How the modern flapper gal of the 1920s spurred moral panic in Canada

In the 1920s, a new style icon arrived: flappers. They had bobbed hair and penchants for smoking, drinking, and dancing. In Matthew Lazin-Ryder's documentary you'll hear how the spectre of the flapper became a moral panic in Canadian society, and dredged up fears of unhinged sex and drugs.

The rise of independent women prompted fears that traditional Canadian society would change for the worse

In the 1920s, a new style icon arrived: flappers — and with it came a moral panic as the change in women's roles now included freedom. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

* Originally published on February 4, 2020.

The iconic flapper of the 1920s marvelled in flouting convention and stirring the pot. She smoked, she drank and loved a good party with dancing. 

But to others around her, this modern gal living it up became a symbol of everything that could wrong in society — a threat to the notions of tradition, motherhood and even Canada itself. 

"They were enormous symbols in Canada in the period, and so much was laid onto young women's bodies," Jane Nicholas told IDEAS. Nicholas is a historian at St. Jerome's University at the University of Waterloo, and author of the book, The Modern Girl.

"So concerns about immigration, concerns about urbanization, concerns about cosmetics, concerns about moral character — it all was pushed down onto her body." 

The flapper certainly had a look. She was young, often white and very slim, wearing clothes that revealed more of her legs, arms and back. She wore makeup like mascara and lipstick and had very short hair.

"What's known fashionably as the bob, and this made her look a little bit more boyish. So while her fashion was very feminine, this angularity, this thin body and her bobbed hair gave a more androgynous look to her," Nicholas explained. 

Post-WWI flapper women were initially seen as simply flighty, self-obsessed, and hedonistic by critics. (Sasha/Getty Images)

As art deco style took hold and skyscrapers reached for the sky, the Flapper with her tall, lean, body fit right into the modernization of cities. 

But this iconic image of the modern gal, in newspapers and advertisements, painted a one-dimensional picture, says Nicholas. 

"We tend to pluck out her appearance and make it everything that she is," said Nicholas.

"We need to give them more complex lives than we often do. And so we need to think of her as being smart, thoughtful and intelligent and give her a sort of fuller life."

Sexual liberation feeds panic

In the '20s there was worry that the rise of cities would change traditional Canadian society. Those anxieties manifested as worries about young women, and sex.

Ritualized courting that involved parents was traded in for a modern dating approach, casually going out and having fun. 

"You could date any number of people without your parents necessarily watching, and ushering you toward a church to get married," Nicholas told IDEAS. 

Once "flapper" started to mean a "woman who likes to have fun," the flapper-backlash began.

Around 1922, stories start to appear in the newspapers about flappers and something called "petting parties." It's never explicitly said what happens at these "petting parties," but it's clearly something 'bad.'

In 1922, an article appeared in the Vancouver Sun headlined: 'When the flapper sows her wild oats.' It was a rolicking expose about the flapper scene in New York, and included this paragraph: 'Jazz, cigarettes, papa’s money tossed away at craps. Cocktails sipped in cozy corners, highball s spiked from the flapper’s own little silver stocking flask. And petting parties in secluded nooks.'

"One of the big concerns that comes out in the tabloid press in Canada at the time is that these petting parties are also involving older men and so there's concern that there's sort of lecherous older man on the scene and also that the flapper is going to take advantage of him to get at his money," Nicholas said. 

"Overall it is this concern related to sort of sexual liberation of the time which looks fairly pale in comparison to the sexual liberation that would come later in the 20th century. But at the time, this is a real source of anxiety.

"There is absolutely a moral panic about the flapper."

A moral panic is a widespread fear that is usually helped along by the media. There was the "red scare" of the '50s, the poisoned Halloween candy of the '70s, and the Dungeons and Dragons/Satanic Panic of the '80s and '90s. And still today, these panics often involve young women and sex. 

"Every generation invents some moral panic," said Mona Gleason, a historian at the University of British Columbia.

'The flapper doesn't disappear in 1929. What happens is the story, the narrative of history shifts,' says historian Jane Nicholas. (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

"Hand-wringing about the state of the young has a very long pedigree." She points to it happening after the Second World War, in the 60s and even now.

Gleason agrees the flapper was a significant icon representing social anxieties. This time of sexual liberation produced real fear in parents because the social cost of a pregnancy out of wedlock "was unimaginable."

"I'm in no way trying to justify the demonization of female sexuality but because of social prejudice that was a real concern."

According to Nicholas, other concerns growing out of the First World War in Canada were things like venereal disease and movies causing young women to lust over men like Rudolph Valentino with his so-called Latin good looks.

She says all of these fears and imaginary perils facing the flapper are about the future of an entire country and the changing role of women.

"The concern isn't just about their personal lives but it's about the direction of Canada as a nation, because the way young women are seen is as the future mothers of the nation."

Guests in this episode:

  • Jane Nicholas is a historian at St. Jerome's university in the University of Waterloo, and author of the book,The Modern Girl.
  • Mona Gleason is a historian at the University of British Columbia, who focuses on the history of education and health care.
  • Hilary Hallett is an associate professor of history at Columbia University and the author of Go West Young Woman: The Rise of Early Hollywood.

* This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder.

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