The flapper, with her bobbed hair and swinging, beaded fringe, has become an iconic character of the American past. She was young, educated, and daring. She smoked, she drank, she danced, she showed off a lot more than just her ankles. And in the process, she challenged the lives and expectations of past generations. The flapper wanted a career. She wanted to date before marriage. She did not want to settle down and raise children – at least not until she had experience more of what life had to offer.
Yet the flapper lifestyle was by no means a universal experience for women in the 1920s. Indeed, it was very much an urban, middle- to upper-class phenomenon, one that, for many women, remained distant, even alien. A 1922 article in the Prescott, Arizona, newspaper The Weekly Journal-Miner attests to that: “Typical Flappers. You’ve often heard ’em called that, but did you ever really understand what it meant?” It identifies them for the reader, as if providing a classification for an exotic bird that might one day be spotted in the wild.
But the story of resistance to gender norms does not end with flappers. Over the summer, I was struggling to come up with a definite topic for my research seminar when at the National Archives I stumbled across a collection of letters written by women across the United States to the Children’s Bureau – a federal agency charged with improving the lives of women and their children. A majority of these women came from rural areas, towns like Creston, Montana, or Villisca, Iowa, with small populations. They were the wives of farmers and laborers. Women like Gertrude Lirones of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, whose husband worked as a hat cleaner. Their lives could not have been further removed from their daring, glittery flapper counterparts. And yet each of the 46 women whose letters I found at the archive sought change her life, to achieve more than, in the words of one letter writer, “Poverty & More Babies.”
The writers of these particular letters all wrote to the Children’s Bureau asking for birth control. While at this time activists like Margaret Sanger were making strong arguments for birth control, the agency did not take a stance on or give advice about it. Indeed, it would have been illegal for them to do so – an 1873 law outlawed the sale, publication, or dissemination, especially through the mail, of any device or material related to the prevention of conception. Women wrote all the same, some desperate, others determined and defiant, and all hoping to gain some control over their health and their lives.
Flappers were not alone in their quest to change the female experience, and these remarkable letters provide ample proof. Below I’ve included a few of the letters, and a snapshot of the women who wrote them, information I was able to glean using census records from Ancestry.com.
Sophia Micka, of Cayuga, North Dakota, wrote to the Bureau in 1921. She and her husband, a meat merchant, had seven children, but she “did not want any more after [she] had two.” Her letter alludes to now controversial debates about who should or should not have children.
Helen Harting of Muskegon Heights, Michigan, wrote her letter in 1927. At 23 she already had two children – Pearl and Leonard – and a husband who did not support her. Like all of the women in this study, the Children’s Bureau did not provide assistance, but records reveal that she was able to divorce her husband in 1929, citing “extreme cruelty & non-support.”
Finally, Gertrude Lirones of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, wrote for help in 1929. She was raising five children under the age of 10 and worried that any more would cause too much financial and physical stress. “Sicknesses every year. Bills! Wife very tired… Having to keep on child bearing strikes absolute terror to wife’s heart. She goes on to mention all of the advice pamphlets available – on everything from goats to bird houses – and writes that “If the government can’t help us now we’ll feel pretty badly.” She did not get the help she sought – by 1940 Gertrude had given birth to three more sons.
These letters show only a glimpse at these women’s lives, but what they reveal is both heartbreaking and powerful, and indicative of powerful, growing trends. None of these women received assistance from the Children’s Bureau, but what’s important is that they sought it in the first place.