photo (10)In honor of my first-ever appearance on The Liz McMullen Show and our conversation about women's gender roles in the first part of the 20th Century (you can listen to the podcast HERE) I've decided to dedicate this month's blog to discussing how changing gender expectations in the 1920s, 30s and 40s informed and helped shape the female characters in "Letters Never Sent."

As many of you know, I teach anthropology. There are a number of interesting topics within the discipline, but one of particular interest to me are gender roles, how they vary from culture to culture, and how they have changed through time. It's an underlying theme in my novel, in that the characters of Kate, Annie and Claire struggle against the prescribed gender roles of the early 20th Century, just as Joan, Kate's daughter, struggles equally hard in 1997.

As background, the novel opens when Joan, Kate's estranged daughter, travels to Lawrence, Kansas, to clean out her recently deceased mother’s home and prepare it for sale. As she's cleaning, she finds an old suitcase containing a wooden box full of objects that include a spent bullet casing, a key ring, and a packet of sealed love letters – which she reads. And it's through these unsent letters that Joan begins to understand that her mother's unhappiness was, in part, because of the prescribed roles of wife and mother expected of her by society. She also comes to realize that despite the fact that her mother was functioning within the paradigms of the 1930s and Joan was working in the 1990s, their lives were in many ways, paralleled.

The above statement might seem strange given that more than 50 years of "advancement" in regard to women's rights had occurred. And change had occurred. But in many ways, the underlying expectations of "what it was to be a woman" remained the same.

Up until the end of the 19th Century, the accepted cultural norms were that women belonged in the home where their responsibilities were what we consider "traditional" -- cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children and her husband. But in 1890, something happened that changed that for many women -- The Progressive Era. The Progressive Era was a 40-year time span that was characterized by social activism and political reform in the United States. Though we see this in a number of arenas, the two most famous were Prohibition and the Suffrage Movement.

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Both of these issues were key in exacting societal change regarding women's rights because for the first time they allowed women to step onto the public stage and have a voice. At first, this voice was for issues. But as time went on, it became a voice for themselves. This activism allowed women to carve out previously unavailable freedoms that included, in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which gave women the right to vote.

The 1920s were pivotal for women -- particularly in regard to education, jobs and social freedoms. Single (white) women suddenly were able to live on their own, get jobs and date without exclusivity. The most extreme of these women were, of course, the Flappers. They, more than anyone, challenged old ways of thinking and behaving. They were young and unapologetic in their demands for the same "freedoms" as men -- both in regard to economic independence, but also as it pertained to regulation of sexuality. Because they no longer needed to marry for financial security, their relationships with men changed and often were more casual.

Now, it goes without saying that this change was more pronounced and accepted (arguably) in the larger cities. But what about girls like Kate -- girls who lived in small towns without the "big city ways?" The short answer is that they usually faced confusion and condemnation from friends and family. In "Letters Never Sent," the expectation for Kate was that she would graduate from school, marry a local boy and start a family of her own. It was what was expected, but it wasn't what she wanted. And her refusal to accept the status quo put her at odds with everyone around her -- especially her boyfriend.

Girls like Kate, Annie and Claire didn't fit into the lives they were expected to live. They wanted more. And like many women of their era, their only option was to shake off these expectations and strike out on their own. Most went to large cities where they took jobs as teachers, nurses, secretaries and shop girls. And for awhile, they had their independence. But what they didn't realize was that the long-term impact of forces outside their control (specifically the Great Depression) was about to change the playing field.

As the 1930s progressed and the country (and the economy) struggled to recover from the Stock Market Crash and the subsequent Great Depression, the more permissive era of female freedoms reversed. Jobs became scarce and married women – which is what Kate ultimately becomes – were faced with strong societal pressure to give up their jobs for the men (who were the traditional bread winners) and return to the home. Meanwhile, women like Annie, who remained single, often found themselves in competition with, and losing jobs to, married men. This was especially true of women who were in professional jobs.


WWII poster (from the National Archives and Records Administration.)

In this new/old construct, men were recognized as the breadwinners and women were expected to provide stability within the home and for the family. But then the US entered World War II and the paradigm changed yet again. Men were drafted to fight and suddenly, women who had just recently been pushed out of the workplace were seen as a valuable workforce -- and not just for the traditional jobs of nurses, teachers and librarians, but also for jobs that in the past had been considered "masculine." Suddenly, there were more jobs than there were people to fill them. Women had a tremendous amount of freedom and opportunity. It's no coincidence that as women had the opportunity to make money and provide for themselves, divorce rates rose.

Women were again asserting their independence. They had jobs. They had money. They had autonomy.

And then the war ended.

Soldiers returned home. And not only did they want their jobs back, they wanted the "American Dream" of a wife, children and a home in the suburbs. It's during this postwar era of the late 1940s and early 1950's that we see an increase in marriage and a baby boom of unprecedented proportions. Married women often had no choice but to move back into the home. What is interesting, though, is that across the US, there was a clear shift in social perception of women who worked. This new suburban housewife shouldn't want (or have) to work. Ideally, she was supported by her husband while she managed the household and cared for the children.

In regard to Letters Never Sent, this plays out in that Kate, who is married to a man she doesn't love, becomes pregnant with Joan. Again, it wasn't what she wanted, but it was part of the social construct of the time. Being a mother was what was expected of her. And she did it -- though out not happily. And here is where we see the parallel between Joan and her mother because even though Joan was a baby boomer and grew up in a very different era -- an era where women's rights were front and center -- she ultimately made many of the same choices.

Was it because there was still that expectation of marriage, a home and a family even though it wasn't as pronounced? Was there still a subtle pressure on women to adhere to the "traditional" gender roles? I think the argument could be made that yes, there was. And more to the point, that in many ways there still is.