1889 – 1920 Modernizing America Modern Womanhood

Key Ideas

1. Women’s experiences differed depending on race, ethnicity, geography, and economic and social status.

2. New opportunities in education and work opened doors for some women.

3. Marriage, motherhood, and domestic life remained the main focus for most women.

Introduction

Ellen Swallow Richards and female college students in two lines in front of a classroom. Richards is the figure all the way on the left in the back row. All of the students with her are wearing dark dresses. They are all white. The chalkboard behind them indicates that the date is March 1888.

Ellen Swallow Richards and female students, 1888 [ESR13a]. Courtesy of MIT Museum.

Modern Womanhood

What did it mean to be a woman in modern America? The answer certainly differed depending on race, ethnicity, geography, and economic and social status.

Particularly for the fortunate members of the middle class, modern womanhood included newfound freedom. Improved access to educationrecreation, and white-collar jobs offered many young, single women independence that their mothers had not enjoyed. Autonomy, however, ended at marriage for many women—although not necessarily.

But modern life was not solely about young women enjoying singlehood before settling down, nor was it limited to those born into privilege. Modern womanhood also involved shaking off tradition and carving new paths to happiness and success. The first self-made black female millionaire built an empire that celebrated black female beauty. Bohemians in Greenwich Village debated the radical ideas of free love and feminism. Artists and choreographers used their talents to explore femininity. World War I opened doors for women to work as volunteers and paid workers, and even travel overseas for the first time.

Section Essential Questions

1. What did modern womanhood mean to different women? How did race, class, geography, and other factors influence a woman’s experience of modern life?

2. To what extent was life in this era a break from tradition? To what extent was it a reinforcement of traditional norms and values?

3. How did some women break from tradition and pursue a life not solely defined by marriage and motherhood?

4. How did World War I change the roles available to women in society, and what was the lasting impact of these changes?

Resources

Three outfits representative of the fashions designed to support women as they engaged in new forms of recreation, including bicycling and exercise classes.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
fashion, transportation, recreation and exercise, health reform
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A document that outlines the differences between male and female education at coeducational land grant colleges like the Agricultural College of Utah.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
coeducation, higher education, agriculture, home economics and domestic sciences, the Morrill Act and land-grant schools
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An advertisement from Life magazine that celebrates technological advancements in housework and raises questions about the role of women in the home.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
home economics and domestic sciences, paid domestic work, housework, technology
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An illustration that raises questions about the role of women in social reform and outlines the social evils many middle-class citizens feared.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
home economics and domestic sciences, paid domestic work, housework, technology
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Three colorful World War I propaganda posters that represent the different types of war work available to women and present a stereotypical view of the young beautiful war worker.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
World War I, war propaganda, women and war, nursing, food rationing, women and military service
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An excerpt from Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces that explores the racism African American soldiers and support staff faced while serving their country in France.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
World War I, women and war, black soldiers in the segregated military, civil rights, black activism
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Life Stories

The story of a world-traveling investigative journalist who used her career to shed light on the horrors of urban life and break gender stereotypes.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
journalism, muckrakers, white collar careers for women, global travel, mental health and public services, suffrage, World War I
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The story of America’s first self-made black female millionaire and how she built a beauty empire that celebrated and empowered black women.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
entrepreneurship, beauty culture, Great Migration, Harlem Renaissance
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The story of a brilliant and prolific MIT-trained chemist who fought for healthier homes and communities through the home economics movement.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
higher education, women in STEM, science and technology, public health, home economics and the domestic sciences, marriage
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The story of a woman who fought to create community and opportunity for black citizens in Jim Crow Richmond, Virginia and went on to be the first black woman bank president in the United States.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
leadership, community building and organizing, black life in the Jim Crow South
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