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Gender and Sex after World War I
We usually assume that great changes in American sexual behavior began just after World War I; however, Maurer (1976) argues that there was foreshadowing as far back as the 19th century. The woman's rights movement, a tendency to violate sexual taboos (called free love), and a preoccupation with blander forms of Marxism dramatically came together in the United States at the end of the war. When The Great War was over and the men came home, they found a different world in the making. For one thing, women finally got the vote after a nearly 100-year struggle. Social change was everywhere, not the least of which were modified sexual mores and new ideas about sex.
The 1920s were a time of great optimism. There was a general belief that sociology and psychology were going to the make the world a better place. Now that the war was over, it was time to build a new and better life along more modern lines. Moral standards were loosening, and new norms were developing. Women began taking a more positive view of sex, using contraceptives, and talking about sexual issues. Newspapers talked about previously taboo sexual topics like prostitution and venereal disease (STDs) (Woloch, 2001). Sexual emancipation was heralded by enthusiasts and condemned by traditionalists. This essay will focus on the 1920s, how men and women came to see themselves in terms of gender, how "courting" changed, and how sex in marriage was affected. The division is simply a way to look at the decade in an orderly fashion. In real life there was no division; it was all happening at the same time.
Men: First, it should be pointed out that men came home from the war more sexually sophisticated. While abroad, they had been exposed to other cultures with different and, in some cases, more relaxed views about sexuality. Some men brought home new erotic skills they learned from their experiences in Europe.
How boys were to be raised became a hot topic for child development experts whose influence developed and strengthened in the 1920s. The ideal, "real" man was strong, competitive, self-reliant, and decisive, able to take charge. Experts were increasingly concerned that boys be raised to be real men, who are robust and tough with traditionally masculine qualities. In the decade before World War I, the experts' view was that effeminate boys were deviants in the making (deviant was a euphemism for gay). Mothers were blamed for making sissies of their sons by protecting them too much and giving them too much affection and nurturing. The development of "real" boys could be stunted by mothers, nurses, and teachers who insisted on manners and "nice-ness" which the experts believed feminized them. The answer lay in exposing such boys to "the gang," that is peers who would set the boy straight. Boy Scouts of America was formed as a way to encourage masculinity and develop real men.
But after World War I, emerging social theories of masculine gender identity shifted focus from childhood to adolescence, when it was believed sexuality and masculine identity were formed. This led to the theory that boys and girls should not be separated during adolescence:
If society insisted on preventing young people from normal youthful encounters with the opposite sex, the tragic results would end up in the psychiatrist's office. Prudery, the double standard, and misplaced sex antagonism all contributed to the social disease of homosexuality. Appropriate sex education and a wholesome attitude toward the opposite sex could help alleviate the modern homosexual trend (Grant, 2004, p. 836).
Thus the idea that homosexuality was a result of mother making her little darling into a sissy gave way for a time to the idea that social practices conducive to heterosexuality should be encouraged.
Later in the 1920s the emphasis would again shift, this time to Freudian ideas that early childhood experiences were the cause of "perversion." Psychologists and social workers made it clear that heterosexuality was "the ideal outcome of psychosexual development, while homosexuals remained in an arrested stage of development" (Grant, 2004). Freudian ideas about the emergence of sexuality were popularized in the mass media with mother-blaming central to psychological discourse. At any rate, men were under considerable pressure to be rugged, rough, and tough.
Likewise, views about male impotence changed dramatically in the 1920s. The previous Victorian theory saw impotence as the consequence of male sexual misconduct. Masturbation and "wanton dalliance with women" was blamed for depleting sexual ability. In the 1920s the theory changed to a fully developed psychological theory of external social pressures. Sexual impotence became understood as a problem of repressed desire rather than depletion of bodily resources. Physicians began to recommend therapies of sexual release to men, rather than restraint, and some psychologists even claimed restraint was the cause of male impotence. This was a dramatic development. The traditional prohibition on masturbation was lifted, and guilt was blamed for the bad effects rather than depletion. Freudianism called for expression of sexuality instead of inhibition and self-control. This corresponded to the rest of the sexual revolution of the 1920s, which included an emergent youth culture, which experimented with premarital sex in the context of dating and the emergence of "companionate" marriage -- highlighting sexual satisfaction -- , as the ideal.
Women: Meanwhile, in the years before the war, "The New Woman" had come out of the women's movement. Unlike the frail, sickly Victorian woman, this woman was robust, healthy, and active. She wore a shorter skirt that allowed her feet to show, and shoes that were meant for walking. Unlike her predecessor, who was helpless and fit only for domesticity, The New Woman had a confident air about her that implied she was ready for adventure, for the work of reforming the world, and for being a pal to men (Ticknor, 1997). Not only was she healthy and zestful, she was also better educated; in fact, thousands of women were in college. Many women were working as social reformers in settlement houses, as teachers, and librarians. According to Woloch (1997) the college-educated woman believed in Progressive ideals, and she had new ideas about marriage, divorce, childbearing, child-rearing, women's rights and women's roles (Woloch, 1997).
Physical labor in the home diminished and the "homemaker" was gradually elevated to professional status. Home economics courses were offered in school and childcare now demanded education. Childcare had always been central to women's culture, but after the turn of the century, motherhood became more and more a "noble calling" and "a learned one," which required expertise. Good mothers in the 1920s were expected to keep records, understand child development, follow rules, observe hygiene, and instill good habits in their children (Woloch, 1997). Married women at home were "household executives" and "professional parents."
For women marriage was touted as a calling, her primary role in life. Other activities were secondary. A career, for example, took place between school and marriage. Some married women wanted to work, at least before children came, but most men were against it. Surveys taken in the 1920s showed that romantic marriages seemed to work best when the woman didn't have career goals or "forceful opinions" (p. 286). Widely read women's magazines applauded marriage and homemaking as the most exciting, challenging, and fulfilling job a women could undertake to do and urged readers "to renounce careers and strive for 'an executive position in the home'" (p. 286).
Whereas Victorian women were believed to be without passion, Freud changed that by pointing out that women had sexual feelings too. His theory of the unconscious as the repository of sexual impulses made sex much more important as a driving force of human life. This new thought allowed, even encouraged, women to have a sexual nature and with it the right to fulfill their desires and needs.
In Women and the American Experience, Woloch (2001) argues that the change most crucial to women's lives was contraception. Prior to World War I, there was no contraception available, and women limited the size of their families by sexual abstinence. The availability of contraceptives allowed for sexual freedom rather than repression. Couples could marry younger because having children could be postponed. Rather than a duty, marital sex could be a means of communication. Women could be married and have a career, too, with the use of contraception.
Although not so much as middle-class women, the use of contraceptives by poorer women increased also. Among African-American women, for example, "extensive support for birth control prevailed" (Sklar & Dublin, 2002). Black women in cities organized birth control clinics, and the black press wrote about birth control and limiting the size of families. Black leaders often linked women's advancement with preventing unwanted pregnancies. Some saw it as a cure for poverty.
In 1918, in an effort to curb the spread of venereal diseases, contraceptives became legal if prescribed by a doctor to prevent disease. Although the 1918 change wasn't aimed at giving women reproductive control, Margaret…[continue]
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