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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

More From the Cutting Room Floor

If you read this column last week, you probably can guess that I spent most of July 4th weekend at my computer, doing a rewrite for my New York publishing associates that means cutting words. Last week, I asked you to pick up scraps of American women’s history from colonial times to the Civil War, and this week, I’m going to do the same – but skipping forward to the 1920s. It’s a particularly interesting decade because there was great social liberation, at the same time that political activism diminished. I’ve rewritten this a bit to highlight Florida. Here goes:

The Roaring Twenties Begin

Women won a tremendous political victory in 1920 with the 19th Amendment that granted the vote in every state, but the remainder of that decade would be quite different. Instead of her civil rights, the flapper of the Roaring Twenties focused on battles for short hair and short skirts; she wanted to drive new cars and dance to lowdown jazz, she smoked cigarettes and drank illegal alcohol. The political activism of her mother and grandmother seemed passé, and even those older women themselves failed to follow up on their gains.

Only about one in ten members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association bothered to join the new League of Women Voters. Headed by Carrie Chapman Catt and Maude Wood Park, who led the victory for the vote, the League began with an impressive agenda. Its 1920 convention in San Francisco adopted 38 legislative goals -- but Congress adopted only two, and one of those two did not outlast the decade.

The successful one was the 1922 Cable Act, which overturned longtime law that granted citizenship to a foreign woman who married an American man – but did the opposite with women, who lost their citizenship if they married a foreigner. Indeed, the one of the first women elected to Congress was caught up in this legal snafu. Florida’s own Ruth Bryan Owen was born in Nebraska, the daughter of famous William Jennings Bryan, but the man she defeated for the east coast House seat – one of just two that Florida had at the time -- argued she had lost her citizenship when she married an Englishman. That she now was unmarried because her husband was dead (as a result of World War I) did not matter. The 1929 House finally seated her, but many men continued to be akin to this congressman in preferring legalisms to justice.

The League’s second important victory was the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1922, which provided free health care to pregnant women and their babies – until the economy plummeted in 1929. Then the program was repealed, and a half-century would pass before the idea revived. Nor did the League work particularly hard for other feminist goals, such as the right to serve on juries or equal access to public colleges. Although the League made slow but steady progress with governmental reforms, especially on the municipal level, it increasingly lost its feminist roots.

The Equal Rights Amendment

The National Woman’s Party was more feminist, but much less effective. Led by Alice Paul, its members understood women’s deficient legal status and filed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923. Because the 19th Amendment had granted only the vote, this proposed 20th Amendment would assure equality in areas such as inheritance, the property rights of married women, jury duty, and more. Allowing women to serve on juries was particularly important in rape trials, but as late as the 1960s, some states still banned women as jurors. In Florida, a woman who wanted to serve had to go to the courthouse and actively volunteer.

Because business-oriented Republicans won both the Congress and the White House during the 1920s, and because the Equal Rights Amendment also would have meant equal pay, it went nowhere. Members of the Woman’s Party didn’t lobby hard for it, and they certainly didn’t organize nationally to put pressure on Congress. They mostly met for tea and talk in the Sewall-Belmont House, a historic property given to them by Alva Vanderbilt Belmont that still is extant on Capitol Hill. Its leaders – most of them personally affluent – largely resumed their personal lives.

“The Lost Generation” and the Literary World

Congress also rejected the League of Nations, something that women, more than men, supported – at least as evidenced by a 1923 offer from Ladies Home Journal. It respected the minds of its largely female audience enough to grant $50,000 to the winner of a contest for the best plan to promote world peace, and 22,000 people responded. Yet as the twenties continued to roar, the nation became increasingly isolationist, self-absorbed, and indifferent to the general good. As a result, some idealists, especially writers, moved abroad.

Members of this “Lost Generation” networked in Paris at Shakespeare & Co., a bookstore that belonged to Sylvia Beach of New Jersey. She offered opportunity to many writers and was the first to publish all of James Joyce’s handwritten Ulysses. When the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, Beach closed her store and hid its books, but nevertheless was jailed by the Gestapo. (Hubby, our daughter, and I stayed in an attic apartment over Shakespeare & Co. in 1988, when it was owned by a Floridian, George Whitman.)

Margaret Anderson was similar. A Chicago court convicted and fined her for obscenity when she serialized James Joyce’s work in her Little Review. Bankrupt, she went to Paris and lived there until the Nazis invaded. The most famous of the female expatriates was modernist Gertrude Stein, who was both Jewish and an open lesbian – yet she survived the Nazi occupation with little trouble.

Anna Julia Cooper was not truly part of the “Lost Generation,” but she lived in France during the 1920s and earned a doctorate from the Sorbonne. Born in slavery – probably fathered by her master – she doubtless was the world’s best-educated black woman. She wrote her first two books of historical fiction in French, and after returning to Washington, DC, would live to 104 – long enough to support the modern civil rights movement.

Edith Wharton, too, eventually made her home in France, even though she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in literature, for The Age of Innocence (1921). That year’s winner in drama was less well known: Wisconsin’s Zona Gale, who also was active in the women’s movement, won for Miss Lulu Bett, a play that focused on the usually dismal status of unmarried women. The 1922 drama winner was another woman, Anne Nichol: Abie’s Wild Rose was the comedic story of romance between a Jewish man and Irish woman; a longtime success, it became the basis for future film and television plots.

That year also saw publication of Emily Post’s Etiquette. Her elite upbringing made her a natural authority on the subject, but divorce meant she had to work for a living. She identified an emerging market among the era’s nouveau riche, and the book would go on to be revised and republished more than a hundred times. Perhaps the most salient event of 1922, however, was when newlyweds DeWitt and Lila Wallace moved to New York from Minneapolis and used her savings to begin Reader’s Digest. They would determine what Americans read for decades, and especially Lila Wallace promoted the careers of many writers and artists.

Prizes and Progress

Pulitzer Prizes had begun in 1917, and women of the Roaring Twenties were recognized at a respectful rate. In addition to the above, Willa Cather won the literature category for One of Ours (1923), a poignant story of the recent war; Margaret Wilson won for The Able McLaughlins (1924), a tale set in pioneer Iowa that involved illegitimacy and revenge among Scottish families; and Edna Ferber won for So Big (1925), the first of her many successes. In 1926, Edith Wharton and Mary Wilkins Freeman (A New England Nun and Other Stories, 1891) became the first women admitted to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Freeman remains obscure to most readers, however, and the vagaries of promotion probably also account for the near-anonymity of South Carolina’s Julia Peterkin. She won the 1929 prize for Scarlet Sister Mary – a tale of such female independence that it was banned in Boston.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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