This Is What It Was Like to Be a Woman in 1923

In 1923, Reader's Digest published a piece called "The Women's Revolution." Below is an adaptation of the original work that reported on the monumental changes that had taken over the lives of women.

This article was originally written by Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale and appeared in the December 1923 issue of Reader’s Digest.

A Typical Local Meeting Supporting the Cause - Participants in A Protest Meeting at Soundwell Avon Pose For Their Photo On the Lawn of the Salem Chapel circa 1910Historia/Shutterstock

In the last 25 to 50 years, America has seen a change in the status opportunities and interests of wo­men amounting to a revolution. This revolution was the inevitable effect of two forces: the theory of democ­racy and the fact of industrialism.

The idea of American democracy is equality of opportunity for all. The woman’s movement, since its formal inception with the first Wo­men’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, has sought to apply this principle to women. Today, the theory of democracy is, broadly, applied to both sexes. But this success would not have been attained without the help of modern industrialism, which was swiftly revolutionizing the lives of all women while the leaven of democratic ideals was working only in the minds of a minority. (You’ll want to read this 14 quotes from first-wave feminists that will stay with you.)

In an agricultural community, children are an economic asset. Their labor can be utilized. But among city dwellers, children mean more rooms and higher rent, while work is harder to find and more specialized. Under the pressure of the high cost of liv­ing, the great majority of parents are now unable to support daughters after school age, and since little pro­ductive labor can be found in city homes, it must be sought in factory, office, and store.

At the same time, the development of labor-saving ap­pliances continues to reduce the actual mechanical work of housekeep­ing, while public schools take chil­dren out of their homes during a lengthening span of years; so that women of the homemaking class en­joy greater opportunities for leisure than have ever before in history fall­en to their lot. Among well-to-do, the cost of houses and servants tends to reduce the size of establishments and to transfer entertaining from homes to restaurants, with automo­biles and country clubs aiding in the process. The home is thus becoming more and more an oasis of calm in the intellectual and social life lived largely outside its walls.

Here, then, we have a three-fold change in the world of women—po­litical, economic, and social—unques­tionably a revolution as fundamental as that of 1776. The opportunities for the higher education of women now closely approximate those of men. In 1920, the 19th Amendment enfranchised women, although they had voted in some 22 states previous to that time. These results were obtained by the work of the National Woman Suf­frage Association, organized in every state. Three women have already sat in the United States Congress; 30 states have elected women legislators in the last two years, and 15 women mayors are holding office this year.

The old Suffrage Association has be­come the Women Voters’ League, the largest political organization of wo­men. It is strictly non-partisan in character. It seeks to educate its members in citizenship and encour­age them to aspire to responsible work in their own parties. It scru­tinizes measures and candidates in the interests of better politics and endorses or initiates, in all parties, bills for the benefit of the community at large, and particularly of women, children and the home.

There are today over 8,500,000 wo­men gainfully employed in the United States. This is nearly a quarter of the entire female population over ten years of age, while 20 years ago the proportion was nearer a sixth. And we get this total increase in spite of the marked decrease in do­mestic servants; for in 1900, with a much smaller population, we had over 2,096,000 servants, while in 1920, we had but 1,012,000. Teachers number 639,241. But if we count stenograph­ers, clerks, and typists in one group, they head the list with 1,396,081.

The proportion of women in the higher professions other than teaching is still small, but increasing rapidly. The first woman graduate in medicine in America was in 1849; now there are 7,219 women physicians practic­ing, and 60 medical schools admit women. The number of registered trained nurses has increased 83 percent in the last decade, being now 149,128. The first woman lawyer in America was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1869. As late as 1894 women were being refused admittance into the bar of many states, but today they are eligible in all save Delaware. Of 129 law schools, 102 now admit women, 7 having been opened to them only in 1918, and Yale in 1919. The number of women lawyers and Jus­tices has increased in the last decade from 658 to 1738. (Read these 20 quotes from amazing women in history for a confidence boost.)

There are now a number of women Judges. We have 1,787 women clergymen, 1,714 pharmacists, 8,786 authors and journalists, 12,390 Federal civil ser­vants, and 14,617 artists, sculptors and art teachers; while in the field of business we find—picking at ran­dom—such noticeable figures as 14,134 hotel owners and managers, 13,378 accountants and auditors, 8,326 manufacturers and officials, 5,304 bankers and brokers, 78,980 retail dealers, and 9,283 gardeners and fruit growers.

The Census Bureau lists 678 possible occupations, of which all but 33 are entered by women.

National League Of Women Voters, September 1924Nara Archives/Shutterstock

On the social side of women’s life one of the most significant develop­ments is to be found in the club movement. In the smaller centers, practically every woman with pre­tentions to culture is a member of the local club, while in the large cities it is customary to belong to several study groups, clubs, and leagues for civic or philanthropic work. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs is the largest organization of its kind in the world.

Much time that used to be spent in calling and trivial so­cial activities now goes to club work, and the spectacle of over four mil­lion women studying and organized for various cultural and civic ends, entirely without the advice or assist­ance of men, is something typically American and a quite new phenome­non in civilization. The advance in effectiveness and prestige of these clubs has been particularly marked in the last two de­cades. The earlier clubs aimed at culture as an end in itself; but of late years the civic departments of the clubs have grown enormously, and the tendency to value study mainly as a means toward more effi­cient service and citizenship constant­ly accelerates. Definite results are striven for, and a great body of work of such nature as child welfare, peace, conservation, Americanization, mar­riage laws, parks, playgrounds, ju­venile courts, sanitation, dance hall and moving picture inspection, and food and milk purity, lies to the credit of the National and State Fed­erations, and to the individual clubs themselves.

Whether the increase in the divorce rate is attributable to the women’s movement, it is impossible to say. Higher education certainly tends to raise the standard demanded in mar­riage, and economic independence of­fers women an escape from unhappi­ness hitherto unavailable. On the other hand, there is no evidence to show that college and professional women produce more than their quota of divorcees. On the contrary, it is rather among the newly rich and parasitic groups that broken mar­riages seem commonest. It must also be realized that the stress of busi­ness life, pursued at an increasing distance from the home, divides men from their families to an extent un­known in simpler days, and forces women into a mental independence of their husbands hitherto seldom experienced.

The character of American women under the impact of modern condi­tions has, it would seem to the ob­server, gained in strength, initiative, camaraderie, and self-confidence, but perhaps lost somewhat in the more superficial “feminine” traits. There is no evidence to show that their moral quality has deteriorated. The present is the age of publicity. Much that used to be hidden is now bla­zoned; hypocrisy is a dying vice; here probably lies the sufficient explana­tion of changes which might seem, superficially, to indicate a loosening of moral standards in the rising gen­eration. Find out more about these 58 trailblazing women who made history.

Turning to the question of mother­hood, we find, as in all civilized countries, that the native birthrate is steadily decreasing. The Ameri­can ideal seems to be quality rather than quantity. Classes in sex and infant hygiene, baby clinics, Montes­sori and kindergarten methods, diet and child psychology, seem to give the lie to those who assert that the modern woman in expanding her horizon has neglected her home. On the contrary, the twentieth century, which has seen the triumph of fem­inism, is frequently referred to as the “Century of the Child.” More science and thought has gone into child-care in the last quarter cen­tury than probably in all past his­tory put together.

The writer, in a very wide acquain­tance with girls’ schools, has found constant witness borne by teachers to the fine response of present-day girlhood to ideals of service both as homemakers and citizens; a particu­larly encouraging fact at a time when so much criticism has been leveled at girls for their dress, manners, and amusements.

The coming of automobiles, moving pictures, apartment houses, clubs, and amusement parks has undoubtedly changed the outward characteristics of home life, and remunerative work and wider interests have reduced the number of hours spent by women and girls in their homes. But how far these changes are for the worse is still entirely a matter of opinion. With higher education and economic independence, girls marry later than of old, but very early marriages are probably quite as undesirable eugen­ically as very late ones. Women are free to choose between homemaking and a career. They will be free only in exceptional cases to pursue both simultaneously while the supply of domestic workers and nurses remains inadequate and their cost prohibitive, or until some sys­tem of cooperative housekeeping has been established to take their place.

There is an intelligence and en­thusiasm in American women very engaging to foreign observers, and a healthfulness and vitality in Amer­ican home life which would be im­possible if these women had, in the pursuit of other interests, neglected domestic duties. We are safe in as­suming that the more highly femi­nine intelligence and initiative are developed, the finer will be the re­sulting type of wives and mothers; and that the abundant vitality of the American spirit will triumph over the difficulties inevitable to a new or­der, itself the product of industrial and social conditions inherent in the fabric of contemporary civilization.

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*Editor’s note: Below, find out how occupation statistics from 1923 compare with current occupation statistics.

Occupation Statistics: Now

Elementary school girls working on computers in computer room, Lower Saxony, GermanySiegfried Kuttig/Shutterstock

• As of the 2010 Census, women comprise 47 percent of the U.S. labor force.
• Of the 123 million women age 16 years and over in the United States, 72 million (or 58.6 percent) are labor force participants—working or looking for work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (That’s up from around 25 percent in 1923.)
• 66 million women are employed (compared to 8.5 million in 1932); 73 percent of employed women worked on full-time jobs, while 27 percent work on a part-time basis.
• 29.6 percent of women aged 25 and over attained a bachelor’s degree or higher; 30.6 percent of women completed only high school, no college.
• All U.S. medical schools, law schools, and colleges admit women into their programs.

Women account for 51.5 percent of all workers in the high-paying management, professional, and related occupations:

Registered nurses: 91.1 percent

Elementary and middle school teachers: 81.8 percent

Medical and health services managers: 72.5 percent

Psychologists: 66.7 percent

Tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents: 66.1 percent

Education administrators: 63.0 percent 

Advertising and promotions managers: 61.1 percent

Accountants and auditors: 60.1 percent

Public relations managers: 60.0 percent

Insurance underwriters: 59.3 percent

Medical scientists: 53.7 percent

Financial managers: 53.2 percent

Next, find out about these 8 incredible women in history you didn’t learn about in school.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest