Posted by Claudia Swain | Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Washington has always been a town that likes gossip and scandal. So, it’s probably not a surprise that turn-of-the-century Washingtonians were quite interested in vampire stories. You see, back then, “vampire” was a term for a dark, seductive woman who lured men into her poisonous embrace, sucked him dry of wealth and left him debauched and ruined – a femme fatale of the most frightening and glamorous sort.
An independent and sexual woman with power over men? Yikes! If the newspapers saw a chance to embellish an account of a ‘real vampire’, boy did they go for it.
April 1922 was a busy time for Washington socialites and the newspapers that followed them, as the city hosted no less than five national and international women’s groups in the span of a few short weeks.
DC had long been a party town (pun intended) but these gatherings provide a glimpse of the changing dynamics of womens’ political involvement during the 1920s, immediately following the passage of the nineteenth amendment. Let’s take a look at some highlights.
You’d better believe there have been "mean girls" since the beginning of time, or at least the early 1800’s. Rigid social structures dictated the behavior of Jacksonian high society; it was the height of rudeness, for instance, if a lady did not return your call. However, in a social war that engulfed the beginning of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, society’s rules were discarded and the national government ground to a halt all for one woman: the beautiful and intelligent Margaret “Peggy” O’Neil.
Around the turn of the century, Washington, D.C. had a distinct lack of single men. In any era before, the women of the city might have resigned themselves to the life of the scorned “old maid” in a corset and lived a boring existence with their parents until before finally dying. But not these ladies. No, starting in the late 1890s, many women in the capital city began to push for a more open society, pursuing higher education, living alone, and managing their own affairs. This was the dawn of the Bachelor Girl age.
Bachelor girls were a point of controversy in the Washington press. Some columnists were shocked and appalled with these independent ladies’ leaps into the future.
Women’s fashion is a complicated subject, but one doesn’t usually think of it as deadly. However, the fatal dance between health and beauty was a reality for Washington women in the 19th century.
The “corset problem,” or the “corset question” as it was called in the press, was the phenomenon of tightly lacing corsets to constrict the waistline to about 16 inches and sometimes even as small as 13 inches; basically, the smaller the better. These miniscule waists, also called “wasp waists,” were in style in the first half of the 1800s, reaching their peak in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Starting in the latter half of the century, the style began its descent and area newspapers began to debate the practice.
March is the time of year when we celebrate Women’s History and the Smithsonian has a gaggle of really exciting events prepared, starting with a special “Women’s History Month Family Day” tomorrow. Attendees will get the first look at the National Museum of American History’s special exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the National Women’s Suffrage Parade held in D.C.
It was quite a memorable occasion and not all for good reasons.
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