1920 – 1948 Confidence and Crises

Chien-shiung Wu (1912-1997), professor of physics at Columbia University, 1963. Smithsonian Institute Archives Image # SIA 2010-1509.

Key Ideas

1. Major social, economic, and political shifts in this period forced Americans to once again question what it meant to be an American.

2. Women of all backgrounds continued to feel the tension between traditional expectations of domesticity and expanding opportunities in work, education, social interaction, and politics.

3. After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, women activists lacked a unifying issue. Instead, they focused on an increasingly diverse array of social and political issues.

4. Although women’s experiences varied depending on age, race, ethnicity, geography, and economic status, women across all these categories actively contributed to reform and activated their citizenship in creative ways throughout the era.


The period of American history between 1920 and 1948 is often talked about – and taught – as a three-decade period made up of distinct chapters.

With the 1920s came a creativity boom, a new jazz culture, and youth pushing the boundaries of “proper” behavior. The conversation shifted dramatically in the Great Depression of the 1930s with breadlines, unemployment offices, and a growing federal bureaucracy. World War II in the 1940s pushed Americans out of their comfort zones as it took over every aspect of daily life. It was quickly followed by a post-war period, during which America expanded its influence around the world and reflected on its national ideals.