The flapper’s a “young bird unable to rise in flight” (c. 1917)


During the late-1910s, Winona Wilcox was a syndicated columnist called by The Day Book, “a writer of the human heart.” Writing during the Great War and the peak of the women’s suffrage movement, her articles were witty and sarcastic, and on the topics of marriage and womanhood, in some ways, progressive. Though still constrained by the conservatism of the time, Wilcox advocated for female economic independence and co-equal marriage. Given her pedestal, her work was often the first exposure many readers had to these developing ideas.

In this article from January 10, 1917, she plays the role of social observer, reporting on a new phenomenon that would become the major trend of the next decade: the flapper. Marking an end of the Victorian Woman, this was a new femininity Zelda Fitzgerald embodied and her husband F. Scott immortalized in This Side of Paradise (1920). This was a postwar woman: independent, unconventional, self-expressive. The flapper was, in Wilcox’s words, “more nearly the equal of the male than at any other age, and … very apt to let him know it.”

As one of the earliest attempts to define the “flapper,” it’s worth reading.


WOMEN OF 1917 – THE “FLAPPER”

By Winona Wilcox

“Flapper” will doubtless prove the most abused word in the list of 1917 names of feminine types.

We Americans do remarkable stunts with other peoples’ languages: we change the final “o” in kimono to an “a” and congratulate ourselves on improving the ancient Japanese; we pronounce the first syllable of lingerie as if it were spelled “long” and feel that no Parisian could do better; and we have already misconstrued the English flapper before we have become acquainted with the true type.

The “flapper” originated in English society a dozen years ago. She is jus becoming known in this country, mainly as having given a smart name to certain fashions for girls.

In her native land, the flapper is an honest, talkative, critical and very active girl, 15 or 16 years old. She has no respect whatever for her brother’s opinions and she makes fun of his friends or quarrels with them.

And she is not the least sentimental, outwardly. Probably the flapper does dream of herself as a Sleeping Beauty, and of a Prince Charming who has already started to search the world for her; and perhaps it is because she cannot reconcile her prince with the kind of young man she knows that she is so unnecessarily sarcastic.

Her indifference to the opposite sex makes her most irritating to all young gentlemen. She is a good sportswoman, she goes in for the game and not for the clothes and often she can beat a male opponent. She takes honors in school, too.

She is more nearly the equal of the male than at any other age, and she is very apt to let him know it. This little trait does not add to her popularity with the boys, but it does give them a good excuse for ridiculing the flapper.

Persons who apply the word to the rouged, coiffured, fantastically dressed and precociously sentimental little girls who vulgarize modern ideals of maidenhood are maltreating a very good bit of slang. Its derivation doubles its significance: in the English sportsman’s vocabulary a flapper is a young bird unable to rise in flight, especially a young wild duck.

The term is almost exactly descriptive of the delightfully innocent little girl who is, properly, a flapper. It is a pity that the genus is so rare in America. When a young girl begins to rouge, she ceases to be a flapper — she has learned to fly!

And isn’t it the misfortune of American girls that they learn this — at least, too early?

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