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I Want to be Bad: Flappers

I Want to be Bad: Flappers

A flapper is one who bobs her hair, powders her nose, and says to herself, “Clothes, I am going downtown, if you want to come along, hang on.”

As I have studied history I have found the image of what a flapper is or could be has been limited to a good time girl. A role for the wild women to play, something to dress up as. The ideas of a flapper have been limited to a caricature that everyone can immediately recognize. Especially now that we are in the 2020s, there were discussions about bringing the “Roaring Twenties” back. How much of what we know about flappers is correct? Here you will find research into the term of flappers as a whole and through a series of blog posts we will look at specific women that show the true meaning of what it meant to be a flapper.


Since her emergence at the end of the First World War scholars have tried to define and understand the flapper and how she had impacted the women of the 20th century. Even during the 1920s the definition of flapper was never clearly stated as writers and men and women across the country disagreed on what the meaning of the flapper truly was. During the 1920s there were strong comparisons between the grandmother’s generation and her granddaughter’s generation. It is not clear when or how the term flapper came to America and show up in the common vernacular of the time, but it spread like wildfire throughout the country. After the end of World War I the young people of America were ready for a change. The war inspired young people a feeling that life is short and could end at any moment. Therefore, young women wanted to spend their youth enjoying their life and freedom rather than just staying at home and waiting for a man to marry them. By the early 1920s the term flapper came to be synonymous with trouble and associated with every social problem that the older, Victorian age man and woman disapproved of. 

This stems from the fact that the American landscape shifted from a rural-agricultural center towards an industrial center. Because of this, families in the more rural states were left behind to the new modern changes that were emerging at the beginning of the 20th century (Covert, Kyvig, Shideler). Modernization arrived at slower rates to the rural states of America, especially in the Midwest in terms of modern farming practices, modern appliances and gadgets and improvements to the houses. But women in these rural states such as Iowa were just as much affected by the social, gender and sexual changes in the 1920s as the women in the more urban states. Historians separate the urban history from the rural, treating the two as two separate entities. The common narratives surrounding this phenomenon support the idea that those in urban areas are modernized and embraced changes whereas the rural areas refused to adapt and remained stubborn and stayed the same. There is no argument against the rate of the changes occurred much slower in rural areas, but the modernization and changes that did come to the rural areas were embraced and brought in by women. Through modernizing their homes, increasing their education, and working outside of the home young women observed the changes happening in the world and pushed for those same changes to happen in their own homes, leaving behind the practices of their parents and grandparents. 

the New Woman of the 1920s boldly asserted her right to dance, drink, smoke, and date—to work her own property, to live free of the structures that governed her mother’s generation. (…) She flouted Victorian-era conventions and scandalized her parents. In many ways, she controlled her own destiny

Joshua Zeitz

History defines a flapper as a young woman in the 1920s who focused on enjoying herself, discarding conventional standards of behavior. A flapper was marked by her bobbed hair and loose clothes and morals, who flaunted her disdain for what was then considered acceptable behavior (Flapper). What this definition forgets is that flappers represent the changes that were coming for women across America, the changes that were ushered in during the 1920s did not singularly affect urban states but also rural states. The term flapper is synonymous with progress and change. When historians study the Midwest and other rural areas in the 1920s do not call these women, flappers. What historians define as a flapper is solely placed in urban contexts. Failure to consider women in rural states to be a flapper is not an uncommon oversight. When the definition of a flapper is constrained to view these women as caricatures and a sexual movement instead of a feminist movement and a leader and trailblazer for bringing modern changes to a rural environment it is an easy oversight to make.

Historian Estelle Freedman points out that solely limiting women to sexually active, rebellious stereotypical historical role highlights history’s reasoning of women to exist only in a sexual role (Freedman). Flappers are viewed as notorious women because of the sexually promiscuous role that they were cast in history. The fear of the mothers and grandmothers of the young flapper’s generation was that their young daughters would become knowns as fallen women. Rejected and scorned for their mistakes, in previous generations most women kept their sins more private, unlike the flapper of the 1920s, where the mistakes were more public and discussed out in the open. Young women did not feel a strong need to hide as their mothers and grandmothers did. And because of this, flappers became known as notorious women in history and reduced to a caricature for costume parties.

Through my own research I have found that throughout the 1920s men and women viewed the flapper not as a sexually immoral, wild, good time girl. Instead the flapper was the same as her grandmother and the women before her. The flapper was not a caricature of the time period, reduced to her bobbed hair, loose skirts and morals. She was open and honest with the world of who she was and what she did. She sought to make the world better than what she had before. To some she became a sellout, to others a scapegoat and others, the continuation of what it meant to be, The New Woman. The history of women in the 1920s has long been due a turn over, through this series we will begin to examine the differences and what it truly looked like to be a flapper.

Sources

Covert, Catherine L., John D. Stevens, and John D. Stevens. “Small Town Editors and the ‘Modernized’ Agrarian Myth.” Essay. In Mass Media between the Wars: Perceptions of Cultural Tension, 1918-1941, 21–38. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1984.  

“FLAPPER: Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary,” FLAPPER | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary, accessed December 14, 2020, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/flapper

“Flapper,” Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster), accessed December 14, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/flapper

Freedman, Estelle B. “The New Woman: Changing Views of Women in the 1920s.” The Journal of American History 61, no. 2 (1974): 372–93. 

Kyvig, David E. Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940 How Americans Lived through the “Roaring Twenties” and the Great Depression. Chicago, IL: Dee, 2004. 

Shideler, James H. “”Flappers and Philosophers,” and Farmers: Rural-Urban Tensions of the Twenties.” Agricultural History 47, no. 4 (1973): 283-99. 

Zeitz, Joshua. Flapper: The Notorious Life and Scandalous Times of the First Thoroughly Modern Woman. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006. 

The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Sally Hemings

“It was her duty, all her life which I can remember, up to the time of father’s death, to take care of his chamber and wardrobe, look after us children and do such light work as sewing.”

James Madison Hemings
An Artists’ Imagining of what Sally Hemings looked like. No artwork was recorded or has come up.

It’s impossible to actually know about a woman when men and history are too busy controlling the image of one man. As with most enslaved women, Sally Hemings could not read or write, and record her own life, and if she could, there would have been no one to read them as she was seen as property before a person. She had no legal right to her own body and as such was unable to refuse unwanted sexual advances, as a result Sally Hemings’ children (she had at least six children) belonged and were fathered her master, Thomas Jefferson. Sally was the child of an enslaved woman and her owner, John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father in law, making Sally the sister to Thomas Jefferson’s wife. At least two of Sally’s sisters had children fathered by white men as well. Mixed-race children inherited the status of their mothers, regardless of who their father’s were. For centuries, Jefferson’s family and later followers and then historians have crafted a certain image of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Father’s and the writer of the Declaration of Independence. Until the late 1990s most scholars refuted the knowledge that Thomas Jefferson had relations with one of his slaves and even had children with her. Sally Hemings is seen as notorious because of her skin and that Thomas Jefferson had relations with her it ruins his image as a good man, fighter for independence and believes that all men are created equal. She is notorious because of the color of her skin and her status in life ruins the image of an important man and because of that has been erased from history. Why should history forget the name Sally Hemings? Why should her life and role that she played be erased and reduced to a single footnote. She is not to blame for Thomas Jefferson being imperfect, she was a victim to a system that doomed her to fail from the beginning.

Born in about 1773, Sarah or “Sally” Hemings was the youngest of six children of Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings and her master, John Wayles. Sally and her siblings were three quarters European descent, their mother being half European and their father being full European which meant that Sally and her siblings were mostly light skinned and if no one knew, they easily could have passed as white; but through the principle of partus sequitur ventrem which is that the slave status of a child followed that of his or her mother. John Wayles took Betty Hemings as his concubine and had six children with her, he also had several other children, from his first marriage, Martha Wayles married a young planter named Thomas Jefferson, and upon John Wayles’ death, Martha inherited the Hemings’. To spell it out, Martha inherited her father’s concubine and her half siblings.

It’s hard to know what Sally’s day to day life was like growing up, there is record that when Sally was about 14 years old she was selected to be a companion to Jefferson’s second daughter Maria (Polly) Jefferson when he requested her to join him in Paris. There Sally was exposed to a world that most slaved in Virginia never would have dreamed of. Paris in the 1780s was at the height of its grandeur, a center piece of politics, culture and the arts that was also on the brink of revolution. The city itself was home to over half a million people (close to the entire population of Virginia at the time), 1,000 of whom were free black residents. In Paris, Hemings was reunited with her older brother James, whom Jefferson had brought with him two years earlier to study French cooking. They lived at Jefferson’s residence, the Hôtel de Langeac. Maria (Polly) and Martha (Patsy), Jefferson’s older daughter who was already in Paris, lived primarily at the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont, where they were boarding students. Shortly after her arrival, Jefferson’s records indicate that Hemings was inoculated against smallpox, a common and deadly disease during that time. She undoubtedly received training—especially in needlework and the care of clothing—to suit her for her position as lady’s maid to Jefferson’s daughters and was occasionally paid a monthly wage. She learned French (historians do not know if she was literate in either language she spoke) and sometimes accompanied Jefferson’s daughters on social outings.

There in France, Sally became Jefferson’s concubine. In Sally Hemings’s lifetime, the word “concubine” defined a woman who had sexual contact with a man to whom she was not married. A concubine had no legal or social standing, and her offspring could not inherit from their father. Consider how Hemings and Jefferson lived at the Hôtel de Langeac in Paris between 1787 and 1789. What parents would send their pretty teenaged daughter to live in a house with a lonely, middle-aged widower whose daughters spent all week away at boarding school—and place him in charge of her well-being? Jefferson would never have allowed his daughters to live in such a way unless a female chaperone was present as was customary of the time period. The question of propriety and appropriateness never came up with Sally Hemings, because she was a slave. When Jefferson prepared to return to America, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson’s son Madison Hemings said (after the fact) his mother refused to come back, and only did so upon negotiating “extraordinary privileges” for herself and freedom for her future children. He also noted that she was pregnant when she arrived in Virginia, and that the child “lived but a short time.” No other record of that child has been found. If Sally had remained in France instead of returning to America, Sally would have been a free woman, her child would have been free and she could have had a different life than that of her mother and her mothers before her. Instead she chose to negotiate freedom for children, to give them a good life and to have a different life than before.

Sally Hemings returned with Jefferson and his daughters to Monticello in 1789. There she performed the duties of an enslaved household servant and lady’s maid (Jefferson still referred to her as “Maria’s maid” in 1799). “It was her duty, all her life which I can remember, up to the time of father’s death, to take care of his chamber and wardrobe, look after us children and do such light work as sewing.” James Madison Hemings records, Sally Hemings had at least six children fathered by Thomas Jefferson. Four survived to adulthood. Decades after their negotiation, Jefferson freed all of Sally Hemings’ children – Beverly and Harriet left Monticello in the early 1820s; Madison and Eston were freed in his will and left Monticello in 1826. Jefferson did not grant freedom to any other enslaved family unit.

First public accounts of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings began in 1802 when reporter James Callender after being refused an appointment to a Postmaster position by Jefferson and issuing veiled threats of “consequences,” reported that Jefferson had fathered several children with a slave concubine named Sally. His family denied the allegation. Others privately or publicly made the claim. Jefferson made no public comment on the matter, although most historians interpret his cover letter from 1805 to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith as a denial alluding to a fuller reply, which has been lost. The Jefferson-Wayles descendants and most historians denied for nearly 200 years that he was the father of Hemings’ children. Thomas Jefferson is one of the biggest heroes in American history, he is the author of the Declaration of Independence, President of the United States, he doubled the size of America, sent out Lewis and Clark to explore the wild west, founded the University of Virginia, he fought for religious freedom, and is seen as a renaissance man in the world and throughout history. But Jefferson as the slaveholder? Jefferson the slaveholder pokes a hole in the perfect image that Jefferson’s family, friends and historians have crafted for years. Jefferson did not shy away from stating his beliefs that white men were just biologically intellectually superior to black men. The thought that Jefferson was in love with an enslaved African American woman, had at least six children with would make him a good man, a family man, a man who just couldn’t truly be with the love of his life. Jefferson being in love solves his short comings.

Enslaved women had no legal right to consent. Their masters owned their labor, their bodies, and their children. Sally Hemings should be known today, not just as Jefferson’s concubine, but as an enslaved woman who – at the age of 16 – negotiated with one of the most powerful men in the nation to improve her own condition and achieve freedom for her children.

Sources

Gordon-Reed, Annette. “Did Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson Love Each Other?” AMERICAN HERITAGE, 2008. https://www.americanheritage.com/did-sally-hemings-and-thomas-jefferson-love-each-other.

The Life of Sally Hemings. https://www.monticello.org/sallyhemings/.

How to Define Notorious Women

How to Define Notorious Women

Famous or well known, typically for some bad quality or deed

Oxford Dictionary

Through this blog I plan on writing out a history of one woman’s life who had been labeled as notorious. Wherever that is through her sexuality, her race, her choices, anything. If she was viewed scandalously through the press, word of mouth or seemingly erased from history all together she belongs with these women. Historical study is crucial to the development of the well-informed citizen.  It provides basic information about the values and problems that affect our social well-being. It also contributes to our capacity to use evidence, assess interpretations, and analyze change and continuities. 

The very term “women’s history” suggests that “history” – as traditionally practiced – has not included the study of women. Traditional history has used the experience of men as though that represented the experience of all people. Traditional history has relied on evidence – letters, diaries, & other documents – written by and about men in the past. This evidence has been used to draw conclusions about the experience of all people. Traditional history has typically assessed historical importance according to issues and events which were important to men’s lives. Too few women are included in the history that is being taught & learned.  This exclusion and erasure implies that: 

  • Women have not been agents of historical change 
  • Women’s experiences and actions are not significant for understanding the past 
  • Women’s status and experience is a product of nature & biology, not social forces 

One of the most effective ways in which dominant groups maintain their power is by denying the people they dominate the knowledge of their own history. 

My focus is going to be on reconstructing history. Using new information to rewrite the historical narrative. As this website is for my growth and amusement and learning I will be looking at women across countries, continents and eras. I want to learn all I can about the women of the past and that cannot be defined through one country and era alone. From modern into ancient texts I plan on shedding light to women who have been passed over and deemed to be notorious in nature.

My plan is to highlight the key points of the women’s stories that labeled them notorious and explain why each woman was looked down upon and misrepresented in some way and then how the public opinion has changed since then. This is my current plan for how the material will be presented to all of you and if down the road this changes then it will. One of my favorite parts about history is that studying and learning and growing is a never-ending process. It is why I fell in love with history so long ago. 

I truly hope that you will enjoy this journey and learning with me. I am excited to see where this is going to go.  

Until next time, 

XOXO

-Marissa 

My Thoughts on International Women’s Day 2021

There is no limit to what we as women can accomplish

Michelle Obama

Growing up I hated the color pink. As the firstborn girl in my family and being one of four girls I took it upon myself to fashion myself into the perfect “heir” to the Stangl name. My child brain associated first born with having to be strong, masculine, without weakness. I was loud, headstrong and could do anything a boy could do because gosh darn it, I was not going to be a dainty thing. I didn’t even have a favorite princess growing up, instead Tinker Bell was my favorite and my top three favorite Disney movies are Peter Pan, Robin Hood and Hunchback of Notre Dame (though I admit those movies are pure fire and I do not regret that decision). I did not want to be feminine, my favorite color was green for as long as I can remember.

The color pink is used to symbolize women since before they are even born. Boys are blue, girls are pink, and both genders keep their badges throughout their lifetime. During almost all girls’ teenage angst phase, pink is the last color you want to own, wear, or be associated with. We are taught that the color is girly, thus symbolizing weakness and sensitivity according to those internally misogynistic. We never wanted to be labeled as girly because of the negative connotation associated with it. I thought that if I was girly or feminine then I would be seen as weak and therefore less than.

I don’t know a single guy who went through this phase. I don’t know a single guy who pretended to dislike video games, sports or movies aimed at him. Why was this exclusive to girls? Even in a lot of fiction with empowering female protagonists, the antagonist always has to be a super feminine mean girl. All of this mockery and distaste at femininity led us to push away our own, I’d even go as far to say that it demonized our own femininity in our eyes. We developed such hatred for the vapid, shallow, “girly” and materialistic stereotypes projected at “overly” feminine girls, that we decided to erase every semblance of similarity from our own personalities. We convinced ourselves that qualities society considered feminine and masculine couldn’t be balanced. You couldn’t be a bookworm and equally enjoy shopping. You couldn’t be athletic and into makeup. You couldn’t enjoy both chick flicks and action movies. Pink became gross, makeup and shopping were for the self-obsessed, chick flicks were cheesy and pop music was embarrassing. Of course, there was nothing wrong with disliking these things, but the reasons we had for disliking them were not okay. Every time we said or thought, “I’m not like other girls!”, we weren’t separating ourselves from other girls, we were separating ourselves from these insipid stereotypes that we came to associate with femininity.

I’ve come to realize that my strength, courage and power comes from inside of me and those traits do not disappear the moment I put on a pink shirt or paint my nails pink. So on this International Women’s Day I remind myself that femininity is a gift and presents itself differently in each and every woman in the world. There is no “type” of woman that is better than the other. If we can hold onto that lesson then every year we will only continue to break through that glass ceiling and will only become stronger.

The “First” U.S. Political Sex Scandal: Maria Reynolds

Oh my God I feel more for you than myself and wish I had never been born to give you so mutch unhappisness

Maria Reynolds

Every story has a villain. The person or thing that ruins someone’s story and causes them pain and strife. One is light, one is dark. Women especially have been cast as either a Jezebel or a saint. When Hamilton: An American Musical came out one of the villains of the story is one Maria Reynolds, the woman said to cause a stain on Hamilton’s political future and ruined his chances of ever becoming president. In one song in this music we are to see Reynolds as the opposite of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. Eliza is seen in light colors, innocent and heart broken and Maria Reynolds is in red, the color of passion, desire and lust and is dark in all ways compared to Eliza. This is not the only portrayal of Maria Reynolds as dark and promiscuous. She is seen as the cause of affair, the cause of Hamilton’s betrayal, the object of much scrutiny. Maria Reynolds is seen as the downfall of a great man. Maria Reynolds is notorious for ruining a man’s career because his aspirations were destroyed because of his actions. But why should Maria Reynolds be considered the harlot and the Jezebel when she did not have the options that Hamilton was afforded due to his status and gender? Why should she be at fault for this affair when Hamilton had just as much right and wit to be able to refuse is that was truly his desire? She is labeled as a homewrecker, a harlot and a scandal and that is all she seemingly is to be known for.

Born Maria Lewis in New York City in 1768, Reynolds’ family appeared to be working class. Her father was a laborer of some kind and was unable to write his own name. Reynolds managed to learn to read and write, though her education beyond this was likely very limited. Reynolds married James Reynolds when she was 15 years old in 1783. James Reynolds had served in the commissary department during the Revolutionary War and afterward, tried to claim damages from Washington’s government on multiple occasions. The couple moved from New York to Philadelphia after they were married and had one daughter, Susan Reynolds, in 1785. It is believed that Reynolds’ affair with Hamilton began several years later during the summer of 1791. Reynolds approached a then-34-year-old Alexander Hamilton at his home in Philly asking for help. She told him that her abusive husband had abandoned her and that she needed money to return to her family in New York. In unpublished papers, Hamilton admitted that Reynolds was a “Beauty in despair.” His friends described her as innocent and emotional. Shortly after, Hamilton visited Reynolds at the boarding house where she was staying with the money she had requested. Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Hamilton, was away for the summer, opening the door for the summer affair. According to his own account, Hamilton followed Reynolds to her bedroom where “some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.” Over the summer, Reynolds reconciled with her husband but was still game for the affair. And so was her husband. It wasn’t uncommon for 18th-century men to settle their differences in a pistol fight. But James Reynolds didn’t want to fight — he wanted compensation. So he concocted a plan to have his wife continue seeing Hamilton in order to periodically receive blackmail money from him to the tune of $1,000-$1,300 (around $25,000-35,000 in some approximations today).

Later the affair is revealed in the press and Hamilton’s life is forever changed and Maria and James Reynolds fade into obscurity. There are some theories that the affair was entirely created by Hamilton to cover some financial scandal based around how the letters between the Reynolds and Hamilton look and are written. Whether the affair is true or not I truly believe the “blame” or the cause of this rests at the feet of the men in Maria’s life, and not truly her own.

The purpose of marriage in the 18th century (and well for most of time until contraceptives came around) was for the production of children to either aid in the family business and/or grow the family name. The husband had complete control over his wife through the laws of coverture. “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performers everything. …” A married woman took their husbands’ family names; Married women could not sue or be sued, hold public office, or vote; Husbands had legal control over wives’ property, their children, and their bodies; When a woman was brought before the court for an offense, her husband was held responsible. When James Reynolds left with his daughter Maria had no where and no one to go to. In a moment of desperation she went to a high ranking political man asking for money, for aid because Hamilton was known for his charity work for widows and orphans so in her mind Hamilton would be a safe place to go. “some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.” This comes from Hamilton’s writings and how I come to understand them is that he wanted more than just a thank you, he wanted true compensation for his “Christian” or “good” deed and Maria had nothing to offer Hamilton other than herself.

Maria had been married at 15 years old, which is young for the 18th century. Not much is known about James Reynolds, her husband. There are reports that James Reynolds is abusive towards his wife and mistreats her which is really nothing that Maria could do. What we do know is that he and some other friends or conspirators of the like would try to claim military veteran pensions and make off with the money. This informs me that he does not make a lot of money and what he does have has to be minimal. Given that he refused to demand a duel informs me that he is a con artist and an opportunist and turned to pimping or really selling his wife for money as he had none. And when Hamilton refused to give him more he and Reynolds’ partners turned to destroy the reputation of the man who did not give him what he wanted. Maria Reynolds was sold and under the law, had to obey her husband. From the tone of her letters she says, “Oh my God I feel more for you than myself and wish I had never been born to give you so mutch unhappisness” It shows that she has a good heart and does not wish harm towards Hamilton even when her husband finds out.

Maria Reynolds is notorious because the men in her life used her to advance their lives, privately and professionally and personally. Maria never had any say in what happened to her in her life and because of that she is forever intertwined in the life of Alexander Hamilton as a villain who tempted him into betraying his marriage vows and becoming a less honorable gentleman. What we know now is that women had no control over their lives. There is one bright spot in Maria’s life, in 1793, Maria was able to get a divorce from James Reynolds and remarried in 1806 to a Dr. Matthews who she had been working for as a housekeeper. She died just days away from her 60th birthday which was a rather long life for the time. She found a way to leave her past behind her and enjoy a seemingly good life.

To no one’s surprise it is not shouted high out to the world that the adulteress was able to find happiness but I for one am glad for it. It is not a common thing to find but for this notorious woman the end was a happy one.


Sources

Alberts, Robert C. “The Notorious Affair Of Mrs. Reynolds.” AMERICAN HERITAGE, February 1973. https://www.americanheritage.com/notorious-affair-mrs-reynolds.

“Founders Online: Home.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed August 18, 2020. https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Author%3A%22Reynolds%2C+Maria%22.

Isenberg, Nancy. Fallen Founder: the Life of Aaron Burr. London: Penguin, 2008.