The drawing above is the prototypical Gibson Girl. Interestingly, her features are very delicate and feminine, and her expression is flirtatious to emphasize the idea that she was there to serve men, not threaten them.
I originally wrote this blog post last year for Women’s Equality Day. As I’ve been working on the last book of my Waxwood Series, which is set at the turn of the 20th century, the New Woman has emerged as an amazing icon in history embodied in the series protagonist, Vivian Alderdice, and in some of the women around her.
Women’s suffragism wasn’t just about politics. It was also about the psychological realities of women’s lives. Years of being locked in the cage of the separate sphere ideology made women anxious to get out. The separate spheres placed boundaries on their physical, social, emotional, and spiritual lives. When women’s rights came to the forefront, many women realized it was time to break free of those limitations, and the only way to do it was to create a new kind of woman. It should be no surprise that she emerged with the new century when America was leaving behind the cobwebs of the past and looking to a bright, shiny future.
The New Woman was born in the latter part of the Gilded Age in the wake of progressive reforms. So many changes were happening during this time — the shift from rural to urban living, the rise of big business, social and political movements — and women wanted and needed to be a part of it. This made it impossible for the Angel in the House to survive. The New Woman, in fact, pitted herself against this ideal.
She was anything but complacent, docile, and submissive. Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl” was the typical New Woman. First created in the 1890s, she was young and single, pursuing fun and leisure with as much vigor as her male companions. Gone were the layers of petticoats and bustles. Gone were the tight bone corsets that made the Angel in the House so fragile and helpless and limited her mobility. In her place was a woman who wore fewer layers, dressed in a narrow, moveable skirt and shirtwaist (the equivalent of a t-shirt in those days), and donned a corset that didn’t limit her as much as those worn by her mother and grandmother.
Her freedom went well beyond her dress. She established her own identity separate from any man’s and proved her strength not only emotionally but physically. It’s no surprise that, although the bicycle was invented in the early 19th century, bicycling was not an acceptable activity for women until the 1890s. The fussy requirements of dress and chastity in the Victorian era hardly allowed for a comfortable ride (not to mention a modest one). This changed with the Gibson Girl who was often depicted as a bicycle enthusiast. The New Woman was not only willing to take on sports but male-dominated careers as well. For example, in Gertrude Atherton’s novel Mrs. Belfame (1916), the New Woman appears as a group of reporters who cheer Mrs. Balfame on when she goes on trial for the murder of her husband. They are willing to engage in the “yellow journalism” popular among their male contemporaries at the time.
While the New Woman represented a fresh, contemporary approach to womanhood, she wasn’t necessarily a rebel. She gave women a new image, true, but one that wouldn’t threaten the male order and would, in fact, even please men. Gibson, for example, frequently pictured his ladies engaged in the art of flirtation, emphasizing the idea that, in spite of her “masculinized” appearance and manners (masculine for that time, that is), she was still “just a woman,” interested primarily in love and marriage.
In Book 1 of my series, The Specter, the New Woman first appears in the character of Marvina Moore, a widow who stirs Vivian’s interest in suffragism. As the series progresses, Vivian shifts from a debutante and heiress of the last century to a progressive reformer of the new. In Book 3, a conversation about bicycles ensues:
“You forget, Mr. Leblanc,” she said, “many young women nowadays prefer the bicycle to the scrub board.”
“Oh, that’s only a passing fad,” he insisted.
“Are you going to turn into one of those New Women, Vivian?” Amber asked archly.
The woman made it sound so much like an insult that Vivian colored. “It would be a sight more flattering than a nagging wife,” she retorted.
In Book 4, Vivian’s feet are firmly planted in New Woman territory, right down to her sensible dress and athletic prowess.
In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, the series protagonist, Adele Gossling, also emerges as a New Woman. She’s the Gibson Girl in every way, including her unhesitating involvement in crime investigation. In the opening of the first book, Adele arrives at a small town still caught inside the net of Victorian ideals in an automobile. Anyone owning a car, let alone a woman, at that time when they were still considered passing fads, was seen as more of a nuisance than an innovator.
Adele soon establishes herself in town as an independent woman who owns her own home and runs a stationery store. She prefers to help the town sheriff and his deputy (her brother) solve crimes than participate in teas and socials that were the primary occupation for women who were unmarried.
If you’d like to read The Specter, you can find all the information for the book here. You can read more about the series here. To find out more about my historical mystery series, coming in 2021, you can check out this page.
Want more fascinating information on history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!
I have double whammy goodness for you this week!
I’ve been wanting to refresh the covers for my Waxwood Series for a while. While I love the idea of classic paintings on covers (I’m all about the classics), I also realize these paintings are a flashback into the past that many readers might not be attracted to. Many of us love to look at old paintings, but they don’t always speak to who we are or what we feel today, as individuals or as an era.
I think this is especially true in the past four or five years. There have been so much rushing forward and so many changes (some good, some not so good) we’re all looking ahead at life differently, and there is no going back. We can enjoy the past for what it was, but we also have to look toward the future.
With that said, here are the new covers for Books 1, 2, and 3 of the Waxwood Series.
The Specter Photo Credit:
I discovered these marvelous seascape paintings that give off the vibes (sometimes contradictory) of Waxwood as a place (and if you’d like to read more about the real seaside town that inspired Waxwood, you can read this blog post).
The series has one last book coming out in December. It’s called Dandelions, and you can find out more about the book here. But for now, here’s the fourth and last cover for the series:
Below are links where you can find out and purchase the first three books of the series:
The Specter (right now selling for 99¢)
If you’d like to know more about the series itself, check out this page.
Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!
Title: Pathfinding Women
Series: Waxwood Series, Book 3
Author: Tam May
Genre: Historical Women’s Fiction/Family Saga
Release Date: September 13, 2020
There are paths in life we have no choice but to follow.
At the close of the nineteenth century, Vivian Alderdice is twenty-six, unmarried, and has no prospective suitors. Now the heiress of the Alderdice fortune, she has yet to fulfill her duty to her family and to society: to marry well and produce heirs.
Her brother’s tragic plight the year before left her and her mother on shaky ground with the San Francisco blue bloods of Nob Hill, and the only way they can re-establish their social position is to win the heart of Monte Leblanc, a wealthy Canadian in search of a wife and looking to become a member of the exclusive Washington Street society.
But a young man on the train tells Vivian things about her grandmother that shake her to the core. Even as she is pursued by the debonair Monte Leblanc, Vivian can’t avoid ghosts from the past who send her on a journey she is reluctant to take.
You can get your copy of the book at a special promotional price from your favorite online book retailer here.
“If the horses are his only vice,” said Mr. Leblanc with a chuckle, “I should say Miss Drysdell is very lucky indeed.”
“But it isn’t.” Cecily’s eyes widened. “Elizabeth Cornwall told me it’s all over England that his grandfather and great-great-grandfather both went mad of the drink. It was like poison to them.”
“Well, my dear, all families have their skeletons,” said Mr. Leblanc.
“Oh, that’s all fine when they are ancient ones,” said Fern. “It’s the skeletons still rattling in the closets that one must be careful of.” Her eyes slid toward Vivian.
Vivian’s hands grew cold, even though the coffee Mrs. Tisher had given her was still warm. “Perhaps there would be no need for the skeletons to rattle if families told the truth from generation to generation.”
“Yes, you are a great believer in the truth, aren’t you, Vivian?” Amber asked. “No matter what the consequences.”
“‘Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.’” Vivian quoted.
“You made that up right now?” Bethel’s voice was sour.
“I didn’t,” said Vivian, smiling. “Henry David Thoreau did.”
About the Author
Tam May started writing when she was fourteen, and writing became her voice. She loves history and wants readers to love it too, so she writes historical fiction that lives and breathes a world of the past. She fell in love with San Francisco and its rich history when she learned about its resilience and rebirth after the 1906 earthquake and fire during a walking tour. She grew up in the United States and earned a B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor (where she managed to interest a class full of wary freshmen in Henry James’ fiction) and EFL teacher (using literature to teach English to business professionals) before she became a full-time writer.
Her book Lessons From My Mother’s Life debuted at #1 on Amazon in the Historical Fiction Short Stories category. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family drama titled the Waxwood Series. The first book of the series, The Specter, came out in June 2019, and the second book, False Fathers, was released in December of that year. Book 3, Pathfinding Women will be out in September 2020, and Book 4 in December 2020.
Tam lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature, watching classic films, cross-stitching, or cooking up awesome vegetarian dishes.
Social Media Links
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