enacting labor laws along sex lines is erecting another handicap for women in the economic struggle."60
Clearly, there was more than a hint of sexism in the arguments put forward by some opponents of the amendment, even among ostensibly progressive ones. "Both the Catholic Church and the women trade union leaders," Father John Ryan argued in a 1929 pamphlet on the subject, "approach this question from the side of experience and the facts of human nature." Citing Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical on the Condition of Labor, Ryan argued that "wage earning women are a special class, having needs which are peculiar to that class. These should be taken care of by appropriate and special legislation. This is realism and common sense." Protective legislation, he argued, "recognizes certain actual inequalities, weaknesses if you will, of physique and of capacity for organization." As such, he argued the NWP's position seemed to be borne of "a feeling of resentment against the male sex…Instead of striving to provide women with those conditions, economic, social, legislative, and other which will assure them reasonable opportunities for living their lives and performing their functions as women, the feminists would have them become merely bad imitators of men…It would mean the destruction of the family and the race."61
In any case, even more than the birth control issue, the fight over the ERA -- and the appropriate path forward for women at issue -- set former allies at odds. "The American woman's movement," Frances Kellor said in 1923," and her interest in great moral and social questions, is splintered into a hundred fragments under as many warring leaders." Congress, meanwhile, remained as aloof from the Equal Rights Amendment discussion as it had on voluntary parenthood. While introduced by Kansas Republicans Charles Curtis in the Senate and Daniel Anthony -- Susan B. Anthony's nephew -- in the House in 1923, and subsequently introduced every year thereafter, the ERA would languish in committee for decades.62
In the meantime, the culture of the Twenties continued to move away from the protectionism favored by old-line progressives and toward the perspective of the National Women's Party. The New Woman, to borrow a phrase later used to describe Ginger Rogers, could do everything men could do, backwards and with high heels on. 1920 saw film star Mary Pickford join with Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin as partners of United Artists, making her a cool millionaire. In 1926, American Gertrude Ederle made headlines around the world by becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel. Two years later, in 1928, Amelia Earhart repeated Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic, while Margaret Mead became an instant sensation and one of the world's most renowned anthropologists with the publication of her book, Coming of Age in Samoa. In the pages of The New Yorker and at the lunch table of the Algonquin Hotel, writer and poet Dorothy Parker -- who embodied the New Woman much more than ever did F. Scott's Fitzgerald's parade of vapid, alluring flappers -- displayed a biting wit and caustic insight to rival Mencken's. "If I abstain from fun and such / I'll probably amount to much," she wrote in her 1926 poetry debut, Enough Rope, summing up the spirit of the age, "But I shall stay the way I am / Because I do not give a damn."63
To be sure, the social and political equality of the New Woman was in many ways still wishful thinking, and in fact the rhetoric of emancipation often imposed new strictures on women. Moving into the workplace usually meant women were now expected to bring home pay and maintain the vision of the domestic ideal, while, of course, remaining alluring for her husband. In fact, the sale of cosmetics and make-up increased dramatically in the Twenties, in a testament to changing traditions, the allure of the movies, and the same psychological tool kit advertisers had used to make Listerine mouthwash a standard in every bathroom. By 1929, according to sociologist Robert Lynd, the cosmetics industry was spending more on advertisements than either the food or car industries.64
Similarly, new household appliances that should have made life easier, like the oven and the vacuum cleaner, came hand-in-hand with higher expectations of cleanliness and domestic bliss. "When will women, patient creatures," asked Anne Martin, the aforementioned Senate candidate of 1918, "see clearly enough to protest against…the pictures of themselves as wives and mothers appropriately arrayed in housewives' uniforms, working oil, gas, and electric stoves, furnaces, carpet-sweepers, washing machines and clothes-wringers, or cooking and serving various foods -- all the wares of the advertisers -- with sweet, seraphic smiles on their faces? As if they never had, or wanted another thought!" If and when they did, it would not be thanks to advertisers, who -- given the oft-cited statistic of the time that women made 80% of consumer decisions for the home -- worked feverishly to merge the emerging ideals of the New Woman and companionate marriage with a need for their products. "Today's woman gets what she wants," one Chicago Tribune ad read, "The vote. Slim sheaths of silk to replace voluminous petticoats. Glassware in sapphire blue or glowing amber. The right to a career. Soap to match her bathroom's color scheme."65
Nonetheless, there was more to the New Woman than an advertiser's marketing strategy, or a Fitzgerald novella. The grasping towards a new equality was very real, and, though many of the fundamentals of that new equality would take decades to reach fruition, if indeed they ever were, the aspirations toward them were hard-felt by the younger generation in the 1920's -- belying the intense cynicism that took hold of so many older progressives' hearts during the New Era.
A similar dynamic could be witnessed north of 96th Street in Manhattan, where, in noted contrast to the despair and world-weary cynicism emanating from Paris, the Algonquin, and other bastions of white literary culture, a generation of African-American authors, poets, artists, and musicians were flourishing as never before. "Negro life is not only establishing new contacts and founding new centers, it is finding a new soul," wrote Howard University professor of philosophy Alain Locke in the foreword to 1925's The New Negro, a seminal anthology that offered all of America "the first fruits of the Negro Renaissance." 'There is a fresh spiritual and cultural focusing. We have, as the heralding sign, an unusual outburst of creative expression." In short, just as there was a New Woman, there was a New Negro as well.66
In many ways, Harlem was full of optimism for the same reasons so many white artists were crippled with despair. While many white writers and poets bemoaned what they viewed as the collapse of the old, neo-Victorian, Protestant civilization, African-American artists felt liberated at last from the yoke of its hypocrisies. They saw instead the crumbling of a broken, desiccated culture that had fought for democracy overseas while treating them like second-class citizens at home. Similarly, while whites had seen their hopes die in the World War and its aftermath, many African-Americans came out of the conflagration determined to stand up and be counted. To many in white America, Woodrow Wilson was the tragic "peace messiah," who had promised so much and yet broken the heart of the world at Versailles. To African-Americans, he was the southern Democrat who had re-segregated the White House. If white America had decided to forsake the puritanical rectitude of a Wilson in exchange for the humble joviality of a Warren Harding, well, all the better.67
Compounding this sense of new opportunity among African Americans was the Great Migration -- A generation of black men and women was moving North into the cities, and escaping the very real repressions of the South. This was "a deliberate flight not only from countryside to city," wrote Locke, "but from a medieval America to modern." Even more inspiring, this cultural renaissance was all happening in what had fast become one of the most exciting and diverse places on the planet. African-American neighborhoods in cities were of course nothing new, but Harlem was something else altogether. "Here in Manhattan is not merely the largest Negro community in the world," Locke noted, "but the first concentration in history of so many diverse elements of Negro life. It has attracted the African, the West Indian, the Negro American; has brought together the Negro of the North and the Negro of the South; the man from the city and the man from the town and village; the peasant, the student, the business man, the professional man, artist, poet, musician, adventurer and worker, preacher and criminal, exploiter and social outcast."68
In the great melting pot, Locke argued, the New Negro was taking control of his own destiny. "He resents being spoken of as a social ward or minor, even by his own, and to being regarded a chronic patient, for the sociological clinic, the sick man of American Democracy. For the same reasons, he himself is through with those social nostrums and panaceas, the so-called 'solutions' of his 'problem,' with which he and the country have been so liberally dosed in the past." Instead, Locke proclaimed, the way forward was through "belief in the efficacy of collective effort, in race co-operation. This deep feeling of race is at present in the mainspring of Negro life…As a world phenomenon this wider race consciousness is a different thing from the much asserted rising tide of color…Whether it actually brings into being new Armadas of conflict or argosies of cultural exchange and enlightenment can only be decided by the attitude of the dominant races in an era of critical change." Regardless, Locke argued, "if in our lifetime the Negro should not be able to celebrate his full initiation into American democracy, he can at least, on the warrant of these things, celebrate the attainment of a significant and satisfying new phase of group development, and with it a spiritual Coming of Age."69
Alain Locke himself was not so much a product of the Harlem Renaissance as its designated chronicler. The year before The New Negro was published, Paul Kellogg approached Locke, a Washington DC native, to help put together a Harlem-themed issue of The Survey Graphic (The Survey's more color- and image-intensive monthly issue.) It appeared on stands in March 1925, and eventually in longer form became the influential New Negro anthology. Locke seized this chance to act as the harbinger of goings-on in Harlem, recruiting, in the words of one historian, "a Who's Who among black American artists, intellectuals, and scholars." Along with poets like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen, authors like Zora Neale Hurston and Jesse Toomer, and sympathetic whites like Kellogg and reclusive Philadelphia art collector Albert Barnes, Locke also turned to the staff of The Crisis, including James Weldon Johnson, art critic Jessie Fauset (whom Hughes deemed as integral to the Renaissance as Locke, and who, as the discoverer of so many Harlem talents, likely should have been the woman Kellogg turned to to assemble the Survey's special issue), and the Dean himself, W.E.B. DuBois, whose Souls of Black Folk, had been arguably the last state of the union of Black America before The New Negro.70
In donating an essay for The New Negro (albeit one previously published in Foreign Affairs), DuBois bestowed his benediction on the nascent Harlem Renaissance -- and yet he looked at the phenomenon with older and less optimistic eyes. In his contribution, Du Bois revisited his 1903 book and its central contention that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." After surveying the European colonial systems that still held sway in Africa -- the empires of Portugal, France, England, and Belgium -- he concluded that this was still true, with one major caveat, in part because his generation had failed at Versailles. "To some persons -- to more human beings than ever before -- at one time in the world's history," he wrote, "there came during the Great War, during those terrible years of 1917 and 1918, a vision of the Glory of Sacrifice, a dream of a world greater, sweeter, more beautiful and more honest than ever before; a world without war, without poverty and without hate. I am glad it came. Even though it was a mirage it was eternally true." Until that dream was realized, Du Bois argued, African Americans should beware the illusion of fulfillment.71
More to the point, in a subtle rebuke to Locke's evocation of race-consciousness and race-pride -- which to DuBois carried troubling resonances of the philosophy of his nemesis, Marcus Garvey -- he now argued that the color line was the problem of the world because it accorded with a more fundamental schism. "Most men would agree that our present problem of problems was not the Color Problem," he now argued, "but what we call Labor, the problem of allocating work and income in the tremendous and increasingly intricate world-embracing industrial machine that our civilization has built." In other words, it was the fight between labor and capital, rather than any Lothrop Stoddard-like clash of prideful races, that would guide the future. To take just one example, DuBois argued that the troubles in Liberia were "not because the republic is black, but because the world has failed in this same battle; because organized industry owns and rules England, France, Germany, America, and Heaven…unless the world escapes, the world as well as Liberia will die; and if Liberia lives it will be because the World is reborn as in that vision splendid of 1918."72
But DuBois, like reformers such as Florence Kelley and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, were of an older generation. "It was characteristic of the Jazz Age," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, looking back on the decade from the vantage of 1931, "that it had no interest in politics at all." For young men and women in Harlem, as in all of New York City -- a city that doubled in population between 1910 and 1930 -- the world was now, and the city was Modernity itself.
With both the publishing and music industries flourishing as never before, and with the new technologies of radio and the movies broadcasting city culture to the rest of the world, New York in the 1920's consolidated its position over Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, and other cities as the cultural center of America (and, by extension, the known universe.) "The whole world revolves around New York," said Duke Ellington late in life, remembering his heydays as one of the early popularizers of jazz in the 1920's. "Very little happens anywhere unless someone in New York presses a button." There, under the tolerant eye of Mayor Jimmy Walker, a quick-witted, sociable, and often sozzled bon vivant from Tammany Hall, men and women, whites and blacks, straight and gay people all gathered together to drink, dance, socialize, and forge a new culture from the ashes of the old. America was "the most powerful nation" in the world, wrote Fitzgerald, "Who could tell us anymore what was fashionable and what was fun?" The world had been broken, but it could be remade. And in a decade that began with more Americans living in cities for the first time in its history, who better to lead the way as the vanguard than New York, New York?73
To be sure, the breakdown of old barriers in New York can be vastly overstated. As historian Nathan Huggins noted in his seminal 1971 book on the Harlem Renaissance, there was a good bit of cultural tourism going on at the time, with white Americans venturing up to the metaphorical borderlands of Harlem in much the same way other whites still crossed literal borders into Indian land or Mexico. "Men who sensed they were slaves to moral codes," Higgins argued, "that they were cramped, and confided by guilt-producing norms which threatened to make them emotional cripples, found Harlem a tonic and a release…"
How convenient! It was merely a taxi trip to the exotic for most white New Yorkers. In cabarets decorated with tropical and jungle motifs - some of them replicas of southern plantations - they heard jazz, that almost forbidden music…The downtown spectator tried to encompass the looseness and freedom of dance…Into its vortex white ladies and gentlemen were pulled, to dance the jungle dance…It was a cheap trip. No safari! Daylight and a taxi ride rediscovered New York City, no tropic jungle.74"So viewed," Huggins argued, "Harlem was a means of soft rebellion for those who rejected the Babbittry and sterility of their lives, yet could not find within their familiar culture the genius to redefine themselves in more human and vital terms. The Negro was their subversive agent - his music, manners, and speech…Negroes were that essential self one somehow lost on the way to civility, ghosts of one's primal nature whose very nearness could spark electric race-memory of pure sensation untouched by self-consciousness and doubt."75
Huggins point is well-taken. In The Survey, one author described jazz as "a joyous revolt from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorry -- from everything that would confine the soul of man and hinder its riding free on the air. The Negroes who invented it…weren't capable of satire or deception. Jazz was their explosive attempt to cast off the blues and be happy, carefree happy even in the midst of sordidness and sorrow." A decade later, Langston Hughes would talk of "the tourist invasion of Harlem" that occurred "[d]uring the height of the New Negro era." "Every night the limousines pulled up" between 130th and 140th Streets, remembered Harlem singer Bricktop, "and the rich whites would get out all dolled up in their furs and jewels."76
And yet, just as with the emergence of the New Woman, something new was being forged in Manhattan and in other cities across the country. The avatars of this new culture may have spoken a language that seemed foreign to older progressives, and emphasized social and cultural liberation rather than political transformation, but the changes were real nonetheless. The likes of Walter Lippmann and Joseph Wood Krutch might be staring into an existential abyss, but for many younger Americans, there were still reasons for hope for the future. The youth culture may have been much less politically idealistic and concerned with matters of the world than its predecessor, but it still envisioned fundamental transformations happening in American life. And, however hedonistic at times, it was, perhaps, more honest, more tolerant, and more human.
There was bound to be a reaction.
Return to the Table of Contents.
5. Paula Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 6, 13. Devere Allen, "What Else Must Be Done to Make This a Livable World?" The Survey, January 1st, 1921, 498.
6. McGerr, 261. Zeitz, 23. McGerr, 282.
7. Zeitz, 23, 39.
8. Zeitz, 38, 46-47. Barry, 136. Rising Tide, Cott, 150.
9. Zeitz, 46-47. Dumenil, 136. Eleanor Rowland Wembridge, "Petting and the Campus," The Survey, July 1st, 1925, in Mowry, ed., 175-178.
10. "Is the Younger Generation in Peril?," The Literary Digest, May 14th, 1921 (Vol. 69, No. 7), 9-12. Reprinted in Baritz, 251-252.
11. Brown, 133, 167, 181.
12. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 161-162. The Decrepit Social Worker," The Survey, January 14th, 1922, 585.
13. Hiram Johnson to Hiram Johnson, Jr., July 2nd, 1921. Johnson, 105. Ashby, 22. White to Marco Morrow, February 7, 1921. White, Selected Letters, 214.
14. Addams, Second Twenty Years, 192-194.
15. Addams, Second Twenty Years, 195-196.
16. Addams, Second Twenty Years, 202-203.
17. Zeitz, 7. Bruce Bliven, "The Great Disrobing of Flapper Jane," The New Republic, September 9th, 1925 (Vol. 44, No. 562), 65-67.
18. Ibid. Cott, 150, 155. Beatrice Hinkle, "Women and the New Morality," in Baritz, 280-288.
19. Baritz, 282.
20. Cott, 40, 217-219. Dumenil, 112. Miller, New World Coming, 255. Brown.
21. Cott, 148, 156-158, 183.
22. Cott, 148, 156-158, 183. Brown, 103. As Nancy Cott notes in The Grounding of Modern Feminism, like so many other reforms of the period, these new ideals of marriage and family were in some ways double-edged swords for women. Once marriage was reconceived as the be-all, end-all of companionship, women who chose not to partake of the institution were now considered suspect. "Once female sexual drives were acknowledged," she writes, "the woman who did not marry was looked at in a new light...The woman who stepped out of line in the nineteenth century had often been sexually slurred as promiscuous, but in the twentieth century she would increasingly be condemned as a lesbian." Ibid.
23. Joseph Wood Krutch, "New Morals for Old: Modern Love and Modern Fiction," The Nation, June 25th, 1924 (Vol. 118, No. 3077), 435-436.
24. Fass, 53.
25. Brown, 117.
26. Dumenil, 138. Brown, 113-114.
27. "The Week," The New Republic, November 9, 1921 (Vol. 28, No. 362), 308. Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (New York: Brentanos, 1920), 3-6, 24-25, 30, 78.
28. Ibid. Among these ills, Sanger notes, is abortion. ""If the laws against imparting knowledge of scientific birth control were repealed, nearly all of the 1,000,000 or 2,000,000 women who undergo abortions in the United States each year would escape the agony of the surgeon's instruments and the long trail of disease, suffering and death which so often follows." Ibid, 67.
29. Ibid, 19-20.
30. Ibid, 24.
31. Brown, 113-116.
32. "Archbishop Hayes on Birth Control," The New York Times, December 8th, 1921. "The Sin of Birth Control," The New Republic, December 28th, 1921 (Vol. 29, No. 369), 116.
33. "The Town Hall Raid" The Margaret Sangers Paper Project, Spring 2001 (No. 27). (http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/secure/newsletter/articles/town_hall_raid.html)
34. "Birth Control and War," The Survey , November 19th, 1921, 267. "Birth Control and Taboo," The New Republic, November 30th, 1921 (Vol. 29, No. 365), 90."The Town Hall Raid," The Margaret Sanger Papers Project.
35. "Mrs. Sanger Replies to Archbishop Hayes," The New York Times, December 20th, 1921. "The Town Hall Raid," The Margaret Sanger Papers Project.
36. Brown, 113-116. "Up to the Doctors," The Survey, April 15th, 1925, 73.
37. Brown, 81, 116-117. Mary Ware Dennett to Borah, March 11, 1921. WJB, Box 104: Voluntary Parenthood.
38. Hilda H, Noyes to Borah, March 11, 1921. WJB, Box 104: Voluntary Parenthood. John A. Perou to Borah, March 23, 1921. WJB, Box 104: Voluntary Parenthood. Undated postcard. WJB, Box 104: Voluntary Parenthood.
39. Beatrix F. Kalish to Borah, March 9, 1921. WJB, Box 104: Voluntary Parenthood. Mrs. Ruth W. Porter to Borah, March 17, 1921. WJB, Box 104: Voluntary Parenthood. Mrs. Carl J. Fechheimer to Borah, Undated. WJB, Box 104: Voluntary Parenthood. Borah Secretary to Mary Ware Dennett, March 11, 1921. WJB, Box 104: Voluntary Parenthood.
40. Mary Ware Dennett, Birth Control Laws (New York: F.H. Hitchcock, 1926), 294-298. Excerpted in Robert H. Bremner, ed. Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History, Volume II 1866-1932 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 159-161.
41. Dennett, 294-298. Cathy Moran Hajo, "Voluntary Parenthood League," Encyclopedia of Birth Control (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2001), 262.
42. Mary Ware Dennett to William Borah, February 18th, 1925. WJB Box 177: Cummins-Vaile Bill.
43. Ibid. Margarita A. Stewart to William Borah, February 6th, 1924. WJB, Box 148: Birth Control. Mrs. Edward I. Cudahy to William Borah, February 22nd, 1923. WJB Box 129: Birth Control. Mrs. John M. Sullivan to William Borah, March 25th, 1924. WJB Box: 148: Birth Control.
44. John A. Ryan, "Family Limitation and the Church and Birth Control" (New York: Paulist Press, 1916), 6-8. Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Catholics and Contraception: An American History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 47.
45. Dennett, 248. Esther Katz, ed., The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 1: The Woman Rebel 1900-1928 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 438-439.
46. Brown, 116. "The Question of Birth Control," The Survey, October 15th, 1923, 112.
47. Chambers, 77-79.
48. Dumenil, 99-100. John Hansen, "National Woman's Party," The Social Welfare History Project (http://www.socialwelfarehistory.com/organizations/national-womans-party/) Cott, 122-123.
49. Freda Kirchwey, "Alice Paul Pulls the Strings," The Nation, March 2nd, 1921 (Vol. 112, No. 2904), 332-333.
51. Cott, 125. Brown, 60-62.
52. France Perkins, "Do Women in Industry Need Special Protection?" The Survey, February 15th, 1926 (Vol. 55, No. 10), 529-531.
53. Brown, 60-62. Florence Kelley to Roscoe Pound, June 3rd, 1921. Sklar, ed., 265. Florence Kelley to Lavinia Dock, November 24th, 1923, 326-327. Florence Kelley to William Borah, December 4th, 1923. WJB Box 152: Equal Rights Amendment. As a result of the Mott Amendment, Kelley also asked Paul to remove her name from the advisory commission of the NWP in October 1921. Florence Kelley to Alice Paul, October 14th, 1921. Sklar, ed. 272.
54. Clarke, 68-70. Adkins v. Children's Hospital - 261 U.S. 525 (1923).
55. Adkins v. Children's Hospital - 261 U.S. 525 (1923). In his dissent, Chief Justice Taft, a traditional rather than a business conservative, argued that "the Nineteenth Amendment did not change the physical strength or limitations of women upon which the decision in Muller v. Oregon rests." Oliver Wendell Holmes argued similarly in his own rejection of the Court's decision-making. "It will need more than the Nineteenth Amendment," he wrote, "to convince me that there are no differences between men and women or that legislation cannot take those differences into account." Chambers, 68-70.
56. "The Minimum Wage - What Next?", The Survey, May 15th, 1923, 215-222, 256-261. John A. Ryan, "Our Self-Amending Constitution," The Survey, August 1st, 1923, 480-481.
57. Chambers, 68-70. Brown, 86. J. Stanley Lemons, The Woman Citizen: Social Feminism in the 1920s (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1973), 143-144. Alice Paul, "The Minimum Wage - What's Next?" The Survey, May 15th, 1923, 256.
58. Chambers, 77-79.
59. Cott, 120-121.
60. Cott, 121-122. Anne Martin, while arguing that "[n]o man or woman can deny the justice of the admirable laws they seek," told Nation readers in 1922 that both sides in the ERA fight were missing the forest for the trees. Trying to change the laws, she argued, was "taking the shadow for the substance" - what women should do is get themselves elected and make the laws. "Why continue to stand at the doors of Congress and State legislatures begging men to vote for our new equality laws?...Is it not more direct, more educational, more 'equalizing,' to put women into power, pledged to the aims of women, than it is to use the 'indirect influence,' the 'womanly appeal' of ante-suffrage days?" Anne Martin, "Equality Laws vs. Women in Government," The Nation, August 16th, 1922, 165-166.
61. John A. Ryan, "The Equal Rights Amendment in Relation to Protective Legislation for Women," 1929. WJB Box 792: Reference Material.
62. Dumenil, 101. When asked about it by the National Council of Catholic Women, Senator Borah said he was still mulling it over, but "have not yet been able to see either the necessity or the virtue of this proposed amendment. I am not sure but what it would be a detriment as you suggest to many women of the country." William Borah to Mrs. Michael Gavin, November 30, 1923. WJB Box 152: Equal Rights Amendment.
63. Cott, 215. Brown, 45-47. Dorothy Parker, Enough Rope (New York: Liveright, 1926), 91.
64. Dumenil, 90-91. Brown, 105. Cott, 174.
65. Cott, 172-173. Dumenil, 129.
66. Alain Locke, ed. The New Negro, An Interpretation (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925), xi, xxvii.
67. Nathan Irvin Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford, 1971), 52-55, 57-60.
68. Locke, 6.
69. Locke, ed., 12-16.
70. Locke, ed., x-xiii, xxii.
71. Locke, ed., 412-413.
72. Locke, ed., 385, 414.
73. Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920's (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1995), 15-18. While he and his wife Zelda would spend much of the decade traveling through Europe, Fitzgerald's heart was always in New York. In 1929, while "riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky," Fitzgerald "began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again." Douglas, 18.
74. Huggins, 89-90.
75. Huggins, 91-92.
76. J.A. Rogers, "Jazz at Home," The Survey, March 1st, 1925, 665, in Mowry, ed., 67-69. George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 310, 246.
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