If political feminism faded, the prewar feminist demand for personal freedom survived in the vast consumer marketplace and in the actual behavior of the decade’s much-publicized liberated young women. Female liberation resurfaced as a lifestyle, the stuff of advertising and mass entertainment, stripped of any connection to political or economic radicalism. No longer one element in a broader program of social reform, sexual freedom now meant individual autonomy or personal rebellion. With her bobbed hair, short skirts, public smoking and drinking, and unapologetic use of birth-control methods such as the diaphragm, the young, single “flapper” epitomized the change in standards of sexual behavior, at least in large cities. She frequented dance halls and music clubs where white people now performed “wild” dances like the Charleston that had long been popular in black communities. She attended sexually charged Hollywood films featuring stars like Clara Bow, the provocative “ ‘It’ Girl,” and Rudolph Valentino, the original on-screen “Latin Lover.” When Valentino died of a sudden illness in 1926, crowds of grieving women tried to storm the funeral home.

Many American authorities were no more welcoming to “new women.” The superintendent of public buildings and grounds in Washington, D.C., decreed that women’s bathing suits must fall no higher than six inches above the knee. Here, in 1922, he enforces his edict.

(Left) Advertisers marketed cigarettes to women as symbols of female independence. This 1929 ad for Lucky Strike reads: “Legally, politically and socially woman has been emancipated from those chains which bound her.... Gone is that ancient prejudice against cigarettes.” (Right) An ad for Procter & Gamble laundry detergent urges modem women to modernize the methods of their employees. The text relates how a white woman in the Southwest persuaded Felipa, her Mexican-American domestic worker, to abandon her “primitive washing methods.” Felipa, according to the ad, agrees that the laundry is now “whiter, cleaner, and fresher.”

What had been scandalous a generation earlier—women’s self-conscious pursuit of personal pleasure—became a device to market goods from automobiles to cigarettes. In 1904, a woman had been arrested for smoking in public in New York City. Two decades later, Edward Bernays, the “father” of modern public relations, masterminded a campaign to persuade women to smoke, dubbing cigarettes women’s “torches of freedom.” The new freedom, however, was available only during one phase of a woman’s life. Once she married, what Jane Addams had called the “family claim” still ruled. And marriage, according to one advertisement, remained “the one pursuit that stands foremost in the mind of every girl and woman.” Having found a husband, women were expected to seek freedom within the confines of the home, finding “liberation,” according to the advertisements, in the use of new labor-saving appliances.

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