It is unrealistic to talk about just one American society in the 1920’s. It was a time where there was infact an extremely divided society, which was not only divided in terms of wealth and area, but also in the way that people were treated. It was divided geographically, in terms of religion, the rights of different people, in the workplace etc. There had previously been a divide between the north and the south, and between the rich and the poor, but the boom period in America made this divide even more distinct.
For many people the “roaring twenties” were about shorter working hours, higher pay, and more leisure. But, there was also a large percentage of the population who did not boom. The main two different societies were the north and the south. They differed in culture, and in economic systems. The north was the area which did see the twenties as “roaring” and the south was somewhat left behind. Access to the car opened people up to many new possibilities for entertainment, and there were also many labour saving machines such as the washing machine.
There was a developing interest in games, and music and dancing, and new fashions emerged but this tended to be in the industrialised north – an ideal place for new business to begin, leaving the agricultural south behind. Due to the laissez-faire government, big business was allowed a free-reign so people were better off. But the area that needed the most attention was also ignored. The government were not helping those who needed it, creating a much bigger divide between the rich and the poor. What with the end of the war, and prohibition much less wheat was needed.
Farmers were the main group who did not prosper in the boom period. In the 1920’s there were still 6million families on less than $1000 per year and 60% of families were on less than $2000. However, there was also an increase in millionaires; in 1914, there were 7,000 millionaires and by 1928, this number had increased to 35,000! Not everyone in the North was rich though, many black people moved there in search of a better life – and even though they were treated differently, and weren’t living in as extreme poverty as if they were in the south, they still found life difficult, and were definitely not rich.
The WASPs, (white Anglo-Saxon protestants) were the core of the American culture, and they were the people who DID want “one American society”. They wanted the whole population to be like them, and wanted to get rid of anyone who wasn’t protestant. They were the people who really saw the boom, but felt threatened by anyone different to them. They wanted the “American Dream”. A group called the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) had been set up in the mid 19th century and was reformed in 1915 in Georgia, partly as a reaction to the mass immigration that America had been seeing.
They believed anyone who was different was inferior and resented these people’s new freedom and power. It targeted anybody who was seen to be undermining the government including Jews, Catholics, Trade Unions, Mexicans, blacks, etc and their aim was to preserve the WASPs. They showed lack of tolerance, but if they had gained what they wanted, then there would have been just one society. One group of people who stood in the way of the WASPs were the immigrants.
They were harshly discriminated against, as they were threatening the “ideal” American society, and were taking away jobs for the Americans. The Red Scare was a trigger for the prejudice in America, as people were frightened that communism may spread to them. The uneasy feeling was represented by the number of strikes and then the Palmer raids. The president wanted to track down any radicals and set up a special division called the anti-subversive division of the justice department.
The raids were aimed at the union meetings, private homes and infact anything that was remotely controversial or a potential threat. In 1920, 6000 people were rounded up and put into prison or deported. The effect of these raids was to divide American beliefs – those who thought immigrants were a threat, and those who believed that they contribute to society. The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti was also important as it highlighted the divisions and prejudice that was around.
They were given the death penalty after an unfair trial of robbery and murder, and were refused a re-trial, just because they were anarchists, anti-war and Italian. They were victims of the discrimination and also of the conservative political mood of the time. If there had been just one society in America, then they would have been treated much more fairly. There were even two quota acts, in 1921, and then again in 1924. This ceased the mass immigration to a halt and represented a sharp break from the past in terms of ideology.
America could no longer be seen as the “melting pot”. The black Americans also saw unfair treatment at this time, as they were another threat to the white Protestants. Many whites felt that their jobs and homes were being threatened, after there was an increasing number of black people migrating to the cities in order to try and escape persecution and unfair treatment. However, there was a lot of racial hatred all over the USA, not just in the southern states, and the rapid migration caused much racial tension.
There was a housing shortage and so blacks tended to congregate in ghettos and living in poor conditions and poor health. This lead to an extremely divided society in terms of black and white neighbourhoods and aggravated tension further leading to race riots etc. Another opponent to the WASPs, was the factor of religion. People who were not protestant were discriminated against. People were turning to religion to protect themselves from immoralities in the cities, and there was growth of “fundamentalists” religion. Fewer people were attending church, but many churches had huge congregations.
It became a controversial topic, which was made even stronger after Darwin’s theory of evolution was published. The Scopes Trial came very much at a time where there were conflicts between rural, traditional ideas and evolving cities. Darwin challenged religion and gave a contrasting view to the one put forward in the Old Testament. He argues that species were not created by God, but in fact evolved. It caused much debate within religious circles and became a huge issue to fundamentalists as it goes against their entire belief.
In 1921 a law was passed forbidding the teaching of evolution in school, and when John T Scopes decided to go against this and teach it, he was taken to trial. This trial became a huge media event and was the first trial to be reported all over the world. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. After this, support for fundamentalists died down but the idea of white supremacy remained, and was reflected in the treatment to blacks and immigrants. It was an example of the splitting society and conflict. For women, the twenties did show some signs of hope. Women gained confidence and began to show signs of confidence.
A group called NAWSA was set up in 1890 and it regained more support in the 1910’s, and women were on a quest for political emancipation. Their efforts paid off in 1920 when the vote to women became law in the 19th amendment. But, many women didn’t know how to use this, and most women didn’t want the vote anyway. More and more women were entering the professions, and there was a large increase in the number of women in higher education. However, education did not necessarily mean access to the professions, and society for women was only improving in a limited way.
They kept to the more traditional jobs such as teaching and nursing and even if they were in the same job as a male, such as law, they were paid much less. They didn’t really have a voice, so it was arguable whether or not they were making much progress. Therefore, in a way, it was one society, but it was far from united. People were all governed under the same laws and had the same president but within that there was a lot of discrimination and conflicts between people, areas and ideas, which split the whole community into pieces.