Women in the 1920s: Youth, Beauty and Independence

Every time I stroll through the Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, I gain new insights into the complex decade of the 1920s. This time I was struck by how many different roles women play in the paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs on view. The 1920s was a time of rapid social change that offered new freedoms to women, who had slipped out of the corset and into the voting booth just a few years earlier.

Many of the artists in Youth and Beauty depict “the modern woman.” She delighted in physicality and physical freedom, attitudes that a decade ago would have been considered sinful and depraved. Her power and sensuality are epitomized by the exuberant, glistening Olympic swimmer Agnes Geraghty as photographed by Edward Steichen or the alluringly self-contained vamp, movie star Gloria Swanson, shot by Nikolas Murray.

The modern woman left the shelter of her family home to rub shoulders with men in the workplace, sometimes even living on her own. Most women who entered the labor force held clerical or service jobs, but some were able to enter professions previously restricted to men. Working didn’t require mannish attire or the relinquishment of style. In Edward Steichen’s photograph of writer Anita Loos, Winold Reiss’s amazing pastel of the Harlem hostess Sari Price Patton, and Man Ray’s shot of fellow photographer Berenice Abbott, the women are depicted as fashionable and attractive yet also serious and intelligent.

Along with jobs in business opening to women in the 1920s, so did possibilities in the arts. This exhibition reflects that blossoming of opportunity by including a significant number of works by women. Some of those artists remain obscure figures, but others have achieved lasting fame, including photographers Imogen Cunningham and Margrethe Mather and painter Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe serves as both artist and subject in this exhibition. Her husband Alfred Stieglitz emphasized the elegance of her strong features and severe dress in his portraits of her.

The modern woman was a trail blazer—but a minority. Despite the numerous depictions of modern women in Youth and Beauty, most American women in the 1920s were still homemakers. In 1930, only one in eight married women were employed and one-quarter of single women 16 and older worked. Grant Woods’ sweet, long-suffering mother and Peter Blume’s woman preparing dinner were actually more typical women of the era.

Almost 100 years later, more than 59 percent of American women are in the workforce, three-quarters of them working full-time. Women have broken through a number of glass ceilings and gained additional legal rights. We consider ourselves equal to men in ability and worth, even though we earn on average only 80% of what our male counterparts are paid. We have come a long way, yet many of the images of women from the 1920s in Youth and Beauty seem surprisingly contemporary, as if they were not our ancestors but our sisters.

-- Barbara Tannenbaum
Curator of Photography



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