Courtship and Gender Roles

Courtship postcards can be used to understand and analyze gender relations and social norms in the U.S. at the start of the 20th-century. Studying these postcards allow deeper insight into the courtship process in all its facets, including gender roles of the time, how those roles translated to visual portrayal on the card, as well as how the images on the cards didn’t necessarily connect in any way to the message on the back. Although we think of postcards today as almost exclusively dedicated to travel or museums, these courtship postcards demonstrate their use as a medium of communication and reinforcement of gender roles.

What is Courtship?

Courtship is the period in time during which a person is trying to win the favor or affection of another, usually with the goal of marriage. The courtship process during the late 19th and early 20th centuries typically referred to a man’s attempts at wooing a woman.

Courtship in Evolution

By the Progressive Era, courtship had transitioned away from a family-led affair to becoming more individual. The result was companionate marriage, which placed importance on love, friendship, and emotional fulfillment. This was in contrast to traditional marriage practices of marrying for children or property inheritance. These postcards reflect these evolving courtship norms, featuring only the couples and no mention of family.

The Paradox

A woman was not socially allowed to appear especially keen on a man for fear of seeming unchaste and thereby damaging her pure reputation – something women were meant to maintain at all times. This made for a complicated dance, where the man was pursuing a woman who could not give him that which he was chasing.

Postcards like the ones on either side of this paragraph showcase the courtship process perfectly. To the left of the screen, the “I should like to help you” card shows the man’s attempts to win the lady over, but the postcard to the right entitled, “Be a Sport,” is an excellent example of the complicated nature of the courtship process. Here, the man is asking the woman to succumb to his attempts at wooing her. Yet, according to the rules of the courtship process and society’s rules at large, she is not allowed to do such a thing. She must resist. Therefore, the “Be a Sport” postcard expertly depicts the paradox of the process.

The New Woman and Her Publicity

A new type of womanhood emerged in the 1890s and slowly gained popularity till its peak in the 1920s. This ‘New Woman’ was independent and public, signifying wider entry of women into careers, universities, and civil society via reform movements. While the image of the New Woman was quite controversial at the time, it served as an empowering figure for women. Akin to the New Woman, postcards were also public and extended the previously private matter of courtship for all to see.

The Image of Women

Throughout history, media has both reflected and dictated the shifting beliefs and values of societies, and postcards were certainly no exception. During the early 1900s, postcards were in the higher ranking of popular media, particularly because of their accessibility and the high volumes traveling in and out of homes. In this case, it was no surprise that the typical depiction of women adhered to the traditional beliefs during this time. Interestingly, there were new ideas emerging concerning who women were (the New Woman being a prime example). With these new ideologies, some postcards depicted women in a more bold, less traditional light. In any case, popular media such as postcards had the ability to spread throughout people’s homes, and thus use the power of an image to affect their beliefs.

Sexuality

Societal norms imposed the expectation that men and women would be heterosexual and sexually active, but their sexualities were still heavily gendered. The postcard to the left is a great example of this. It shows a man and a woman taking part in the game of courtship. The man looks much more excited and active in showing his interest than the woman, but she nonetheless shows her own affection by allowing him to stare. This postcard suggests that men certainly must be forward in their pursuit of love, and women must show their own interest in a dignified, ladylike way. The suggestive imagery as well as the caption, “I like the look of things here,” assert that behavior such as this during courtship may have even been considered normal for the time.

Further Reading

Cronje, Karen. “The Female Body as Spectacle in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Western Art.” Core.ac.uk.University of Stellenbosch, Mar. 2001, core.ac.uk/download/pdf/37374962.pdf.  

Cure, Monica. “Insincerely Yours: The New Postcard and the New Woman.” In Picturing the Postcard: A New Media Crisis at the Turn of the Century, 75-116. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctv80c9gb.5.

Maloni, Ruby. “Dissonance Between Norms and Behaviour: Early 20th Century America’s ‘New Woman’.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 70 (2009): 880-86. Accessed February 20, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44147735.

Ouida. “The New Woman.” The North American Review 158, no. 450 (1894): 610-19. Accessed February 20, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25103333.

Pappas, Andrea. ““Each Wise Nymph That Angles for a Heart”: The Politics of Courtship in the Boston “Fishing Lady” Pictures.” Winterthur Portfolio 49, no. 1 (2015): 1-28. doi:10.1086/682058.

Phegley, Jennifer. “Victorian Girls Gone Wild: Matrimonial Advertising and the Transformation of Courtship in the Popular Press.” Victorian Review 39, no. 2 (2013): 129–46.

Rosenberg, Charles E. “Sexuality, Class and Role in 19th-Century America.” American Quarterly 25, no. 2 (1973): 131-53. 141.