Badass Women: Flappers

It used to be that I was incapable of appreciating the 1920s. It wasn’t just that the fashion wasn’t my jam, it was that it seemed like such a decadent time for no reason, that people were just intent on getting drunk and having a good time.

I think my ideas of the 1920s have undergone a bit of a transformation in the last year. Books like Villa America, and  Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald have opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the era.

Especially where women are concerned.

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell provided me with an opportunity to read some non-fiction about badass women of the 1920s with my new attitude.

And I loved it.


Flappers looks at the lives and loves of Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald and Tamara de Lempicka.

What’s unique about this book is that it’s as much a historical account of the time as it is a biography of these women. We only get to see these women during the decade that would make them all famous. Once it’s 1930, Mackrell more or less walks away. She lets us know what happens to all of them, of course, but only their lives from 1920-1929 are scrutinized and laid bare.

Mackrell shows us how these women chose to live lives that were bigger than what they had all known. Josephine Baker was destined to be a young mother, trapped in the ghetto she was born in, hated by her mother for her beauty. Instead, she learned how to dance and lived a life in public in Paris, adored by thousands. Tamara de Lempicka’s family left Russia after the Revolution made it impossible for her class to stay. Finding herself in Paris with a husband who did not want to work, she decided to paint. Her work (a self-portrait is featured on the cover of the book) became incredibly fashionable, a bulwark of the Art Deco style.

Lady Diana Cooper, born and bred English nobility, became a nurse in the First World War and continued to throw off the mantle of the expectations of her class when she became an actress. Tallulah Bankhead also found fame on the silver screen – known to be an outrageous personality, she was unapologetic about her sex life.

Nancy Cunard, the Cunard Line shipping heiress, devoted her life to fighting racism and fascism, became the muse of some of the 20th century’s most distinguished writers and artists (Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and James Joyce to name a few), and became a style icon. And of course Zelda struggled to step out of the shadow of her more famous husband, pushing herself with her own writing and eventually finding a kind of peace in her dancing before a nervous breakdown relegated her to hospitals.

These women were complete and total badasses before it was even possible for women to be badasses. They fought for their independence with whatever means they had, and demanded a spot in the history books. These women paved the way for others to come and demand more from this world. They were visionaries and trailblazers and I’m grateful to Judith Mackrell for putting the spotlight on them.


Famous Women

I’ve finally cracked Catherine the Great: Portait of a Woman and, 150 pages in, it is living up to every single expectation. It is terrific and well written and wonderful and educational and there are pictures! Who doesn’t love shiny pictures?


Anyway starting this book got me reflecting on all the other bios of awesome women that I have read. I have a weakness for bios about fantastic ahead-of-their-time women, as any quick perusal of my bookshelves will tell you. I have an especial weakness for royal women. And we’re not even talking about my girl crush on the new Duchess of Cambridge here (although if you have a few hours and you live near me, maybe you want to watch the Royal Wedding again? I have it on DVD. Apparently I feel like watching it 8 times over the wedding weekend wasn’t enough).

I digress.

I’ve put together a modest collection of my very favourite bios of awesome women in the hopes that at least one will strike a note with you. Because women are awesome and sometimes it behooves us to remember that.

The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann was a souvenir book I picked up over my weekend in Vienna. I kept seeing pictures of this woman in an incredible gown with diamond stars in her hair and I needed to know more. So when I saw that same picture on the cover of this book – I had to have it. The Reluctant Empress is Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was incredibly beautiful and mysterious and really did not like being the Empress. She wanted to be free and struggled against the rigid formalities of the Austrian court. It was a wonderful, slightly heartbreaking, thoroughly modern read and I loved it.

Another woman struggling against the expectations and conformities of life in the spotlight was Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. Amanda Foreman’s sympathetic and meticulously researched book about this ancestor of Princess Diana will leave you wanting more. I’m not ashamed to say that I picked this book up after seeing previews for the movie The Duchess with Keira Knightley. The movie is good, the book is better. Even Keira Knightley fails to do justice to this woman who was ahead of her time politically, romantically, even fashionably, and ended up paying a very high price for it all.

If you want to talk about high prices women have paid in history, Marie-Antoinette probably comes to mind, seeing as she lost her life for living a frivolous life at court while the French people starved in the streets. Still, Antonia Fraser’s biography paints a more sympathetic and realistic portrait of the woman who has been wrongly accused of uttering “Let them eat cake.” She was married young to a boy who ignored her for the first years of their marriage and was reviled by the people for the rest of her time. Fraser’s account takes you back through the golden days of Versailles, right through to the ignominious end of the French monarchy.

What’s better than the biography of one royal woman? Julia P. Gelardi’s book that covers five of them. Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria ably covers the incredible lives of the 5 granddaughters of Queen Victoria who each became Queens in their own right. Alexandra who married the Russian Tsar and met her tragic end in squalor, her body riddled with bullets; Marie, the beautiful flamboyant Queen of Romania who was the mother of 2 more Balkan Queens; Victoria Eugenie who was almost bombed on the parade route on her wedding day, having married the heir to the Spanish throne, passing on the haemophilia gene that so tormented her grandmother and cousin, Alexandra; Maud, who in becoming independent Norway’s Queen, spent the rest of her days pining for England; and Sophie, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s sister, daughter of an emperor and the mother of three kings and a queen who ended her life in exile. I mean come on,  you can’t make up more incredible lives than that!

My last choice is not a royal woman, but one who had a huge influence on my own young life: L.M. Montgomery. I suspect that she had a pretty important impact on Mary Henley Rubio’s life as well which is probably at least part of the reason for the exquisite Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings. Here’s what I knew about L.M. Montgomery before: she was the brilliant author of the Anne of Green Gables series which I will love for always. After finishing this book, I know that she loved the island she made famous, but hated that her work destroyed the world she loved; that she struggled with mental illness in a marriage based on convenience rather than love or respect; and that having so brilliantly captured childhood in the form of her most enduring heroine, she had nothing but trouble trying to connect with her own young sons.

I could go on but I won’t. This time. If you have another book about a famous woman you think I would love, leave it in the comments!