By the mid-1950s, though, the word “flapper” itself had become a synonym for “dancing girl.” There was no question who the dancers were – they were the same type of flapper in dress and act that had preceded them: young, slender, blond, and pretty. They also carried a great deal of baggage, having only recently been given their first names. “In terms of social visibility,” as one critic put it, “the flapper was a failure.”
Flappers had been born on the outskirts of New York’s Greenwich Village, and their movement had always been about more than just fashion or artifice. It was about the radical political project of women’s freedom and sexuality – a project of defiance against rigid, misogynistic standards of female dress and appearance. Flappers’ revolt against this patriarchal society, in fact, became a direct challenge to that society itself, and to the prevailing norms that limited women.
If we look at the origins of the flapper movement in more detail, it begins with the publication of a manifesto issued by a group of young women at the University of Illinois in May 1948, just a month after the assassination of President Roosevelt. Among the manifesto’s other bold statements: “Fashion is not only a social construct that has no basis in nature, but that is a tool or weapon of oppression in the service of certain patriarchal interests and groups who are seeking to enforce their own oppression.” The manifesto came the same month that, as we shall see, American society found itself in desperate need of a scapegoat for an increasingly complex, and more threatening, social and political situation.
The woman who wrote the essay, Lizzie Parson, was an African-American woman who knew firsthand the racism she faced; she had been a member of a secret society of African American women. It was Parson’s essay that sparked the movement that would become known as the women’s liberation movement, or what was to become called the “New Woman Problem.”
After the initial flare-up over the President’s assassination – a flapper who “dance[ed] with her heart in her mouth,” as the poet Alice Walker put it – the women’s liberation movement grew into what it is today, a multilingual, multifaceted, multidisciplinary effort to challenge gender, racism, sexism, and capitalism from above, within, and against. The movement’s most famous founder, Betty Friedan, was not only the leader of the New Woman
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