Arts & Culture

Modern Girl Project views women between the wars

7 min read

When American women won the right to vote in 1919, the logical question was, What next? Suffragists had the answer ready: full enjoyment of civil and domestic life for women, equal to that of men.

But suffragists found out that what was next was not much. It would be decades before American women gained anything like gender equality in the home, in the workplace, and in higher education.

And they faced another unsettling fact: Flappers were next. To the dismay of early feminists, these unruly daughters of feminism were driven by an apolitical appetite for clothes, boys, and the outward signs of freedom.

The image of the 1920s flapper endures to this day: the frank gaze, the kiss curls and cropped hair, the slender figure, the painted eyebrows and bright red lips. In that era, the “It Girl” was It.

But the American It Girl was also the German neue Frauen, the Japanese moga, the Indian vamp, the Chinese modeng xiaojie, and the French garçonnes.

Iterations of the flapper around the world had in common an explicit eroticism and an uncommon power to challenge social conventions. In the interval between the world wars, her iconic image — with regional adjustments — appeared not just in the United States but in all five continents.

The history of the modern girl is the fertile territory staked out by six feminist historians from the University of Washington, Seattle. Their Modern Girl Project, now in its ninth year, has opened a many-layered, transnational view of how culture and commodities flow around the globe.

It is also a study of globalization in an era before the term itself was invented. During the relative peace between the world wars, multinational corporations were eager to expand trade. Helping them was the emergence of advertising images that crossed borders as easily as ships. Studying the rise and fall of the modern girl “enabled us to enter the current debate about globalization,” said historian Tani E. Barlow, one of the University of Washington scholars.

Barlow and four of the other five modern girl scholars brought their message to Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study last week (March 16), in an event moderated by Nancy F. Cott, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, and Harvard’s Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History. A peak audience of 80 attended the afternoon-long symposium in Radcliffe Gymnasium, despite a late-winter storm blowing fiercely outside.

The Seattle-based scholars use a methodology of scholarship they call “connective comparison.” It’s a way of linking scholarship across disciplines, national borders, and temporal boundaries.

“Connective comparison is one of the key achievements of this project,” said symposium discussant Afsaneh Najmabadi, a Harvard professor of history, and professor of the studies of women, gender, and sexuality.

Discussant Christine Stansell, a Radcliffe Fellow who teaches history at Princeton, praised the six for their “spirit of cosmopolitan inquiry,” and said it should inspire imitation among other historians, as well as scholars of literature and art.

Najmabadi called the modern girl project itself “a master key that opens various doors” and allows the study of how concepts travel across cultures.

Through art, advertising, journalism, and cinema, the provocative images of the modern girl challenged domestic, sexual, and political norms. They signified modernity, along with the unsettling fears and freedoms modern life brings.

In China, the appearance of the modern girl in advertising — and then on the street — invited women to cross class boundaries, and challenged the dominance of more conservative images of femininity: the good wife and good mother, and the professional woman.

The openness of the Chinese modern girl with her male counterpart also challenged social norms, and gave gender relations a new sexual electricity. For the first time, “she, as an object of the gaze, also possesses the gaze,” said historian Madeleine Yue Dong, one of the Seattle scholars.

In South Africa, the modern girl appeared in the 1930s as a subject of public debate in the letter columns of Bantu World, a daily targeted to the black middle class, and the first to have a women’s page.

Young South African women — in a pattern repeated elsewhere in the world — were flooding to cities, taking jobs, delaying marriage, and setting the stage for multiple challenges to the norms of morality promulgated in Christian missionary schools. “Modern girls were criticized for easy love, love of clothes, [and] the power of appearance to seduce and deceive,” said African studies scholar Lynn M. Thomas, one of the Seattle researchers.

One writer, she said, complained that the modern girl was a sign of “female depravity and foreign influences.”

But Isaac Schapera, a white South African anthropologist, argued that the modern girl signified hope — a sign that black and white cultures were converging.

In Germany, advertising images in the late 1920s showed ethnically ambiguous modern women, with white skin and an Asian slant to the eyes. In Japan, the ambiguity took the form of an odalisque figure with blond hair and black skin.

“This aesthetic was also part of international power and business relations … a business logic of universality,” said historian Uta G. Poiger, one of the modern girl project researchers.

But this “racial masquerade for white women” also challenged notions of racial hierarchy “and could generate nervousness on a number of counts,” said Poiger.

The emergence of the cinema helped speed the image of the modern girl around the globe. In India, women crowded into the sex-segregated sections of movie houses to see films like “Telephone Ni Taruni” (“The Telephone Girl”), a 1926 silent in which a telephone operator falls in love with a lawyer.

It was one of a genre of films called “socials,” which challenged — and even transgressed — social boundaries (like depictions of kissing). It was also one of the 52 movies starring Sulochana made between 1925 and 1937. A Bombay actress, she was India’s first sex symbol, and its archetypal modern girl.

But Sulochana’s story is a cautionary tale, and illustrates the fate of the modern girl around the world. She rose with advertising, and fell after clashing too harshly with cultural norms.

Sulochana, the Hindi nom de plume of the mixed-race Ruby Myers, “exceeded the national form” of sexual, racial, and gender norms, said social scientist Priti Ramamurthy, one of the modern girl scholars. Sulochana was displaced in the late 1930s by actresses who did not break the traditional social rules. (From the 1940s through the 1990s, kissing remained banned in Indian films.)

In Germany, racially ambiguous advertising images were replaced by “a range of white types, [with] no doubt cast on their whiteness,” said Poiger. “Naturliche Schonheit” (“natural beauty”) won out. It was the same Nordic ideal of womanhood touted in Nazi hygiene manuals.

The modern girl disrupted social norms the same way her suffragist predecessors did, said Stansell — and drew the same kind of blame for social ills, including blame for a falling birth rate.

The modern girl illustrated “a moment of comparative freedom,” she said, which young urban women embraced as an interval between living with parents and living with a husband.

But the modern girl did not get — or represent — what suffragists had striven for, said Stansell: a “life fully in the world,” free from the confines of sex, marriage, family, and traditional work.

“This we know didn’t happen,” said Stansell, a historian of sexuality and women’s issues. “The modern girl happened instead.”