The First World War casts a dark shadow over the 20th century. It shattered the relative peace that had reigned since the Napoleonic Wars, killing some 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians. It is also blamed for causing the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the postwar decline of traditional morality—the flapper era, and the rise of fascism. In short, if WWI had never happened, the world would today be very different … and perhaps much better.
Last week, I argued against the first charge of this indictment. Russia was already pre-revolutionary in 1914; the war merely helped the process along. A large part of the population, especially urban workers, had become committed to revolution not as one option among several but as the best and most likely option. The authorities responded with repressive tactics that initially worked, particularly during the Revolution of 1905, but the appeal of radical change was less easily repressed. There would eventually be another revolution on a larger scale, with or without the war.
This week, I will turn to the second charge: the First World War paved the way for a decline of traditional sexual morality that is still ongoing. As historian James R. McGovern pointed out, this charge suffers from two defects:
- In its earlier stages at least, the change in morality seems to have been stronger in the United States, which had entered WWI halfway-through and would escape its ravages.
- The United States was already experiencing this change before the war.
McGovern argued for an alternate view of history: the new morality was “much more the result of earlier intrinsic social changes than either the sudden, supposedly traumatic experiences of the war or unique developments in the Twenties”:
Even a casual exploration of the popular literature of the Progressive era reveals that Americans then described and understood themselves to be undergoing significant changes in morals. “Sex o’clock in America” struck in 1913, about the same time as “The Repeal of Reticence.” One contemporary writer saw Americans as liberated from the strictures of “Victorianism,” now an epithet deserving criticism, and exulted, “Heaven defend us from a return to the prudery of the Victorian regime!” (McGovern, 1968)
Yes, this sexual revolution was facilitated by single women moving to the city and taking the jobs of enlisted men who had gone overseas. But a similar influx was already under way before the war:
A significant deterioration of external controls over morality had occurred before 1920. One of the consequences of working and living conditions in the cities, especially as these affected women, was that Americans of the period 1900-1920 had experienced a vast dissolution of moral authority, which formerly had centered in the family and the small community. The traditional “straight and narrow” could not serve the choices and opportunities of city life. As against primary controls and contacts based on face-to-face association where the norms of family, church, and small community, usually reinforcing each other, could be internalized, the city made for a type of “individualization” through its distant, casual, specialized, and transient clusters of secondary associations. The individual came to determine his own behavioral norms. (McGovern, 1968)
It wasn’t just urban life that weakened traditional moral authority. Some inventions, like the car and the telephone, were likewise helping young people to evade parental and community surveillance. Before the war, advice columnist Dorothy Dix had dubbed the car the “devil’s wagon” and observed that “the average father does not know, by name or sight, the young man who visits his daughter and who takes her out to places of amusement.” Meanwhile, moving pictures were breaking the silence on sex and showing forms of sexual expression that had previously been poorly known among teenagers and even many adults:
According to one critic the “sex drama” using “plain, blunt language” had become “a commonplace” of the theater after 1910 and gave the “tender passion rather the worst for it in recent years.” Vice films packed them in ever night, especially after the smashing success of “Traffic in Souls,” which reportedly grossed $450,000. (McGovern, 1968)
As a result, the youth subculture diverged more and more from the adult subculture, as a female college student confessed to her diary just before the First World War:
We were healthy animals and we were demanding our right to spring’s awakening. [...] I played square with the men. I always told them I was not out to pin them down to marriage, but that this intimacy was pleasant and I wanted it as much as they did. We indulged in sex talk, birth control…. We thought too much about it. (McGovern, 1968)
Women’s dress reflected this evolution, exposing arms and legs and becoming deeply cut in front and back. In 1915, an American editor declared: “At no time and place under Christianity [...] certainly never before in America, has woman’s form been so freely displayed in society and on the street” (McGovern, 1968).
American men were going through parallel changes:
Between 1910 and 1930, Victorian definitions of manliness declined in favor of recognizably modern forms of manliness that developed as a concomitant of the heterosocial youth culture. The key to understanding the change in the cultural ideal of masculinity in these years is the shift from a culture of “character,” in which men were expected to be good Christian Gentlemen and in which the keywords to describe manhood were “morals, manners, integrity, duty, work,” to a culture of personality, in which men were expected to cultivate the “performing self.” The culture of personality placed greater sexual demands and expectations on men. (White, 1993, p. 180)
This shift in values could be seen in the popularity of muscle magazines like Physical Culture and in the growing concern among young men over flaws in their sexual attractiveness: blackheads, off-white teeth, dandruff, and bad breath (White, 1993, pp. 22-23).
The sexual revolution wasn’t caused by the First World War. It was a culmination of trends that had begun earlier, circa 1910, specifically the growing ability of young men and women to evade external controls over morality, partly by using new channels for communication and culture-creation and partly by opening up new spaces for private interaction.
It’s questionable whether WWI played any role in this process. The notion that it did is largely due to our use of wars as a way to divide up the passage of time. We speak readily of the “postwar era” and the “interwar years,” not to mention “wartime.” This is understandable because both world wars marked the beginning and end of many regimes and even some countries. Unfortunately, by using these events as convenient bookends for periods of history, we may simplify and even distort our understanding of the past.
The culture of the interwar years, and the flapper era in particular, actually took shape on the eve of WWI. Similarly, the postwar era’s look and feel owed a lot to the late 1930s: the first comic books; the invention of TV; the rise of suburban living; and the showcasing of how science and technology would transform the future—a good example being the 1939 New York World’s Fair and its “world of tomorrow” theme. The trajectories of history often follow separate paths and cannot be easily tied together into prewar and postwar bundles.
McGovern, J.R. (1968). The American Woman’s Pre-World War I Freedom in Manners and Morals, The Journal of American History, 55, 315-333.
White, K. (1993). The First Sexual Revolution. The emergence of male heterosexuality in modern America, New York: New York University Press.