During the World War One era, Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States, the Panama Canal had just opened, and 1917 brought our entry into the Great War. On the home front, romance was the key word to describe the fashion of the day. Hats were large and covered in flowers or feathers, skirts were long. Fashionable women strapped themselves up in a corset and crinolines. She went in at the middle, out at the front, trying to look like an "S". No wonder women were considered so delicate! With all that pressure on the lungs and abdomen, they were often on the verge of passing out.

Every woman was supposed to be somebody's baby. Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish personified this idea of helplessness and innocence on the movie screen in silent films. Real life, however, did not always follow this example. Housewives could look forward to an 18-hour day of nonstop work. Laundry was done by hand without running water. Wooden floors were scrubbed by hand. Bread and food for the day was baked before breakfast, then the farm wife went to the fields and worked 10 hour days and then had to shop for food for supper on the way home since she had no refrigerator to keep her food cool. Average earnings for women during this time was about $400 per year.

Some women began to think that their lives could be better, if only they could vote and have a say about their own lives and property and not depend on men so much, but they were still looking in the wrong direction for someone to lean on.

As the men returned from the war in France, they brought back a French sense of style and savoir faire. They also brought back the tango. Now it is very difficult to do the tango in a corset and crinoline, so fashion adjusted and in came the shortline bra, shirtline girdle, short skirts, short hair, in short, the flapper. Flappers were everything their mothers were not. They rebelled against all that the previous generation had held sacred. They smoked, they drank, (even though Prohibition had made it illegal), they wore makeup and flirted with men. They even wore one-piece bathing suits which came to their knees. Fanny Brice and Clara Bow were two of the best examples of flappers in the movies. Josephine Baker and Bessie Smith were famous black performers of this period. They epitomized this rebellion especially since they were fighting the racism of the period.

The country was in a post-war boom and life began to take on a different perspective. New and better gadgets were invented every day to help the housewife manage her workload. Hot water on tap, easy to wash linoleum floors, automobiles and the most useful creation ~ charge accounts. Huge crowds lined the streets to see Charles Lindbergh after his record breaking flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Advertisers were able to sway public opinion and women began to rely on what they saw and read. They thought that if only they could have enough money, their lives would be so much easier and happier. Then came the depression.

The depression began in October, 1929 when the stock market crashed while Herbert Hoover was President. By 1933, 16 million people, 1/3 of the work force, was out of work. Though the country was still segregated; churches, banks, businesses, hospitals, and schools, the Depression made everybody about the same ~ broke!

Our escape from the poverty and hard work of this era was at the movies. Busby Berkely musicals with casts of hundreds pointed up the extreme differences between the fantasy and the audience who watched it. Rich vs. poor, well-fed vs. hungry, carefree vs. weary, innocent vs. world wise. Innocence once again captivated us in the form of a new superstar ~ Shirley Temple. She was healthy and hopeful with chubby cheeks and big smile. She even sang about candy in Good Ship Lollypop.

After Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932, the government took over the role of advisor to women with the "New Deal". This program helped people get back on their feet, provided social services and transformed the life of the housewife by bringing electricity to the depressed American farmlands. Another new source of advise was the radio. It was a source of information and encouragement via the "Fireside Chats" but it also became a great source of entertainment with the birth of the soap opera. Sponsored by the soap companies, these shows were so sad that they made the average American woman's troubles seem forgettable in contrast.

Working outside the home was frowned upon, however, unless it was for pin money, to kill time, or to meet a husband. Female heros were found in the sporting world, women such as Babe Didrickson, who broke Olympic track and field records and became a golf champion; or Amelia Earhart, the first woman to pilot a plane across the Atlantic Ocean. Another heroine of this period was Eleanor Roosevelt, who concerned herself with human beings and their welfare and became one of the greatest examples of what a First Lady should be. But ~ women still looked to their husbands or their fathers or even to movie stars and singers to shape their lives and be the example for them.

The forties began with the build up for war. Once again, the men were overseas and the war factories needed women. The number of women in the work force in 1945 was 18,500,000. Of these women, some 265,000 alone answered the recruiting call of "Free a Man to Fight" and joined the armed forces, with 100,000 joining the Army and Air Force; 90,000 in the Navy. Women became welders, machinists, truck drivers and held other jobs that were considered men's work. Rosie the Piveter personified the working woman concentrated on production for the war effort.

If not working at the factory, women worked hard at home raising victory gardens or making bandages for the wounded. They used ration coupons for everything from gasoline to nylons. The few luxuries that were allowed would be saved for use when their men came home on leave, if they came home.

Big bands sprang up in this era and songs like "Moonlight Bay", "In The Mood", "Rhapsody in Blue" ~ all had the same message: I miss my sweetheart and want him home. Meanwhile, the menfolks overseas made stars of Betty Grable and Jane Russell among others, with their use of the pin-up girl pictures. When they same home, women gave up their jobs and did their best to imitate the body shape and hairdos and clothing of these movie stars. Her new advisor was likely to be her beautician and what she couldn't get rid of as in weight or straight hair or crooked nose, she learned to conceal.

As we begin the 1950's, we are once again at war, but this time it is in Korea and it is not called war, but "a police action". So begins our fear and hatred for Communism which shaped everything about our lives for the next 30 years. Eisenhower was President and the atomic bomb had us all scared to death.

For men, success became equated with money and the material things it could give them. For women, however, the only success was marriage. In 1950, Liz Taylor was the most beautiful bride of all. In fact, one out of every 3 American women married like Liz at nineteen. Unfortunately, Liz didn't find success in marriage and she would wed 3 more times in the 1950's alone and 5 more times (or more) after that.

Women were trying their hardest to please their men. Barbie dolls were introduced as the ideal woman, with Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello and Doris Day as our heroines. The society was having a love affair with youth and this became our goal as women ~ to look, think, and act young. Crinolines, poodle skirts and ponytails were the fashions. Our dream houses, just like Barbie's, had to be filled with every major appliance to keep us happy and once we got them all, we were expected to be the perfect homemaker. Our favorite housewife was Lucy Arnez, otherwise known as Lucille Ball. Lucy's antics poked fun at the stay-at-home housewife role. TV showed us what the "ideal" family was supposed to be. Whether this made everyone happy or not, people made the best of it for divorce was almost unthinkable.

As the 1960's begin to unfold, we have a young, handsome President in the White House. John F. Kennedy personified youth and the new era of prosperity and social reform. Also at this time, America's favorite girl was Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn had it all, an incredible figure, a beautiful face, soft voice, sweet personality, fame, money ~ yet all that wasn't enough. Elvis Presley was every girl's dream man, handsome, talented and rich. That is until 1964 when the Beatles hit America's shores. After that, we were never the same.

With the event of Rock n Roll, the invention of the birth control pill, the uncertainty of life after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Rosa Park's dramatic stand on the Alabama bus, the draft, women once again did what our grandmothers had done in the 20's. We rebelled. We questioned authority, protested the war, campaigned for social reform, and burned our bras! We questioned the status quo: did our husbands really want partners or did they want maids? Were the new fast foods and gadgets really making our lives easier or polluting the environment with their waste?

Above all, we were told to "go where you wanta go, do what you wanta do". No longer did we stand by our men at any cost. This led to many marriage "Wipe Outs". But kids, being kids, always have hope. One popular movie "The Parent Trap" pitted twin girls against their separated parents in a reconciliation effort that succeeded.

Then came the 70's the decade of bell-bottoms, platform shoes, the shag haircut, the equal rights amendment, the legalization of abortion, Watergate and Nixon's resignation; and the end of the war in Vietnam. Women began to listen to other women for advise, women such as Gloria Steinem, Phyllis Schafly, Shirley Chisholm, Edith Bunker, Mary Hartman, Rhoda Morganstern, and then there's Maude. Billy Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in a tennis match, Janet Guthrie qualified for the Indy 500 and Rosalynn Carter became the first First Lady to openly advise and consult with the President.

But were these voices worth listening to? What did they really have to say? In an era when divorce was on the rise, unwed pregnancy was becoming common, national crime rates were at an all time high, none of the main stream spokewomen publicly advised Americans to put their trust in God. Instead we were told by Helen Reddy that "I am Strong", I am invincible, I am Woman". As if that alone would help! Women continue to search for the ideal "Endless Love" but many were left saying "Send in the Clowns".

The 1980's arrive with Ronald Reagan as President and a new emphasis on God and country. However, with unemployment at 11% and inflation still high, women in droves found themselves working outside the home out of necessity. No longer were careers viewed as something to do until you get married, women knew that they needed the best education, had to be the most prepared, and willing to put up with low-pay in order to obtain most jobs.

Women were also expected to do it all. We were supposed to be super woman ~ hold down a career, be the perfect mother, keep a perfect house, and be a wonderful wife. Television and movies encouraged us to strive for these goals. The movie "9 To 5" humorously showed us the difficulties involved in succeeding in the business world.

Famous women of this time period gave us lots of advice: We were told by Dr. Ruth about good sex, to emulate Nancy Reagan in terms of style and taste, to copy Princess Diana's haircut and shy Di smile, to be all we can be by the Army, and to work hard and the best at what you do by astronaut, Sally Ride.

In the 1990's, we have the freedom to do whatever it is that we do best. It's okay if we want to marry and raise a family, but if we don't we don't have to anymore. If we want a career, it's accepted. If we want to work at home, that's acceptable, too. We have greater choices today, but we also have greater risks involved. We've learned that there are trade-offs for every decision that we make.

Fantastic Web Sites

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Woman of the 90's


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This story was written by Carol Clark ~ Tampa, Florida

Changes last made on: Fri Nov 22, 2002