I’ve mentioned Judith Mackrell’s Flappers a couple of times recently and that’s because it’s been my bedtime reading for the past two weeks (it’s a chunky tome) and has proved incredibly relevant to what’s been happening in day to day life. The book covers the lives of six extraordinary women who came into their own during the ‘20s and were the living embodiments of the ‘flapper’ archetype.
Josephine Baker, Tamara de Lempicka, Nancy Cunard, Diana Cooper, Tallulah Bankhead and Zelda Fitzgerald came from diverse backgrounds and had many different experiences, but their lives also overlapped significantly and their looks and lifestyles defined that era. I’ve written about how they fit into the ‘It girl’ category here (which Alexa Chung occupies today) but today I want to think about the place they occupied in their society and why this is a particularly fascinating period for those interested in women’s history.
On Saturday night I went to an event at the National Trust’s Sutton House in Hackney (it’s amazing, you should visit!) which was a celebration of Nancy Mitford. The evening included a screening of a documentary on Nancy and a panel discussion between three women - Oriole Cullen, V&A Fashion Curator, Deidre Murphy, Historic Royal Palaces Curator and Professor Mary Joannou.
They talked about the Mitford sisters but also women in general who were coming of age in the 1920s, a period of history only equalled by the 1960s in its huge social upheavals. Young women were forging lives for themselves that their mothers couldn’t have dreamed of. They could attend university, drink, smoke, drive, wear trousers, cut their hair – superficial things maybe, but symbolic of their increasing independence.
After the horror and loss of WW1, there was an atmosphere of desperate decadence – a need to party hard and make the most of life, because they had seen for themselves how brutally short it could be. As I discovered in Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out many young women who’d assumed that they would marry and have children suddenly found that that was no longer an option, as a generation of men was wiped out by war. For some that was a tragedy which blighted their lives, for others it was liberating.
But back to the heroines of Flappers. I imagine that these six women were not always easy to get along with – you probably wouldn’t describe them as ‘girls’ girls’ (although several of them had lesbian relationships). They were self-obsessed, selfish, narcissistic, flighty, temperamental, demanding and spoilt. But they were also passionate, fiercely intelligent, strong, tough, fearless and determined to carve out a place for themselves in the drastically new post-war world.
Tamara de Lempicka escaped from Russia and decided she didn’t want to live off her family’s handouts, so she would be a painter. And she did it, developing a style that, with its sharp, fragmented edges and brilliantly glittering surfaces, defined the art deco era. Every time she sold a painting she bought herself a diamond bracelet, until they were stacked up her arms – a fanciful whim, you might think, but one rooted in a determination to survive – diamonds could always be sold if she found herself in need of cash again.
Josephine and Tallulah clawed their way out of small towns and poverty to forge brilliant careers on the stage, both in American and in Europe. They thrived on the controversy surrounding their reputations, indulging in love affairs with men and women. Diana, Zelda and Nancy came from more stable, even privileged backgrounds, but they faced the same struggles to find their own identities in a world where women were still seen as shadows and supports to their husbands (much of Zelda’s own writing was published under her famous husband Scott’s name, to her annoyance.)
There’s a brilliant paragraph in one of the chapters on Zelda which describes how she remained firmly unconvinced by Ernest Hemingway’s macho posturing (Picasso was equally dubious apparently) and resented his implicit sexism: “he believed that a woman’s essential role was to support the struggles of her husband.”
Diana volunteered as a nurse during WW1 as a way to escape her mother’s overbearing rules while Nancy made an impulsive, ill-suited marriage, such was her desperation to escape the claustrophobic upper class world she’d been raised in.
Were these six women feminists? In some ways yes, in others no. I don’t think any of them were consciously political – they didn’t seem to identify with the suffragette movement or lend their name to any cause supporting female emancipation, but in the ways they chose to live their lives, their deeds and beliefs were feminist.
They saw no reason why they shouldn’t take lovers, obsess over their work, drink and dance and travel just like the men who they knew. In many cases they had distant relationships with their children – again, typically ‘unfeminine’ according to the expectations of society at the time (and actually now) but no different to the male painters, poets and dilettantes in their groups. So because they refused to accept that women had to live different lives to men because of their sex, I would say that they were feminist.
As the women on the Mitford panel explained, while we’ve come a long way since the 1920s in terms of access to contraception and abortion, in many ways little has changed for women. There’s still the same expectation that a woman will sideline her career in order to concentrate on raising children – if a man earns more, then it makes sense for the woman to stay at home, right? But why does the man earn more? Looking at Tallulah, Tamara and co. I am filled with admiration for their refusal to be forced into adopting roles they didn’t want, despite the pressures they faced. I think we still need that bravery today.
I am hosting a salon next Wednesday where Judith Mackrell will be talking about her book, flappers and feminism. If you want to come along (it’s in London, at Drink, Shop & Do in Kings Cross) you can get tickets here!