Women’s rights in the 1920s – How much do you know?

The ‘Roaring Twenties’ introduced a wave of industrial and cultural change in both the US and England: new dances, new music, and more significantly, new attitudes towards women’s rights. Many of these changes were sparked by the extensive role that women played in the workforce during WWl.

Growing employment opportunities for women enabled them to gain financial independence and emboldened them to view themselves as being more than just housewives. The year 1920 was monumental for women in America as the 19th Amendment was passed, allowing women the right to vote. Meanwhile, the suffrage movement in England was also making great strides. In 1918, Great Britain's Parliament passed an Act that allowed women who were thirty years or older to participate in the election process. The voting age for English women was eventually lowered to twenty-one in 1928.

Women gathered at a women's suffrage movement in 1920s America

Despite these newfound freedoms, women were limited to a select number of vocations such as secretaries or teachers. They were also expected to quit working once they married and faced various other forms of discrimination at their places of employment. Many companies took advantage of their female employees by paying them a significantly lower wage than their male colleagues.

In the face of such inequality, women rallied together and found creative ways to protest. Some took to the streets, participating in demonstrations, while others made a political point with their appearances. Wearing shorter skirts and cutting their hair into a bob were some of the many ways that women declared their independence.

Five young women in the 1920s wearing 'flapper' dresses.

A few particularly brave souls fought against the status quo and went on to become the first female doctors and lawyers of their time. In the Ginger Gold Mystery series, Hailey Higgins exemplifies such women, as she stubbornly pursues her dream to become a doctor – much to the consternation of those around her. 

Lady Ginger Gold protests the social limitations bestowed upon women of her status. Rather than quickly remarrying as might be expected, Ginger is determined to support herself by starting a dress shop called ‘Feathers & Flair’. Her penchant for finding mysteries also causes her to have run-ins with social constructs as she finds herself in situations typically considered improper for a woman.

In their own ways both Ginger and Hailey push the boundaries of what is expected of women at the time. I love their feisty spirits and determination to make their own choices, even while paying the price for it at times. Writing about them has made me appreciate the difficult path that many women carved out before me.

Did you learn something new? Write me a note to let me know.

Ps. If you enjoy historical fiction I think you’ll love my cozy mystery series set in the 1920s, 30s, and 50s. I hope you'll give them a try! Just click the series names below.

1920s ~ Ginger Gold Mysteries

1930s ~ Higgins & Hawke Mysteries

1950s ~ Rosa Reed Mysteries

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  1. My paternal grandmother worked with women all her life to teach them their rights and help them have better lives. She worked through her church to start groups and even went into the women’s prisons to help the women stay strong.

  2. I found your British view of women’s rights interesting. Here in the U.S. I touch upon it in my storytelling programs about WWI & Prohibition. Your photo quoting Wilson particularly interested me as I include in my WWI program one of a woman with a banner calling him “Kaiser Wilson” because he was more concerned about German rights than U. S. women. German women could vote. I also mention the Brits, as they had more voting rights, too.
    Btw the woman I portray was a “Hello Girl”, the bilingual phone operators. It took them 60 years to finally get their promised veterans status.

  3. The very reason I love the Ginger Gold books and the spin off with Hailey is because of their strength of character and ability to push aside what was the norms of the time and go after what they want!

  4. I love history so, of course, I love when reading how women ( like my grandmother, for instance) took a different path in their lives. These roads lead to a better understanding about the opportunities out there still waiting! Keep writing, you’re helping persons in ways that they are unaware of at the time! Thank you!

  5. I am very thankful every single day for the women responsible for our rights! Thank you for this post!

  6. Being a retired teacher, I could never get over the severe restrictions on female teachers. They couldn’t be married and they had to adhere to the strictest of old fashioned rules. I love how Ginger and Haley both bucked the norms of their times!

  7. I can’t imagine not being able to vote or not having any rights except those given to me by a husband. Ugh! These women were amazing.

  8. Well. I know that all men wanted us TO BE barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen! I so so glad I wasn’t born yet!

  9. The more I learn about this period of history the more I am in awe of the strength and courage of these women. We take our right to vote too much for granted.

  10. Though we got the right to vote, our freedoms were still curtailed. We were expected to marry and have babies regardless of intelligence, education or inclination.

  11. I love reading about the twenties I’m just not sure I would have wanted to live back then. Thanks for sharing all this interesting info with us.

  12. “cutting their hair into a bob were some of the many ways that women declared their independence.”
    Oh. I did not know this fact. I thought it was the hairstyle of the times (well, I guess you could include the bob in that category too). The lady on the far right in the photo above reminds me of Maggie Gyllenhaal! Wish this style would make a come-back instead of those duct tape sticker body tape trend.

  13. The journey to equal rights and respect for women continues. If you know anybody that was a nurse in the 1950’s or 60’s ask what was different then. At 70 I’ve shared stories with much younger nurses of what we experienced. They were amazed at the cultural differences. The courageous women of the 20’s got the ball rolling. Thanks so much, ladies! And thank you Lee Strauss!

  14. Very interesting post and it emphasizes why we have to keep pushing for equality. I had no idea the voting age was restricted to 30+ at first. It’s almost like they provided voting rights, but not quite at an equal rate to that of men. Of course, this would limit the power of women’s votes as less women could vote. Almost like an intentional delay to keep men’s grip on power.

  15. I knew about the voting act but iddn’t realize they wore shorter dresses and cut their hair to push their independence.

  16. Women’s rights in the 1920’s were difficult. Secret meetings for suffrage in women’s homes were raided by the police. They were beaten and arrested. There were no such things as the Miranda’s Rights to prevent local police from entering their property. The only way to rebel was to get the bobs (short hair) and to shorten their dresses. During this era, women attended school was more for finding husbands then for education. Higher education for women were laughed upon by society. Women in the 1920’s set the pedestal for equal rights.

  17. I don’t know if I learned anything new about the US but I didn’t really know what was going on in the UK. The post was very interesting. It’s still hard to believe that even after all these years women still earn less than men.

  18. Love the Ginger Gold series. Learned a great deal of suffragette history in my reading and gov’t classes. Glad to see a heroine do what she wants in a male dominated society.

  19. This is a period in time that I know too little about though my mother was born in 1921. Looking forward to spreading my learning wings!

  20. In the states, 19th admendment gave women right to vote. WWI saw women going into workforce. However still expected to give up any aspects of being more than a wife and mother if decided to marry. Fashions changed…shorter skirts, and bobs….

  21. I’m a high school teacher, and I think this is a fantastic post! Although we have still have room to grow, like anything in life, we have come a long way, haven’t we? 🙂 I also think Ginger and Hailey are great role models and an inspiration to women everywhere, when it comes to standing up for what you feel is right and deserved! This might also be a great article to put on our classroom book recommendations board. I think a few of the girls in class would really enjoy your work! Thanks so much for sharing and Happy New Year! 🙂

  22. I was surprised to learn that women in England could only vote when they turned thirty, when women were first given the vote!

  23. I personally did not learn a whole lot new from this section as I have studied extensively the social constructs of the roaring twenties. I realized that women were highly discriminated against as far as their abilities are concerned. I think that our country was still in a sense a developing world and had yet to learn the many facets of what a women represents. The bob haircut and short skirts were a few things that had set them apart from their previous constituents but there were the other things as well. I think america during this time was developing its own self identity. Today as we all know now our citizens have realized that women are just as equal if not more intellectual than their male counterparts. Also one thing that came to fruition is the fact that women are just as capable as any male physically as well as mentally. I think we owe some gratitude to Franklin Roosevelt as he understood the power of women and helped our country develop reform to better the united states not only statualy but economically as well.

  24. Very excited to start reading about Ginger and Hailey. I love reading Historical Mysteries since they teach you so much about the time, and I also love a spirited, free-thinking heroine for these stores.

  25. I didn’t know that in England woman had to be 30 years or older to vote. That is very interesting, but then they lowered it to 21 later. Thanks Lee for the history lesson.

  26. It’s amazing to remember how far women have come, even if there is still so much ground to cover. The gender wage gap was a big issue in the last contract negotiation my union local went through.

  27. It was during the early 20’s that women were finally able to get some rights. They still did not get treated equally to men because of the jobs they were allowed to have and the money that they made. I found this article extremely interesting and would love to read more on the subject. Could you imagine living in those days? Thank you Lee for the interesting history.

  28. I often ponder the world’s to which my grandmothers belonged as they entered into adulthood. One was fortunate to enter as a young 17 year old woman into the University of Pennsylvania’s pre-med program and the other, having been taken to Panama with her family in 1912 at the age of 13, came of age in the colonial Canal Zone, surrounded by coffee plantations and the wooded hills of the indigenous people.

    The UPenn student was ever the independent woman, graduating a year early in Wilmington as valedictorian of her class (and besting the DuPonts graduating with her). She had the world by the tail…that is until she was struggling with her Physics assignments. Her young inventor professor, 13 years her senior, provided private tutoring in exchange for…you guessed it, acceptance of his marriage proposal. Her ambitions were detoured and the promised prospect of marrying a rising star scientist was surer than the road she would otherwise hoe. Although she went on to become a 4th grade teacher (as your blogpost suggested many women did), and subsequently a successful realtor in the Washington-Bethesda market, I suspect she regretted not having pursued her medical career. She pushed each of us three granddaughters to pursue medicine, but alas, it was her passion and not ours.

    As for the grandmother in Panama, she, having an exceptionally lovely singing voice, pursued her passion for music and instilled that love for the arts in both of her sons. She met the challenges of ex-pat living in a rough and rather wild place with grace. But there was a feistiness to her as well – perhaps a requirement for the locale. My favorite story of her is how she bribed the U.S. sailors passing through the canal to come to church on Sunday when enjoying shore leave over a weekend. If they came to church, she promised them a home-cooked meal with the family. A number of them took her up on her offer and visited often, bringing her found treasures as hostess gifts, from many distant ports of call.

    Thank you for bringing the energy and lives of all these women back to the fore through your Ginger Gold Mystery Series.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing the stories of your grandmothers. They sound like they were both strong and courageous women. All the best to you.

  29. Although so many breakthroughs ocurred during the 20s, Women were still seen as the extension of men. They could now work and not be frowned upon, but the jobs had to be women’s jobs like secretarial or teaching! So glad that Ginger and Hailey bucked the system in the series and went after their own dreams, Ginger opening a high end dress shop and Hailey going to be a doctor! I learned how extensive a part women played during the WWI which helped to direct the culture in a new direction!

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