Tracing a line from flappers to today’s vocal feminists

Jo WalbyJo Walby is an expert organiser, creative problem solver, book enthusiast, reluctant marathon runner and theatre connoisseur who enjoys writing for pleasure and often responses to particular projects.  She was published in a local arts collective work Tales of Eltham in 2014 and The Guardian’s A book that changed me: reader choices in 2013.  Jo has a degree in English Language and Literature from King’s College London and blogs occasionally about her baking exploits and marathon training.  This project called to Jo’s enormous discontent with the recent wave of seemingly ‘acceptable’ violence against women globally and coincided with her reading of Therese Anne Fowler’s incredibly evocative book Z: A novel of Zelda Fitzgerald which voiced clearly the emotional, political and professional melee that every modern women faces.  Jo lives in London with her partner and their two cats.

Women’s natural sexual desire was seen as something that needed to be contained and women’s tongues had to be silenced in order to keep them from usurping authority and/or social power they did not, according to the patriarchal order, merit. [i]

Dangerous women have been seen throughout history as those that have not adhered to the accepted social norm; when women were expected to fulfil roles of duty and endless self-sacrifice for the benefit of an adoring brood of children and a financially supportive husband. It was those women seeking to earn their own livings[ii], divorce bullying husbands[iii] or fighting for universal suffrage[iv] who were seen by society in general and the leading men of the day in particular as dangerous. Then as now, it was those women with power who were demonised; with strong leaders like Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou viciously referred to as “she-wolves”[v] as a means of demeaning and denying them in Medieval England where “man was the ruler of women, and the King the ruler of all”[vi].

The emergence of the independent woman

The First World World (1914-1918) offered the first significant change in women’s roles in British society[vii], as many were asked to go out to work in order to fulfil roles formerly considered unsuitable for women[viii], but due to the lack of men there was no other option. Though when the conflict ended it was expected that women would return to the kitchen sink, only to find that many of them were (not unsurprisingly) reluctant to give up their new found freedom, independence and sense of worth which the world of work afforded. Feminism (often a dirty word even amongst women now[ix]) really took off in earnest in 1913 when Emily Davison died under the hooves of the King’s horse on Derby day[x]. As the roaring twenties dawned F Scott Fitzgerald immortalized his wife and muse Zelda Sayre as the first flapper in his novel This Side of Paradise [xi].

Flappers were the epitome of all that was shockingly modern and undesirable among the young, in direct contrast to the dutiful debutante; Flappers embraced less conventional ways of living their lives in order to have fun and be free, fuelled by the uncertainty of war in such “strange and perilous…[times]…with the Great War in progress [in 1918] and influenza raging across every continent, taking more than fifty million lives by 1919. This horror, along with knowing that fifteen million soldiers and civilians were killed in the war, infected everyone’s spirits if not our bodies. Life seemed more tenuous than ever”.[xii] Society was clinging on tightly to everything it held dear, even the great leader and writer Winston Churchill was famously against women’s suffrage telling one Manchester Suffragette “nothing would induce me to vote for giving women the franchise. I am not going to be henpecked into a question of such importance”[xiii]. Churchill’s use of the word henpecked was deliberately calculated to cast himself as a browbeaten and bullied husband (a term which now sees its modern counterpart in the more explicit, though no less offensive term pussy-whipped), thereby using a cheap tactic which attempted to trigger an emotional response to a seismic political question. This moment perfectly exemplifying how a leading man could humble and humiliate women for simply striving to achieve enfranchisement and demanding the human rights they knew were theirs in a move designed to leave them questioning the plausibility of what they sought.

Flappers remain terrifically emblematic of what happened when women had the freedom and confidence “…to live as I liked always and to die in my own way[xiv]. These bright young things cavorting about great fashionable cities like London, Paris and New York in their short skirts with tons of kohl and sexy bobbed hair-cuts; seemed to be the last straw for the establishment “[flappers were] willing to run the risks of their independence as well as enjoy its pleasures, there were good reasons for them to be perceived as women of a dangerous generation”.[xv]

The beginning of a perceived male displacement

I think it was right there, that moment in the modern consciousness when (some) men began to feel displaced and threatened, making these women dangerous, because they dared to question the status quo and when they found it did not live up to their expectations, they sought to change it. Immediately traditional ideals of male masculinity could be seen as being under attack or at least under review as “(…) the New Woman of the 1920s boldly asserted her right to dance, drink, smoke, and date—to work her own property, to live free of the strictures that governed her mother’s generation. (…) She flouted Victorian-era conventions and scandalized her parents. In many ways, she controlled her own destiny”[xvi]. If women did not need men to control and shape their lives, own their property and decide how to raise their children, what was their role in society? Traditional male masculinity probably enjoyed a sigh of relief as World War II began and they were called once more to test their mettle, though it was only the beginning of how men needed to think about finding their place in this modern world.

The subsequent development of modern “rape culture”

We live in a world where sexual assault can be dismissed with jokes or excuses, even used in a chat-up line or plastered across a T-shirt. The UK rape statistics are shocking, and so are these harrowing reports to the Everyday Sexism Project. [xvii]

The last few years have seen the rise and rise of a huge cultural phenomenon (which I cannot understand), rape culture. The term was first coined by Feminists in the 1970s, was not one I had heard until about three years ago and I have been endlessly appalled by the way sexual violence against woman globally continues as we hear daily of one atrocity after another. I wonder if this is a way that disenfranchised men feel they can take back control in our modern world where traditional ideals of masculinity are ever challenged and changing.  It can be difficult for some men to know where they stand in the era of the metrosexual male in a society with very fluid ideas about what constitutes masculinity. It is an interesting question which is being discussed; for example at the Being a Man conference in November 2015[xviii] they focused on “exploring all facets of masculinity and male identity” which ran alongside the Women of the World festival (serving a similar function for women).[xix] I think these are the big questions which really need to be discussed at all levels of society, because, as terrific as these events are, they are in fact very middle class (mostly white) debates and in working class (and many minority) communities (where I grew up) traditional gender roles are still very much the expected and accepted norm.

The role of social media

Money and power have always been a battle ground for the sexes; as a means by which men can exert control over the women in their lives if they choose to (because often they will earn more, as they do not take the lengthy career breaks women do during maternity leave) and women who have one or both can still be seen as unfeminine or intimidating in some way. Because by earning their own living and owning their own power, women are dangerously threatening to traditional masculinity. I believe that rape culture is a knee-jerk reaction from those men who feel vulnerable and endangered by the strides women have made in equality.

The vast network of Social Media has facilitated the inevitable construct of rape culture as a freedom of speech issue, it has allowed perpetrators to post their offences online to share their horrific crimes and has given control to those disgusting and misogynistic criminals.  It broadens the reach of misogynistic jokes made by stand-up comedians who think that there is nothing which cannot be joked about, though I fear this gives those criminals license to laugh at their misdeeds. Such jokes make me hugely uncomfortable because I cannot find them funny. Ever. It all perpetuates the myth that rape and sexual violence or indeed the control of women is acceptable. It is not okay. It will never be okay.  At the same time however, Social Media also provides a platform for the deconstruction of this myth by giving women a platform to share experiences (as first delivered by Laura Bates Everyday Sexism) and indeed provides global reach to crimes (we may never have heard of) such as the mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015[xx] to the terrifyingly frequent gang rapes in India.[xxi]  Dangerous women now are those speaking out against these atrocities, pushing back on victim blaming, reporting rape and claiming their voice:

…to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you. [xxii]

Dangerous women are now (and have always been) those who speak out for what they think is right, who aren’t afraid of freedom and power and those who fight for the “inescapable inner compulsion to be individuals in their own right”[xxiii]. It is absolutely vital that these women continue to inspire and drive us forward, to reclaim their voices and utterly refute anyone’s right to dominate, bully, abuse or victimise another. I think to be thought a dangerous woman is nothing more than a badge of honour, because it means you are not willing to settle for an easy life at the cost of truth, beauty and love.


[i] Elaine M. McGirr. 2007. Eighteenth-Century Characters: A Guide to the Literature of the Age. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[ii] Emma Thompson. 1995.  Shooting script (Columbia Pictures) for Sense and Sensibility, p.18 [Accessed 23 June 2016].

[iii] Alexis G.. 2015. The Life of Lady Worsley. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[iv] ivThe British Library. 2014. The campaign for suffrage – a historical background. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[v] Simon Sebag Montefiore. 2010. She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor: review. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[vi] Helen Castor. 2011.  She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth.

[vii] Professor Susan Grayzel. 2012. Changing lives: gender expectations and roles during and after World War One. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[viii] Professor Joanna Bourke. 2011. Women on the Home Front in World War One [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[ix] Woman’s Hour, 11th June 2016, Fawcett Society 150 years, Patricia Clarkson, Isabelle Huppert 1-12.55 minutes of this podcast.

[x] The British Library. 2014. Suffragettes. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[xi] F Scott Fitzgerald. 1920. This Side of Paradise [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[xii] Therese Anne Fowler, Z: A novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, (Two Roads, An imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, An Hachette UK company, 2013) Kindle edition, 88%

[xiii] The Churchill Archive. 2016. Churchill and women – Anonymous letter from ‘A Manchester Suffragette’ to Winston Churchill on his engagement to Clementine. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[xiv] Zelda Fitzgerald. Goodreads, Zelda Fitzgerald quotes. [Accessed 23 June 2016]

[xv] Judith Mackell, Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation (Pan, Reprints edition, 2014) Kindle edition

[xvi] Joshua Zeitz. 2007. Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern.  [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[xvii] Laura Bates. 2014. This is rape culture – and look at the damage it does. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[xviii] Southbank Centre. 2015. BAM – Being a man. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[xix] Southbank Centre. 2016. WOW – Women of the world festival. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[xx] The Guardian, Agencies in Berlin. 2016. Cologne attacks: first arrest over New Year’s Eve sex assaults. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[xxi] Kayleigh Lewis. 2016. Mother gang-raped on bus in India as two-week old baby dies in attack. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[xxii] The Guardian. 2016. Stanford sexual assault case: victim impact statement in full. [Accessed 22 June 2016].

[xxiii] ‘Feminist – New Style’ in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, October 927, p.560, cited Joshua Zeitz, Flapper, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2006, p. 112.