The latest volume to be liberated from my “To Read” pile is Judith Mackrell’s “Flappers”, essentially biographing a decade in the lives of six culturally important women who each influenced the popular image of the flapper. It’s quite interesting; although the names are familiar, I knew very little about the lives of Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald, Tamara de Lempicka, Tallulah Bankhead and Josephine Baker. It’s hard to say that they are representative of the 1920s woman, but they were certainly interesting to read about.
As a product of her time, the flapper played a crucial role in the development of feminism, even if she wouldn’t have either recognised or understood the term, coming as she did fresh from the devastation of the First World War. The war itself was probably the biggest trigger for granting women’s suffrage, but it gave women a taste of independence, of being able to survive and make her own choices without having the rely on the input of a husband or father. Unlike her foremothers, however, the archetypal flapper claimed this independence as a right rather than a privilege.
The conventional image of the flapper that was promoted by the (white, male, conservative) press was of a woman who cut her hair, raised her hemlines, smoked and drank in public and had questionable morals. While there was a grain of truth in this, it was unquestionably influenced by the attack on the status quo of huge numbers of young women simply refusing to submit to rules which they now considered archaic and irrelevant. For the first time, women made up the majority of the population. They would need to live independently if they were to survive, and frankly, being treated as a second class citizen simply wasn’t going to be acceptable any longer.
One of the key characteristics of the flapper which seems to have been left behind over the years is that this was very much an expression of a woman’s right to choose. She wished to choose her career, her sexual partners, her mode of dress, her politics and beliefs, rather than having them imposed on her by an authority figure who not only didn’t understand the most basic aspects of being female but whose attitudes were dated and – it could be argued – were responsible for the carnage of the War, which seemed increasingly senseless as time went on. It is this demand to be able to choose which I think needs to be recalled.
Young women today have a lifestyle that the flappers of the 1920s dreamed of, but there is still room for improvement and still cause for revolution. While that is the case, there remains a need for the attitudes of the flapper, that two fingers to the status quo that raises questions and considers alternatives. In the Twenties, corsets were shunned; in the Sixties, bras were burned. In the 21st century, we may have run out of underwear but we still need those strong women prepared to kick the status quo into touch while looking utterly glamorous.
Our grandmothers fought for us to have the lifestyle we have now. What are we, as women, prepared to risk to keep it?