Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Contrary to popular opinion, current American sexual practice began not in the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s but decades earlier, in the youth of our first modern girls, women now in their eighties. The first modern American women grew up in the 1920s and early 1930s, when Americans discovered that women were sexual beings.

Theirs was the first generation to believe that women could do anything. A woman could fly an airplane, like Amelia Earhart. She could drive a taxi, or she could choose a profession––and have a husband and children as well. After women got the vote in 1920, many insisted on the same freedom as men to choose their personal habits, including smoking, drinking, dancing, and wearing provocative bathing suits. The heroine of a 1925 McCall’s magazine story announced that a flapper’s goal was “to live life in one’s own way.” A woman now could go anywhere alone––into stores, churches, depots, saloons. And a modern American woman could go anywhere she chose with a man, including to bed.

Historians tell us that emancipated young women of the ’20s and ’30s had sex only with men they loved; you could go to bed with a man if you loved him enough to want to marry him. Most women longed for such love––“I would rather be loved than respected,” said one––and on the surface they looked “traditional,” linking sex and marriage, keeping a good bit of the old female sexual reserve. But all the while a new idea simmered in their minds: that they were capable of sexual pleasure, entitled to sexual satisfaction, and that the marital sexual relationship would satisfy their deepest needs. Meanwhile, the idea of marriage as a sacred, religious bond seemed outdated.

Let’s take a look at how one real woman of the 1930s worked out the new sexual idea. Though our heroine, the “first modern woman,” is anonymous here, she is neither imaginary nor a composite of many women. She is one individual American woman, who was born in 1911 and died in 1992.

This first modern American woman wanted to be more modern than her mother, a quiet woman who wore modestly printed cotton dresses and followed a weekly routine of household chores: laundering clothes on Mondays, shopping on Wednesdays, baking on Fridays. Her daughter was more sociable. In college, she sang small solo parts in operettas and began to picture herself as a little bit glamorous and to think the staidness of her mother’s life a little old-fashioned. “Modern” to her meant glamorous, with a hint of the sexually suggestive. She loved the new Clark Gable movie, It Happened One Night, especially the last scene, when the blanket “wall” separating Claudette Colbert’s bed from Gable’s came down.

After graduation she found a teaching job in another city. She thought about getting her own apartment––many young women did this––but settled instead for a rented room in a widow’s house. She told herself that her first-year teacher’s salary would not cover an apartment, but in the back of her mind she feared being alone. The young women who did live alone craved the excitement of an independent life, though they did not necessarily want to go through life by themselves. It was one thing to imagine pawning valuables to buy an airplane, as Amelia Earhart had done, quite another to carry through such lonely, demanding career plans. Most of these would-be moderns wanted to feel free, but they wanted to feel secure at the same time. They yearned for excitement, but they wanted a reliable companion with them on the way.

The companion, they thought, would be male. Not for them, however, the sedate kind of courtship they imagined their mothers having conducted in their grandparents’ front parlors. They would engage in sexual behavior unknown to their mothers before the wedding night, usually but not always stopping short of sexual intercourse. Sex was in the air––had been in the air since they were children. Sex was in movies and novels and public lectures, in intellectuals’ arguments that sexual abstinence harmed women’s physical and mental health. These modern young women, self-conscious about their own sexual sophistication, said that they cut their hair and wore short skirts for comfort and convenience. But they knew that hair sculpted close to the head was alluring and that short skirts and sheer silk stockings drew attention to their legs in a far from innocent way. They made up their faces to suggest sensuality: pale powdered skin, colored lips, unnaturally arching eyebrows.

Our heroine found herself attracted to her land-lady’s handsome and eligible nephew. When he came for dinner one Sunday, she laughed at his jokes and asked him questions about his office supply business. They had frequent weekend dates, which included long, lingering kisses. Would he, she found herself wondering, ask her to marry him? When he stopped calling her, she told herself that he was a businessman like her father and that she really wanted to marry an intellectual.

She moved back home, where she taught junior high school English and, in her spare time, helped with children’s and teenage activities at her Lutheran church. Glamorous the church was not. Once upon a time, the Christian Church pulsed with the kind of excitement our heroine sought. In days of apostles and martyrs, Christians were gallant. In Reformation days, Christians were passionate. On nineteenth-century mission fields, Christians were heroic.

But by 1937, few American Christians understood the content of their faith, let alone defended it passionately. To our heroine and to many of her peers, the church seemed stodgy. In her church work, the first modern American girl saw mostly women and children, since the male leaders ran the church but did not study or teach in it. When she did see men at the formal Sunday service, they were middle-aged and older. Her most glamorous dream, of intellectual conversation with an attractive young man, looked unlikely to be fulfilled.

Until that surprising Sunday afternoon, when a man whom she had never seen before showed up to help chaperone a group of teenagers. Her handsome co-chaperone, younger than she by four years, was working as a wholesale tobacco salesman because his family could not afford to send him to college. He wished, however, that he were in college. Very intelligent, he mourned his unused intellectual powers. In his spare time he read Schopenhauer, the pessimistic philosopher who wrote about pain’s predominance in human experience. But even while contemplating his psychic pain, he did not ignore our attractive heroine, who, for her part, thought she had found the intellectual of her dreams.

They began seeing each other regularly. Our heroine, who had been in a bar only once with her father, felt a tingle of excitement when the young man took her to a nightclub. They drank whiskey and listened to a local singer’s rendition of “Night and Day.” Many Saturday evenings they returned to the club, sometimes meeting his friends from the tobacco company. He smoked Chesterfield cigarettes; soon, so did she, feeling quite sophisticated as she tapped her cigarette on the table before lifting it to her lips for him to light.

She found him more pliable than her former boyfriend, who had always kept her guessing. This new man basked in her attention. He told her that the Depression made marriage impossible, speaking of no particular marriage, certainly not his. She ignored the impersonal tone and imagined that he was thinking about marrying her. She wanted to get married. She would soon be twenty-five and feared that marriage might elude her. A teaching career did not excite her despite her talent––she had a sense of humor that kept students interested through the dullest grammar drills. A teaching career did not seem modern to her, though, and it did not make her feel important. In modern life women were equal to men, and therefore important. Marriage, she believed, would make her both equal and important.

Her mother and her long-skirted nineteenth-century grandmothers had also considered marriage important, but our heroine did so for a different, “modern” reason: she believed that marital sex would bring her personal fulfillment. Intellectuals preached to her generation that women’s equality with men required husbands to fulfill their wives sexually. A new era had dawned, wrote sexologist Havelock Ellis, in which sex took on “therapeutic” importance: women should no longer–– would no longer––be sexually repressed. Sexual fulfillment was their right, the sign of their equality with men.

Our heroine believed she loved the tobacco salesman. He said that he loved her, though usually when he was slightly drunk. Should they sleep together now? He pressed for it; she relented. That is, she told herself she was “relenting” because she loved him so much. Her deepest thoughts were more complex. She now proudly regarded herself as a daring, modern young woman; she also, without quite admitting it to herself, was trying to maneuver the young man into marriage. She didn’t worry about his drinking because he never lost control of himself; he just kept talking like an intellectual, gradually becoming sardonic and sad.

Weekend after weekend went by, with nightclubs and sex on Saturday nights, church services on Sunday mornings, and sometimes church activities on Sunday afternoons. On Saturday evenings, our heroine’s lover bewailed his lot in life and toasted his self-pity with beer and whiskey. Sunday mornings he seemed cheerful and refreshed, a state that our heroine attributed to sex with her, not to church––salvation came through sex, or so she thought.

One Saturday evening, pretending some nervousness, she told him that she was pregnant. On the inside she was pleased, believing marriage would quickly follow. It did; very quickly. They eloped––glamorously, she thought––as did Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, when she fled a big church wedding to marry her down-and-out boyfriend. Our heroine told her parents she wanted to spare them the expense of a wedding.

The tobacco salesman had been right when he said that the Depression made marriage impossible. Where could they afford to live on the pittances they were earning? Her parents offered to carve a few rooms of their house into an apartment for the fledgling couple. There, in the bosom of her childhood home, our heroine undertook to enjoy all the sexual pleasures of modern married life––not, however, before telling her new husband in appropriately surprised tones that she was not pregnant after all.

Our heroine did not grasp the magnitude of her mistake until a few years later, when her husband, self-pitying as ever, had a brief affair with another woman. Then she decided that her marriage had misfired. The first modern American girl, now a modern American woman with two small children, thought of divorce but stayed married, in part for the children but also because she was still afraid to live alone. Another thirty years and she was still married and still thinking of divorce, regretting her marriage every day. Her husband’s drinking no longer seemed sophisticated, especially when, drunken and sardonic, he mocked her. The joys of sex and then the sex itself gradually left the marriage. So deeply preoccupied was she with her own disappointment that she spent no emotional energy on her children; she fed and clothed them but never tried to understand them. Rather than fulfilling her, marriage deadened her spirit.

Though she began her sexual career optimistically, our modern American girl ended it in quiet tragedy. Feminists claim that such tragedies occurred because women were not truly equal to men––a broader set of career choices would have kept our heroine from wanting so much to get married. But can we not also admit that exaggerated hopes for sex betrayed her? Early-twentieth-century intellectuals exalted sex as a woman’s salvation; their promises have echoed down the century, with hardly a whisper heard about the falseness of such claims. For all its power, sex has saved no woman from her discontents or her fears. It certainly did not save that first modern American woman, our anonymous but real heroine, who died quietly a few years ago. The false promises that marred her life remain virtually uncontested in America’s sex-drenched culture.

Ann White is a high school teacher in Washington, D.C.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift