Social Changes


Summary: The twentieth-century world wars produced two basic responses—the first, a feeling of skepticism concerning the future and, the second, the desire to possess the many new products on the market after both wars. In an attempt to secure a comfortable future for their citizens, Western and Japanese governments established social welfare systems, particularly for the aged. Women’s rights increased at the same time that traditional female roles persisted. A new global culture saw the dominance of Western influence.


Key Terms




Kabuki theater*

Liberation Theology*

mass consumerism*

National Organization for Women (NOW)*

New Deal*

No theater*

welfare state*

Society After World War I

During the 1920s, Western society, most noticeably the United States, saw a rise in mass consumerism , especially in household appliances and in automobiles. The automobile decreased isolation and also allowed new freedoms for some adolescents in the United States. Some women turned to fashions that called for shorter skirts and hairstyles and behavior that allowed freer self-expression.

The movie industry was not only an outlet for artistic expression but also a new source of family entertainment. Modern painters such as Pablo Picasso combined geometric figures with non-Western art styles, particularly African, to create a new style called cubism . Modern architecture featured the use of concrete and broad expanses of glass.

At the same time, postwar Western society was characterized by a general feeling of skepticism. The devastation brought by the century’s first global war was heightened by the despair of the Great Depression. Working classes and middle classes faced the prospect of unemployment or reduced salaries. In Japan, the depression increased suspicions of the Western way of life. Western states provided old age and medical insurance that eventually led to the institution of the welfare state . In the United States, the New Deal took government spending to new heights in an attempt to resolve the economic stagnation of the depression and provide for social security programs. Western European governments began to provide assistance to families with several children.

Post–World War II Western Society

After World War II, more women entered the workforce. Divorce was made more accessible, and effective birth control more conveniently available with the introduction of the birth control pill. Many European countries provided day care centers for working mothers. In the United States, the National Organization for Women (NOW) , founded in 1966, campaigned for women’s rights. The role of the church in family life declined as church attendance fell, especially in Europe.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States experienced a civil rights movement that ended segregation of African Americans and increased voting rights. Student protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War swept university campuses in the 1960s and early 1970s.

In the 1970s and 1980s, some Westerners began to question the concept of the welfare state. Both Great Britain and the United States elected leaders who adopted more conservative approaches toward government spending. Welfare programs were decreased under the leadership of Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Western European economic growth soared during the 1980s, producing a marked increase in consumer goods. Educational opportunities broadened throughout the world.

Society in the Soviet Union

Soviet leaders also built a system of welfare services, including protection for the sick and the aged. Soviet schools taught that religion was a myth. Western styles of art were denounced as decadent.

By the 1950s, the Soviet Union and most Eastern European nations were industrialized. Unlike the Western world, factories in the Communist bloc favored the production of heavy goods over consumer goods. As industrialism spread through Eastern Europe, more families engaged in sports activities and movie and television viewing. By the 1960s, cultural exchanges with the West gave Soviet citizens some contact with Western media and ways of life. An emphasis on sports programs made Soviet athletes intense competitors in the Olympic games.


In the 1920s, Japan also experienced a rise in mass consumerism. The film industry became popular, and secondary education reached greater numbers of students. After World War II, the new U.S.-influenced government in Japan provided for women’s suffrage and abolished Shintoism as the state religion. The Japanese preserved their traditional respect for their elders by creating a social security system for the elderly. After the end of the U.S. occupation, the Japanese government began asserting more control over the lives of its citizens, including controlling the content of student textbooks. Traditions such as the tea ceremony, Kabuki, and No theater continued.

Japanese work schedules allowed for less leisure time than in Western societies. One leisure activity that became extremely popular was baseball, introduced to Japan during the U.S. occupation. Women continued to occupy traditional homemaking and childrearing roles.


China’s May Fourth Movement (1919) honored the role that women had played in the Chinese revolution by increasing women’s rights. Footbinding was outlawed, and women were given wider educational and career opportunities. Although the Guomindang attempted to return Chinese women to their more traditional roles, Chinese Communists gave them a number of roles in their revolution. Women were allowed to bear arms in the military. Since the institution of Mao’s government in 1949, Chinese women have been expected to work outside the home while maintaining their traditional responsibilities in the home as well.

Latin America

After the Mexican Revolution, Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera painted murals on public buildings. The murals depicted scenes from the revolution and hopes for social progress in the future. Latin American folk culture includes strong elements of the Native Indian and African cultures. Although the region remains largely Roman Catholic, the latter decades of the twentieth century and the beginnings of the twenty-first century saw significant increases in the popularity of evangelical Protestant denominations throughout Latin America. Also popular in Latin America as well as in sub-Saharan Africa is Liberation Theology , a belief that emphasizes social justice for victims of poverty and oppression.

Throughout the twentieth century, Latin American women tended to retain their traditional roles. Women were not allowed to vote until 1929, when Ecuador became the first Latin American nation to allow women’s suffrage. By the latter part of the twentieth century, Latin American women controlled small businesses and were sometimes active in politics, including membership in legislatures.


Women’s suffrage was written into the constitutions of new nations. The participation of women in African independence movements was rewarded, resulting in some opportunities for women to hold political office. Many of the new nations also granted women increased opportunities for education and employment. Early marriage, however, often continued to confine women to traditional roles. Government imposition of shariah law in regions of Nigeria and other Muslim-dominated African nations threatened not only the independence but also the security of women.

A Global Culture

In today’s world, the global culture has been dominated by Western trends and styles, a situation that has especially produced disapproval in East Asian and Islamic cultures. English is the language of commerce and of the Internet. The Western appreciation for science has been a hallmark of the global age.

Sometimes reactions to globalization created changes in religious beliefs and practices. Beginning in the 1960s, New Age religions, dependent on astrology, emerged. Fundamentalism , or the return to traditional beliefs and practices, became the goal of many practitioners of major religions, especially Christianity and Islam.

The new global culture placed more emphasis on monetary wealth, education, and professional position rather than on land ownership or inherited position. At the same time, traditions continued. In India, for example, remnants of the caste system caused some Indians to cling to caste restrictions even though they had been outlawed. Laws of almost all nations allowed women’s suffrage. The global culture continued to display regional traditions and characteristics, while national pride surfaced in international athletic competitions such as the Olympic Games and World Cup Soccer, or Federal International Football Association (FIFA).

Images Rapid Review

In the interim between the world wars and after World War II, labor-saving devices transformed leisure time in Europe and the United States. Movies and television provided family entertainment, whereas the automobile created a new lifestyle for Western teenagers. Governments instituted welfare programs, and women’s political rights were broadened worldwide. Religion declined in popularity, especially in Europe, and the Soviet Union denounced the importance of religion. Although women’s rights were increased, women were expected to continue to carry out traditional roles. The new global culture emphasized the importance of professional status and knowledge over family social position. The dominance of Western culture and the English language met with disapproval in some Eastern and Islamic cultures.

Images Review Questions

1 .    By the twenty-first century, almost all women across the globe

      (A)  were freed from traditional homemaking roles

      (B)  were allowed to serve in combat in the armed forces

      (C)  were granted educational opportunities equal to men

      (D)  had been granted the right to vote

2 .    In the twentieth century, a blend of African and Western cultures could be found most readily in

      (A)  architecture

      (B)  literature

      (C)  painting

      (D)  sculpture

3 .    What did the Soviet Union, Japan, the United States, and Western Europe have in common in the twentieth century?

      (A)  A program of social security for the aged

      (B)  Free elections

      (C)  An emphasis on the production of consumer goods

      (D)  An appreciation for Western styles in art

4 .    Which of the following is true concerning the status of religion in the twentieth century?

      (A)  European church membership declined significantly.

      (B)  Catholicism gained a stronger hold in Latin America.

      (C)  The United States encouraged the Japanese to maintain the traditional status of Shintoism.

      (D)  Hindu traditions were abolished in India.

5 .    Which of the following is true regarding the role of women in Communist China?

      (A)  Military service was limited to support roles.

      (B)  They were discouraged from working outside the home.

      (C)  Restrictive Confucian tradition was outlawed.

      (D)  They had fewer rights than under the Guomindang.

Images Answers and Explanations

1 .   D   The twentieth century ended with women’s suffrage granted in almost all nations. Most societies still expected women to maintain their traditional roles (A). Although educational and career opportunities for women increased (C) they were generally not as broad as those for men. Most nations did not allow women in combat, with China and the Soviet Union notable exceptions (B).

2 .   C   Picasso’s cubist paintings often featured African themes combined with the geometric designs of the modern cubist style.

3 .   A   All have social security programs for the elderly, whereas the Soviet Union did not have free elections (B), an emphasis on consumer goods (C), or an appreciation for Western art styles (D).

4 .   A   After World War II, European church membership declined significantly. Protestantism made substantial inroads into Latin American religion (B), whereas the U.S. occupation ended the status of Shintoism as a state religion (C). Although the Hindu caste system was legally ended, many Indians continue its traditions (D).

5 .   C   Footbinding, a Confucian tradition, was outlawed. Chinese women were allowed to serve in combat (A). Women were encouraged to work outside the home, but were still expected to fulfill their traditional home obligations (B). Women had more rights under communism than under the Guomindang (D).

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