In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby painted a picture of the Roaring Twenties as an epoch of decadence, idealism, and excess, tinged with disillusionment. To this day, a strong cocktail of romanticism and nostalgia has persisted in reinforcing this incomplete and misleading narrative by glossing over the growing hostility within American communities during the 1920s. World War 1 galvanized the younger generation to reject conservative values and traditional gender roles thereby transforming American society. For many Americans, these circumstances evolved into a war between rural and urban; fundamentalist and secular; and “native” versus immigrant. By tracing America’s interwar period from 1917 to 1929 and exploring Women’s Liberation and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, I intend to argue that the 1920s was in fact a decade of deep cultural conflict which took over a decade to subside.
Throughout the 1920s, urban modernism directly correlated to conflicting standards of femininity. According to Carol Schmid in her article “The New Woman,” ”Women’s participation in a culture of leisure, consumption and body consciousness created images of the ‘New Woman’” who embodied the ultimate state of emancipation from gender roles and expectations. After World War I, religious and political authorities began to lose their power over the American people. The Great War reduced the grip of America’s class system and encouraged people from different socioeconomic groups to mingle. Burgeoning consumerism encouraged women to take control over their life choices; It urged them to curate their own careers, clothes, and recreational activities.
When the 19th Amendment of the US Constitution was ratified in 1920, women were finally afforded the opportunity to vote nationwide. This watershed moment opened the door for women to participate more extensively in politics and in the workforce. There were changes in the family and in sexual mores. Women could now exert their agency in public and private spheres, often seeking education, careers, fiscal independence and sexual autonomy. Many of these women became what we now know as “Flapper girls.” They pushed the boundaries of gender roles and criticized traditional values of modesty and chastity by cutting their hair short, wearing revealing clothing, drinking liquor, and engaging in premarital sex.
While many women embraced these changes, others felt threatened by women’s desires for radical change and fear quickly evolved into hostility. For the religious portion of America, this wave of secularism represented a steady unraveling of Protestant rules regarding sexual morality. Conservative perspectives on ethics and sexuality maintained a stronghold on mainstream consciousness. As a consequence, secular women were beleaguered to balance personal autonomy with social acceptance. Protestors felt compelled to place legal restrictions on women’s behavior and public outrage became attempted legislation: The Hays Code severely limited sexual themes in movies and made depictions of Flapper girls almost impossible to portray on screen. Utah attempted to pass legislation on the length of women’s skirts while Ohio tried to ban form-fitting outfits. Growing tensions between tradition and progress would become increasingly prevalent as Modernism (demonstrated by the beginnings of women’s liberation) showed no sign of defeat.
Just before WW1, the rise of nativism reared its ugly head. America would go on to win the war, but it would alienate many of its racial and ethnic groups in doing so. By the 1920s, immigration had reached an all time high and urban communities now fostered a multiplicity of languages, cultures and religions. This newly diversified population created a rift in the country’s social fabric. It threatened rural communities by compromising established Christian norms. Questions of what it meant to be “American” gained traction as the United States experienced social and cultural changes that threatened its status quo. In his 1916 campaign for Presidency, Woodrow Wilson notoriously scorned “disloyal Americans” for their lack of unity and support in joining the War, advocating for “one hundred percent Americanism.” However, his message was lost on a large section of his German-American population (whom he had targeted in his speech) as anti-German rhetoric engendered a wave of nativist sentiment that led to the suppression of a number of German cultural activities in the United States.
The idea of Americanism became more troubling in the war’s aftermath as the WASP population tried desperately to preserve a version of America that favored Protestantism, patriarchy and “whiteness.” Anti-foreign rhetoric and open opposition to immigration now characterized the politics in the 1920s and the KKK embodied these rampant anxieties. As a result, the fringe group experienced its second coming as these divisive ideas of Americanism became increasingly normalized. They recruited millions of Americans, and at its peak in the 1920s, the organization claimed to have acquired 15% of the nation’s eligible population. Reveling in its self-appointed position as the defenders of Americanism, the KKK framed mainstream and legitimate concerns as frightening and catastrophic threats to American peace and security. Particularly threatening, were alien ideas and religious doctrines brought overseas by Catholics and Jews whose existence was thought to both undermine the foundation of American cultural identity as well as create of all of the great social and moral problems of the day. The KKK disseminated their ideas through propaganda, favoring literature and cinema as their most effective tools. Nevertheless, their fear would culminate in ostracism and violence. In 1927, its members assaulted blacks and white communities in Alabama for violations of racial norms and for perceived moral lapses. In Indiana, they threatened and blacklisted fellow white Protestants for committing immoral acts such as adultery, gambling and heavy drinking. At its heart, these growing tensions reflected wider anxieties of a declining rural population in the face of an ominous cosmopolitan invasion.
After WW1, America emerged as a powerhouse on the world stage, but it was experiencing a major identity crisis. The rapid onset of modernization, immigration, race, gender politics, and sexual morality all became major cultural battlefields during the 1920s and muddied previous iterations of an American “identity.” Old and new America were at war as large sections of the population embraced changes in women’s role in society. There were changes in the family, and in sexual mores, gender roles hairstyles, and dress. Many Americans regarded these changes as liberation from the country’s Victorian past, but for others, morals seemed to be decaying, and the United States seemed to be changing in undesirable ways. For many of the millions of people who lived in rural communities around the country, urban culture itself seemed wicked, materialistic, and detrimental to moral character. The rise of secularism pushed Protestants farther to extreme culminating in the reemergence of the KKK. This nativist underbelly of American society embodied the most extreme manifestations of a widespread, underlying fear that ‘100 percent Americanism’ was under siege. Yet tensions subsided towards the end of the 1920s as Americans became distracted and overwhelmed by the rise of a modern consumer culture. The booming car industry, fashion industry, and cosmetics industry made the country’s cultural conflicts seem less significant. However, the lessening of social tensions could not prevent the ultimate collapse of the new economy at the decade’s end. The Great Depression would jumpstart a new era of economic debates that would rival the intensity of America’s cultural conflict in the years prior.