Two separate arcs revolving around Nucky Thompson’s wife Margaret as well as his mistress Billie Kent reflect the changing roles of women and attitudes toward sex during the Roaring 1920s. Kent’s evolving career also reveals the emergence of feature films during the crucial decade.
After she sees a woman lose a baby in the hospital she supports early in the season, Margaret became involved in efforts to educate women about sex and pregnancy. Her plans, however, are complicated by the fact that she is working within the confines of a Catholic hospital. In “The Pony,” It turns out the woman’s health problems revolved around an attempt to end her pregnancy before it came to term. Despite her husband’s desires, she doesn’t want any more children and asks Margaret to help her acquire a diaphragm. Margaret complies and asks a doctor friend for two, one for the woman and another for herself. Margaret’s personal request is likely an attempt to facilitate her own affair with Nucky’s partner in crime, Owen Slater.
Indeed, family size declined as the use of contraception rose in the early 20th century. In 1900, the average woman mother gave birth to 3 or 4 children. By 1920, this number had fallen to 2 or 3. Enabled by contraception as well the greater anonymity provided by big city life, more and more people also engaged in premarital sex.
As a flapper living on her own, Billie Kent also reveals key aspects of gender roles during the era. More and more women had their own dwellings as ¼ to 1/3 of women lived in private apartments. When Nucky offers Billie financial security for life, she responds like a stereotypical “New Woman” of the time, saying, “I’m on my own… I have been for years…I like it.”
After Nucky muscled an actor to perform in Kent’s play on Broadway, she also moves into the burgeoning film industry. Following the success of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in 1915, movies boomed after World War I as ticket sales doubled and 20,000 new theaters were built. As portrayed in last year’s Oscar-winning movie “The Artist,” the exaggerated movements of silent film can be seen in Kent’s tryout. See href> http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2012/02/artist-and-hollywoods-golden-age.html” for more on cinema in the 1920s.
Kent’s fate is uncertain at the end of the episode and Nucky’s involvement in Washington politics intensifies during this episode. With 5 episodes left, It seems season three is heading toward a compelling conclusion.