Amy Williams is an attorney, freelance writer, and the proud descendant of dangerous women.
In 1920’s America, the massive death toll of the world’s first Great War cast a pall over cities and towns. Prohibition had given birth to a new underworld of speakeasies and the mafia dictated societal norms. Yet it was a group of young women in short skirts, smoking cigarettes and drinking gin that threw politicians, writers, and parents into a panic.
They were dangerous women, newly armed with the right to vote and an independent streak that defied the gender norms with which they were raised. They caused no violence, yet the societal uprising and its century long repercussions caused shockwaves throughout small town America and into the young nation’s cities.
Nearly one century later, dangerous women across the world can lift a glass of gin and toast their great-grandmothers.
The flapper movement, as it came to be known in the press, was born in the aftermath of the death and destruction caused by men in the world’s first Great War. Prior to the war, women were expected to adhere to behavioral standards, beginning with their attire. Women’s hair was expected to be worn long, their hem lengths even longer.
With so many men deployed to foreign lands during the war, women had no choice but to enter the workforce. In the workforce women began to openly socialize with other women outside the home, ending years of isolation waiting at home for men to return from work. With regular employment, women also developed financial freedom they had never before experienced. The combination of discretionary income and social expansion led to dangerous ideas that women could, and perhaps should, explore independence in all sectors of traditional life.
Never mind the mafia running the cities’ economic systems during the Prohibition Era; it was the free-spirited, free-minded women that caused the greater public concern. The United States Secretary of Labor, James Davis, expressed concern about the “flippancy of the cigarette-smoking, cocktail-drinking flapper,” in a statement he gave in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1922.” (1) “We hear much of evil tendencies among our girls and boys, of sexual conversations and literature in our schools and homes, of devotions to amusements that are unhealthful for soul and body,” he stated, indicating that the flapper lifestyle was “disturbing” and begging parents to provide appropriate positive guidance. (2)
Harvard University joined the discourse and released a study by psychologist Abraham Roback in December 1923. Roback opined that flappers were a “hopeless problem for educators,” and while not unintelligent, they “dislike work, are very impatient and fail to apply knowledge which they acquire in school.” (3) Roback’s study was accepted for the premise that the flapper culture had led to an impatient pursuit of personal gratification, at the peril of societal norms.
It was not only men, that feared the flapper movement and its resulting impact on women’s independence. Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance also spoke out against the flappers, stating that she found the flappers to be conformists because of their shared tendency to bob their hair and wear short dresses. (4) In an article she authored in August 1926, Catt wrote, “Women do not wear short skirts or bobbed hair by their own election, but in obedience to the dictum of fashion.” (5) Even a woman lobbying for the right to vote feared the changing customs and independent women.
The most prominent argument against the flappers in the 1920’s was that the movement was dangerous to society, tradition, and a culture that had never before experienced this emerging demographic with a voice it wanted to share. In 1929, British writer, Sheila Kaye-Smith wrote in “Living Age,” “Marriage is going out of fashion as a vocation, and a great deal of nonsense is talked about men and women working together side by side. I have even heard it said in praise of the modern woman that she does not look upon marriage as her aim in life, but looks forward to entering a profession and earning her living independently of male support. To me this schoolgirlish contempt of natural emotions is just as bad as early Victorian prudery…To prove herself man’s equal, as she has always been, she has paid him an unnecessary compliment of imitation, and she will never establish herself fully in popular opinion as his equal until she realizes that her equality lies in her difference.” (6)
The flappers questioned authority, denounced the traditional patriarchy, and struck out to live lives of their choosing. No longer burdened with chaperones, they explored their sexuality, as well as their creativity and independence.
The life, and ultimately death, of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald is enigmatic of the flapper circumstance. Though far more famous and wealthy than the average flapper, Sayre-Fitzgerald’s life as both a flapper and the wife of America’s most famous author of the decade represented the inner-conflict American flappers felt at home and in society.
Zelda was born to Alabama Supreme Court Justice Anthony Sayre and Minnie Machen Sayre in 1900. (7) Young Zelda’s high school journal indicates she was a flapper before the word had a definition. Writing of herself, “I ride boys’ motorcycles, chew gum, smoke in public, dance cheek to cheek, drink corn liquor and gin. I was the first to bob my hair and I sneak out at midnight to swim in the moonlight with boys at Catoma Creek and then show up at breakfast as though nothing happened,” Zelda never lived by traditional expectations. (8) In 1918, two events occurred that would reshape Zelda’s life and begin her ascent into American lore. She met a young F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance, and she won first prize for her original literary work, “The Iceberg,” which she submitted to the Sidney Lanier High School Literary Journal, and set in forth an early ambition to write. (9)
After her marriage to Fitzgerald, Zelda continued to defy expectations of her gender and when asked to contribute to a celebrity cookbook, offered the following recipe: “See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs, and if so try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily. Also, in the case of bacon, do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week. Serve preferably on china plates, though gold or wood will do if handy. ” (10)
While the celebrity recipe may have made Zelda unique and interesting, what made her dangerous was her desire to exhibit her own creativity within the literary world. Not content to simply be on the arm of the country’s best known author, Zelda is posthumously considered brilliant and dangerous, a woman reflecting the controversy of her time.
- Scott Fitzgerald’s early work, “This Side of Paradise,” earned him the moniker of the nation’s “expert on flappers.” (11) Without question, he borrowed from his wife. It was Sayre-Fitzgerald that defined the flapper’s persona. Writing in 1922, Sayre-Fitzgerald said of the flapper, she “awoke from her lethargy of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure, she covered her face with powder and paint because she didn’t need it and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. She was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do. Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim, and most of all to heart. She had mostly masculine friends, but youth does not need friends—it only needs crowds.” (12)
What is still a mystery, though, was whether he borrowed from the example his wife set, or whether he blatantly plagiarized from her independent creative endeavors. Speculation still exists that the “Great Gatsby” character of Daisy Buchannan was an idealistic version of Sayre-Fitzgerald. (13) Likewise, the protagonist Fitzgerald created in “This Side of Paradise,” spoke words he took verbatim from Sayre-Fitzgerald’s private dialogues. Later, in “The Beautiful and the Damned,” Fitzgerald grew even more brazen and stole passages from Sayre-Fitzgerald’s diary. (14) Sayre-Fitzgerald contributed a review of “The Beautiful and the Damned,” in the New York Times, stating, “On one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters, which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” (15) That creative insight into the innerworkings of the Fitzgerald home was the catapult for Sayre-Fitzgerald’s own writing career. Sayre-Fitzgerald began writing short stories, often published under her husband’s name due to his considerably higher earning potential. (16)
It remains a mystery what mental illness plagued Sayre-Fitzgerald, but her multiple hospitalizations exposed both Sayre-Fitzgerald’s independent brilliance, as well as the conflict within the marriage of two creative individuals. During one hospitalization, Sayre-Fitzgerald wrote “Save Me the Waltz,” a novel based on her own life, and sent the manuscript to Fitzgerald’s editor. Fitzgerald edited the novel himself and stole direct passages for his own novel, “Tender is the Night.” (17) Striping “Save Me the Waltz” of central passages caused Sayre-Fitzgerald’s novel to suffer in sales, and began the slow death spiral that was the Fitzgerald marriage. (18)
Fitzgerald forbade Sayre-Fitzgerald from writing about psychiatric issues, telling her, “Everything we have done is mine. If we make a trip…and you and I go around, I am the professional novelist, and I am supporting you. This is all my material. None of it is your material.” (19) Whereas Sayre-Fitzgerald desired to write of her own mental health struggles, Fitzgerald considered it a personal affront to his career. (20) One such argument was documented by a stenographer at the hospital, and began with Fitzgerald telling Sayre-Fitzgerald she had “picked up the crumbs I drop at the dinner table and stick them in your books.” (21) To which the struggling flapper responded, “You have picked up crumbs I have dropped for 10 years, too.” (22)
Whether it was Fitzgerald’s characterization that Sayre-Fitzgerald was insane, or the fear she struck into the circles of male authors, her reputation as a dangerous woman only grew during the end of the Fitzgerald marriage. Fitzgerald’s notorious and blatant affairs with other women caused her to act out in public, once even throwing her diamond watch from the window of a moving train. (23) Of Sayre-Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway wrote in his memoir, “A Moveable Feast,” that she was “crazy, vindictive, and shallow.” (24)
Though nearly two decades apart, Sayre-Fitzgerald’s death and the death of the flapper movement follow the same, quick and tragic death spiral into history. Sayre-Fitzgerald was killed in a fire at the hospital at which she was institutionalized in 1948. (25) The flapper movement preceded Sayre-Fitzgerald in death, due in large part to the Great Depression. (26)
What remains of the flapper culture after its death highlights the underpinnings of the dangerous women that initiated the changes of the 1920’s. The flappers of the 1920’s are the understated heroes of more recent generations of women. They were dangerous once so that today their behavior may seem commonplace.