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The Change of Traditional American Culture

March 25, 2010


American culture and tradition had, indeed, changed remarkably since the birth of the nation. The result of the Revolutionary was freedom, an independent country, a place where people were able to make their own law and live their life by their own rules. The Industrial Revolution transformed American society, politics and the economy.


With the Civil War and the threat of a divided country looming over the nation, men died for a cause dear to them. Through this war came the freedom of African Americans, the promise of a better future for the oppressed and a stronger, more unified nation. With the arrival of immigrants from all over the world, American traditions were infused with the ethnicity, as well as racial prejudice, of a multitude of racial backgrounds, such as Slovakians, Irish, German, Polish and Italian.


All of these periods of American history have served a purpose in developing a unique society and culture. A land where individuals represent an independent, free, and determined nation, a nation that represents power, strength and hope.


These documents show the changes for women, as changes that were most unpleasant to the male society. In the Lynd’s article, they mention that large illustrated advertisements wrote lines, such as—“Girls! You will learn how to handle ‘em!!”, and “Is it true that marriage kills love? If you want to know what love really means, its exquisite torture, its overwhelming raptures…”—boasting that love is not something women want to submerse themselves in (6640-A).


In a sense, those advertisement lines probably discouraged many women from falling in love and marring. It disfigures their romantic notions of love, happiness, and being married. Instead of presenting young unmarried women with the positive aspects of marriage, those advertisements snippets depict marriage as if women were bound in bondage for the rest of their lives. It poses the question to many women as to what reason were there to give up their freedom to be some man’s bondservant?


The two documents, Middletown: A Study in American Culture and Woman and the New Race, depicts women as rebels; going against everything they had been taught as little girls— that woman was supposed to be devoted to her husbands, to be faithful to their womanly duties, to be submissive and to always obey. However, times were changing, women were becoming more independent, and this in turn caused problems. People were skeptical as to whether or not a woman was fit to be her own ruler, make her own decisions and be her own person. Sanger states that it was a “revolt of women against sex servitude” (664-A). Women were tired of being suppressed. They wanted freedom as much as any white or black man did.


However, this new breed of woman was unlike past generations where women were content to stay at home and take care of the household. Women who wanted the same rights and equality as men slowly upset the social balance that had been set in place since the beginning of America. The progression of the social stature in American culture throttled women’s progress. Womanhood, motherhood, the very essence of being a moral and supportive structure in the home had slowly declined and had become a generation with no morals or sense of respect or decency. Woman and the New Race states that women had unknowingly created “slums, filling asylums with insane”, replenished “the ranks of the prostitutes”, “planned deliberately to achieve this tragic total of human waste and misery”, and “could hardly have done it more effectively” (644-A).


In the 1920s, the American Birth Control League (ABCL), today known as Planned Parenthood was founded by Margaret Sanger. In a time when women had no control over their bodies, organizations, such as the ABCL allowed women to experience a small taste of what it was like to be their own person and control their own bodies. The Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to Congress in 1923 and stated that, “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction”. This amendment made all forms of discrimination based on sex, however, the Amendment never passed in Congress. The Equal Rights Amendment was an attempt to make way for women’s equality, as well as give them the ability to control their persons. During WWI, while the men were at war over seas, “Pink Collared” jobs were given to women. It gave them a taste of hard labor offered at low wages, because minimum wage for a woman was considered unconstitutional, it violated the right to freedom of contract.


Similar to the 1920s, the 1960s was the second wave of activism. Women in the 1960s were, just like the woman in the 1920s, fighting for quality. They were fighting for their rights as citizens of American, to be able to have their own personal freedom. This second wave of activism was also caused by the sexual revolution, which had been sparked by the development of the birth-control pill. In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded with the goal of bringing equality for all women, much like the Equal Rights Amendment.


Elaborating on what Margaret Sanger and the Equal Rights Amendment had originally started in the early 1920s, NOW worked on eliminating prejudice and persecution towards women in the workplace, schools, and the justice system. The organization fought to secure abortion, birth control and reproductive rights for all women. It also strived to end all forms of violence against women, and wanted to abolish racism, sexism and homophobia. The National Organization for Women also supported equality and justice in the American society.


In addition to the fact that the National Organization for Women supported women’s rights, in1963 the Equal Pay Act was introduced to Congress as the first federal law eliminating sexual inequity by abolishing wage differences based on sex. Women were ready to spread their wings, they were ready for equality, and as stated by Betty Friedan, “The problem that has no name–which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities–[was and] is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease”.


Before the right to vote in 1919, married women did not exist in the eyes of the law, they were not allowed to vote, they were required to submit to laws and had absolutely no voice in their development. Married women also had no property rights; their husbands had legal power over their wives, as well as being responsible for their wives to the extent that they controlled every aspect of their lives. In a divorce, the child custody laws were in favor of the husband because he was financially stable, giving no rights to the mother of the child. In addition, women were not permitted to partake in the affairs of the church and were constantly discouraged, and robbed of their confidence and sense of worth, and were made totally dependent on men.


Women wanted change and not just in the political arena, but in family life, in religion, in employment, and in education. The wanted to partake in the development of their country and play a part in the grander scheme of things instead of staying at home cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids and catering to their husbands. Women wanted to feel like they were contributing to the family. They wanted the freedom to express their individuality without fearing what their husbands might do or society might think.


During a time when woman had won the right to vote and were struggling to gain equality in a man’s world, consumerism dominated the 1920s. In the Sunday Traffic Jam cars are lined up for miles behind each other, and not because they were out or a Sunday drive. It is clear to see that there was an abundance of cars driven by a multitude of consumers who owned Model T Fords, “Automobile ownership was within the reach of all but the very poor in the mid-1920s” (656). Because they could buy now, pay later, many people put their large purchases on credit and would pay off their dept weekly. In the RCA ad for the “finest radio receiver design”, it becomes evident that advertising was more than just a means of putting the product out there for others to simply see. It was a way of letting consumers know, in a condensed, easy to read, sincere and repetitive way that a certain business provided the best product on the market! Both images present viewers with the sense that buying had become more of a “pleasurable” past time, than a necessity.


People began buying for the sake of buying and were living beyond their means, “During the 1920’s, Americans began to borrow for a new purpose—so they could live more pleasantly. They went into debt neither to increase their income nor to provide their families a home, but to consume” (Conlin, 656). And that’s exactly what they were doing. People were no longer buying out of necessity, but going into dept in order to live a life bought on credit, for sheer pleasure.


In the 1920s, the country experienced a surprising economic boom. With this enormous economic boom, the outlook of America shifted and people began receiving higher wages. The result of the higher wages was a sudden increase of spending. This was a one hundred and eighty degree turn around from where American workers had been only a few years before. People were experiencing a major flow in cash and people were buying products left and right.


However, the rural southern states did not get to enjoy in the riches with the rest of the country. Coal miners and textile workers with “their dependants suffered depressed conditions and wages…”, these members of society were unable to buy the luxury items, such as cars, vacuum cleaners, and canned food (658). Many were still without electricity and “lagged far behind the rest of the country in income and standard of living” (658).


There are many ways that advertising preyed on people’s fears and insecurities. In an advertisement for Listerine Antiseptic mouth wash in the 1920s, an elderly woman was depicted as attractive, yet expressively sad as she sat “in a darkened parlor poring over old letters and a photograph album” (657). The ad stated that when she was young the woman was in love and was being courted by a Nashville boy. However, she never married and Listerine made note that her “‘halitosis’—bad breath—was the source of the woman’s life-destroying tragedy” (657). This Listerine ad played on the fears of youthful women. If they didn’t want to lose their bow, then they had to freshen their breath with mouthwash, if not, then they would end up a lonely old-maid, “You never know” (657).


Advertisements still preys on people today. Car insurance, house insurance, and life insurance prey on the people who have no control over what happens in life. They “have” to be prepared, so insurance makes sure that they are ready for whatever comes along. There are natural cleaning product advertisements that prey on people who are partial to nature, telling them that going green saves the earth and that if they clean with harmful chemicals, the contribute to the destruction of the earth, making views feel guilty. The number of ways advertisements prey on consumers is endless. They usually have a very good plot and emotional appeal, and have the ability to get their point across while snagging the viewers and getting them to listen.


The 1920s was a different breed of Americans. Women were beginning to realize their potential, the desire to attain rights equal to men, and the desire to contribute more to the family than just doing normal household duties. Along with women attaining the right to vote and still struggling to gain equality, consumerism reached an all time high in the 1920s, an incredible feat considering that only a few years prior to the 1920s, people were struggling to make ends meat. Since the beginning of America to the “Roaring twenties” many things had changed: social, governmental and economic development had been achieved, new technological advancements had played a remarkable role in the progression of the nation’s power, and women had begun to make their mark upon the fertile American soil.


This was an essay I wrote for History class on Women's Sufferage/rights and Consumerism in the 1920s. If anything seemed a little confusing, it's probably due the fact that each paragraph is an answer to a question that I had to put into an essay format.  


Conlin, Joseph R. The American Past. Thomas Wadsworth Edu. 2009. Mar 28, 2010.

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