The 1920’s is known as the Golden Age in American History. But why?
It is certainly true that women, particularly young women, were much more free to do what they wanted. This sense of freedom mostly stems from the work ethic women procured during WWI. Many women decided that they wanted to joining the work force, and a quarter of women took up jobs of their own. Suddenly women had some of their own money to spend on leisure including dancing, smokes, drinks, and clothing. Women who cut their hair and their hemlines were nicknamed “flappers,” and where seen as more fun and promiscuous than before. Although most women, those who were married and had children, were housewives and held back by the men in their lives. Some women decided to leave those men behind when it became easier to get a divorce in the 20’s: the divorce rate increased by half!
In Chicago, it is easy to see why women like Roxie, Velma, and the Murderesses would want a great representative like Billy Flynn: as much as women wanted to rely on themselves they were still at the mercy of influential men. Roxie and Velma are quintessential of the “1920’s Woman” who would and could do as she pleased, seeking more and more freedom in the process.
Along with increased freedom came real promiscuity. Part of the Jazz Age included new dances and a culture revolving around that type of recreation. That fun was ruined when taxi dancers turned up in Chicago. Taxi dancers were paid dance instructors who gave lessons to men in private clubs. Basically, they were prostitutes under the guise of the dance craze. Many of these dancers were foreign, particularly Polish, which makes sense due to the large percentage of the population attributed to immigrants. This could be part of the inspiration for Chicago’s character of Hunyak, the innocent Hungarian ballerina who is wrongfully accused. A lot of these dancers came from tough family backgrounds with criminal records to follow them. The circumstances which drove them to promiscuity is different from the sexual awakening seen in the Flapper culture.
The willingness of women to turn to this type of work was made easier by the availability of birth control methods. The morality of using these methods was highly questionable to most of society, but even more questionable was the practice of abortions. In the 1920’s, abortion was illegal in the United States. The only instances where abortions could be performed, legally, was if there was a life-threatening circumstance which endangered the mother or if the doctor got permission to perform what was called a “therapeutic” abortion. The practice was highly unregulated, resulting in similar cases being treated differently in each city or state. There was a lack of organization between medical practitioners and the law which made it nearly impossible to agree on a consensus to govern the practice of abortions. Socially, the practice was frowned upon for it’s moral and religious deficiencies. Still, upper and middle class women who could afford abortions for themselves or their daughters, nieces, etc. had a better chance at getting a safe abortion than women and girls coming from poor immigrant families. In relation to Chicago, Roxie manipulates the media using this social construct by faking a pregnancy to receive more publicity. This was certainly the way to do it. By taking a stance on a hot-button issue, Roxie appeals to the people who would have the most influence on her situation.
Chicago became the most violent city in the United States, boasting with its glorified tales of “girl gunners” and the inmates of Murderess Row. Cook County was glued to the newspapers with daily updates on the latest crimes of the Mafia, civilians, prohibition, and especially the crimes of women. Most of the allure came from the circumstances of these murders and how a female could be drawn to such unladylike depths. Some of the most famous inmates of Murderess Row were Katherine Malm, whose illegal husband outed her and left her to serve a lifetime sentences. Sabella Nitti was an Italian immigrant given the death sentence for killing her husband. She was ravaged in the papers, barely treated as a human being, based on her Italian looks and lack of English. Belva Gaertner was the inspiration for Velma. The wealthy ex-wife of the pharmaceuticals manufacturer, whose lover was shot in the driver’s seat of her Nash sedan. Did she shoot him, or a third party? Beulah Annan is the inspiration for Roxie, whose good looks and knowledge of them bought her way to freedom.Beulah shot her lover in her apartment in “self defense.” Her husband, Al, stood by her side and sacrificed everything for her. She divorced him later saying, “I want lights, music, and good times… and I’m going to have them!” Girl gunners were a sensation in Chicago. Their abundance was attributed to the effects of Prohibition and the lack of attention from their male counterparts who didn’t have the time, ability, or will to look after them and treat them properly. The reality is that women were tired of being tied down, especially after the war, and the allure of jazz, booze, and good times was the easiest and most abundant way to retrieve some of that freedom back.
BBC. “The Roaring Twenties.” BBC. BBC, n.d. Web. 7 July 2016. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/history/mwh/usa/1920srev2.shtml>.
Fritz, Angela I. “The Women Who Danced For A Living: Exploring Taxi Dancers’ Childhood In Chicago’s Polish American Communities, 1920-1926.” Journal Of The History Of Sexuality 2 (2014): 247. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 8 July 2016.
Daar, Kara W. Swanson GUEST EDITED BY Judith. “The Doctor’s Dilemma: Paternalisms In The Medicolegal History Of Assisted Reproduction And Abortion.” Journal Of Law, Medicine & Ethics 43.(2015): 312. LexisNexis Academic: Law Reviews. Web. 11 July 2016.