Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love. They raised their hemlines and their glasses, smoked in public, drove motorcars, claimed the same social and sexual freedom as men, and danced the Charleston until dawn.
They were called ‘Flappers’ and while they behaved like devil-may-care dilettantes, beneath the high-kicking and laughing and driving too fast lay an irreversible new feminism that propelled rapidly growing numbers of women through the 1920s.
From New York to London the Flappers defied contrived ideas about woman as demure, modest, respectable homemakers whose raison d’être was to attract and follow men. The Flappers certainly attracted men but they followed their own hearts, hell bent on fashioning a free and fulfilling future for themselves.
The embodiment of this independent new generation of women was American feminist writer Dorothy Parker and columnist Lois Long. Both wrote for The New Yorker, founded in 1925. Their words provided a voice for the new generation and a way forward for ‘bad girls’ – unconventional women who far sooner took flack for their freedom than force themselves to conform to the cardboard cutout of ‘the type of woman men marry’.
Long’s columns in The New Yorker offered an intimate experience of sex and style in the 1920s Jazz Age America. Its confidential tone, which read as if she was telling a close friend about the naughtiness in which she had indulged the night before, summed up the 1920s with these words: “All we were saying was, ‘Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love’.”
The wild Prohibition environment
Many were shocked by the actions of the Flappers, but Long and Parker threw back their bobbed heads and threw back champagne in the wild prohibition environment of the speakeasies.
Speakeasies were the product of the United States government’s madcap post war law in 1919, which made it illegal to make or sell alcohol. Called Prohibition, it was an attempt to lessen the ‘evils of alcohol’ but it predictably had the opposite effect. In New York alone there were over 30 000 speakeasies selling illegal alcohol in the 1920s.
Speakeasies were keenly frequented by men and independent women who quaffed bootlegged alcohol and bathed in the liberties formerly denied them. Speakeasy regulars like Parker and Long did what they liked and said what they liked. They were not like most women; most women continued to behave as good little women but the bad girls threw respectability to the fowls.
New freedom and defiance
Parker’s poetry is filled with this new freedom and defiance of male domination. Indian Summer, a poem she wrote in 1926, sums it up:
In youth, it was a way I had
To do my best to please,
And change, with every passing lad,
To suit his theories.
But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you!
Another Parker poem Bloody Men, same era, has a similar message of men’s dispensability:
Bloody men are like bloody buses –
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.
Little wonder they were dubbed Flappers, the various definitions of which indicate the often critical perceptions of the independent woman of the 1920s.
The Flapper, according to various sources is:
• A young bird, or wild duck, that’s flapping its wings as it’s learning to fly. (Even the dancing of the Charleston is reminiscent of a bird flapping its wings);
• A prostitute or immoral woman;
• A wild, flighty young woman;
• A woman who refused to fasten her galoshes and the unfastened buckles flapped as she walked;
Not only did they unfasten their buckles; they unfastened the tight corsets that had bound them for centuries, as the wave of liberation for women went viral throughout the world.
Finally, the vote
As part of this, came the vote. With the passing of the 19th Amendment in the United States in 1920, white American women were finally given the vote. The universal franchise of black women and men was another longstanding political hurdle. But white women were on their way.
Across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, women were equally determined to achieve the same. Like their American counterparts, they had filled men’s shoes during World War I to keep the war economy going. This time of bloodshed and suffering had inadvertently offered women a long-awaited taste of opportunity and independence.
Leading the literary pack
Leading the literary pack in England was one of the world’s greatest writers, Virginia Woolf, a 20th century modernist who explored the difficulties that women writers and intellectuals faced in a society where men held disproportionate legal and economic power, and dictated over women’s education and place in society.
In her best-known non-fiction work A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929, Woolf writes: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Woolf’s best works were published in the 1920s when she was in her forties, including Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928).
The Black Pearl
Across the channel in France, another unique woman was making her mark, and had some of the world’s greatest male writers and artists, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso, falling at her feet.
Josephine Baker was an African-America actress, singer and dancer, known as The Black Pearl, who became an overnight success in Paris in 1925 at the age of 19 for her mesmerising presence and erotic dancing in La Revue Nègre.
Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw” and she quickly became the most successful American entertainer working in France and the first African-American woman to become a world-famous entertainer.
Savvy beyond her years, Baker had grown up the hardest way, as a street child in St. Louis, Missouri, where she made a few pennies dancing for passers-by. At the age of 15 her life changed when she was recruited by a vaudeville show in St. Louis and she later moved to New York where she appeared in hugely successful Broadway revues like The Chocolate Dandies in 1924.
She refused to perform for segregated audiences and is recognised for her contribution to the American Civil Rights Movement and for her advancement of women, encouraging them to be, do and say what they liked.
Advancements were being made on all fronts in this era, including technology, which facilitated mobility and liberty. Electric self-starters freed women of needing male assistance to hand-crank their autos. The movies also moved from the silent era into sound, colour and talking sequences.
A more modern, carefree spirit
Exposed to new technology, new ideas and new ways of living, personal fulfillment and independence became priorities for women who allowed a more modern, carefree spirit to guide them in a new world where anything seemed possible.
This gave women the courage and stamina they needed in the 1920s to push for greater freedoms, including the Representation of the People Act, which was passed in1928, extending the voting franchise to all British women over the age of 21.
In the same decade they achieved another major step forward with the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act. This meant that in the event of a divorce, both spouses were regarded as equals. Prior to this, women were dangerously compromised, and the fear of losing all, including losing their homes, children and positions in society, locked many into otherwise untenable marriages.
Action and liberation in SA
In South Africa it was no different. The 1920s was a time of action and liberation for women, with various organisations such as Women’s Enfranchisement Association of the Union (WEAC) – led by predominantly white English-speaking South Africans – actively campaigning for women in the 1920s and playing an important role in white South African women achieving the vote in 1930.
White Afrikaans women were in a tricky position regarding the WEAC and the vote. The historical tension between English- and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans following the Anglo-Boer war, still lingered, and Afrikaans women did not feel comfortable in the mainly English-speaking union. Afrikaans women were also bound to the tenets of the Afrikaner Dutch Reformed Church that opposed suffrage for women on biblical grounds. Voting was the preserve of the man as the head of the family, the dominees of the time insisted.
The way forward
While most Afrikaans or Boer women, strong as they were, did not make voting noises in public, economics dictated the way forward, with large numbers of Afrikaans men and women leaving the poverty-stricken rural areas in the 1920s and flocking to the cities in search of work and new beginnings.
This new generation of women sought to not only embrace motherhood and the volksmoeder ideal, but also to participate in politics, social policy and vrouesake or the business of women. Increasing numbers of Afrikaans women drew on their strength and started questioning and circumventing the constraints of a patriarchal society, dominated by dominees, rugby and the Broederbond.
Women throughout South Africa started finding their public voice in many different ways. Gifted embroiderer Nellie Kruger used her craft to put a real face to Afrikaner women when she proposed a 15-panel tapestry frieze of the Great Trek of 1838 for the Voortrekker Monument.
For the first time real women, as opposed to idealised volksmoeders, were represented in public in this extraordinary artwork. It took many years for Kruger to be given the go ahead and many more in the making. The tapestry was only completed in 1960 but it embodies what is known as the ‘subversive stitch’, where women through the ages and across the world, who had been denied a public voice, used their craft to communicate their presence and to create a space for themselves.
The irony of the situation in which Afrikaans women found themselves is that there had always been a complex division of authority between men and women because of the rigours of various historical events, including the Great Trek and the Anglo-Boer War. Afrikaans women showed phenomenal fortitude and selfstandigheid (self-reliance) long before they got the vote.
Staunch early feminists
Many were formidable characters like Elizabeth Jordaan and Koopmans de Wet from the Cradock area of the Eastern Cape who in September 1904 established the Zuid Afrikaansche Christelike Vrouwen Vereeniging (South African Christian Women’s Association) and who, in their own way, were staunch early feminists. Theirs was a different, far more austere form of feminism, with a focus on God and education for boys and girls.
The 1920s were an equally important turning point for black South African women, particularly in the laundry, clothing, furniture and baking industries.
Women trade unionists
Increasingly politicised, women trade unionists held leadership positions and were driving forces in the early South African black union movement, including the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU). Formed in 1919 it had a male and female membership of 100 000 by 1927. Another was the Non-European Trade Union Federation, formed in 1928.
These were essentially black protest movements and they actively sought free compulsory education for all races, an end to job reservations by race, and skills training for all races. A key impact was that they provided a training ground for women political leaders who showed extraordinary courage and determination in their time and during the decades to come.
A vibrant, norm-breaking time
Culturally and socially, life in the 1920s in cities like Johannesburg was a vibrant, norm-breaking time for black city-dwellers in South Africa. The vibrant, virile music subculture featuring jazz and vaudeville groups like the Darktown Strutters and the Pitch Black Follies was fostered by the urbanised sectors of the black working class.
In Music and Emancipation: The Social Role of Jazz and Vaudeville in South African between the 1920s and the Early 1940s by Christopher Ballantine, published in the Journal of Southern African Studies in March 1991, he explains how music and dancing was a driving social force for black South African men and woman, and certainly one of the early gateways to economic and political liberty, highly influenced by the music scene in America at the time.
Jazz bands and fancy dress balls
Ballantine discusses the black South African trade unions’ close relationship with the music scene and relates how in 1927 the ICU hired jazz bands to play at fancy dress balls and other events in the ICU-owned Workers’ Hall in Johannesburg; the best known of these bands was the Merry Mascots.
In 1929 at an ICU rally in Johannesburg, 4000 demonstrators marched through the streets of Johannesburg behind the General Secretary Clements Kadalie and a jazz band belting out the ICU’s anthem The Red Flag.
The message of liberation was expressed directly and indirectly, but there was no doubt what it was saying.
Rich and famous
Benjamin Tyamzashe, the famous Xhosa-speaking choral composer made the following comment in 1929, which clearly sent out the message that both music and God know no colour: “Music is a social as well as a spiritual necessity as in heaven they have nothing else but music”. He emphasised that the world is waiting to hear South African voices and that music could make men and women rich and famous.
This struck a strong chord with black South African women. These women, as with their white South African and international sisters, had been subjected to relentless male domination regarding their ‘proper’ roles, as wives, as daughters, as parents, but above all as present or future ‘mothers of the nation’.
“The patriarchal attitudes and conservative morality stressed Christian ethics, dignified behaviour and an exemplary social demeanour, unblemishable fidelity, devotion to duty and the virtues of a temperate life. Within the rigid and constricting confines of this discourse, there was little place for the ‘sinful’ and inherently ‘corrupting’ world of jazz, dance and the vaudeville stage,” Ballantine explains.
Challenging the stereotypes of womanhood
“Yet despite this – indeed, in outright contradiction of it – the entry of women as wage-earners on to the performing stage, slowly opened up a space which women themselves could begin to define in such as way that it started to accord new respectability to women performers, who even became worthy of emulation. Music could play a role in challenging the stereotypes of oppressed womanhood, deliver a blow to male hegemony, and provide a limited basis for economic autonomy.”
The South African 1920s jazz era gave rise to extraordinary women performers such as Emily Motsieloa, the first pianist of the Merry Blackbirds in 1930 when it was still known as the Motsieloa Band.
On the vaudeville side were The Madcaps, a Mafikeng group of four women and two men founded in 1928 by Mrs SM Molema, described as ‘an indefatigable sports enthusiast and social worker’. It led the way for other groups in other South African cities such as the Movietone Cabaret Girls in Bloemfontein led by Miss Florence Nthatisi, the Raven Girls led by Mrs L Kgokong in Pretoria and the Rhythm Girls led by Miss VN Plaatje in Kimberley.
Vocal feminist Giddy Phahlane
From this generation of women rose a brilliant and extremely vocal feminist, Joanna ‘Giddy’ Phahlane, who was the leader and manger of a celebrated Bloemfontein troupe, the Merry Makers.
Writing in Bantu World magazine in the 1930s she spoke out for African women and emphasised the struggle for women’s liberation.
In an article titled A Modern Woman Struggles for Freedom she wrote:
“A modern woman refuses to spend her time in dressing only for the captivation of gentlemen, as some may think, but struggles to earn her living in many ways as a nurse, teacher, singer, actress, dancer, cook, dressmaker, housekeeper, laundress etc and is very much anxious to make men comprehend that she can do without them…Now why should she be debarred from serving any state as a maker of laws? Stand in a pulpit and preach? Be a principal of any high school according to her qualifications? Be a leader for men to follow her? There is no logical answer to these questions. But every silly clown of a fellow begins to cackle when a cultured and capable woman claims the right to take part in the control of a municipality or state…”
Wit and womanhood
It is unlikely that American feminist Dorothy Parker would ever have met her South African soul mate Giddy Phahlane, but they would most certainly have thrived in each other’s company and urged each other to greater heights of wit and womanhood.
It is to these women, and to all those who carried the early flag of female freedom, often causing themselves extreme hardship and difficult lives, that we owe so much for our greater liberty today.