The New Woman of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries in America

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The drawing above is the prototypical Gibson Girl — young, wearing a shirtwaist (button-down white shirt), sensible and athletic skirt and jacket and hat. Interestingly, her features are very delicate and feminine and her expression is flirtatious so as to emphasize the idea that she was there to serve men, not threaten them.

Photo Credit: Gibson Girl, Charles Dana Gibson, 1901, pen and ink drawing, published in The Social Ladder (1902) by Charles Dana Gibson: MCAD Library/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Last week, I wrote about American women’s suffragism in the 19th century, in honor of the 99th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment in America which allowed women in all states to vote. This week is Women’s Equality Day, the day that celebrates when the amendment actually went into effect. So, continuing the discussion of women’s rights, which is so prevalent in my fiction, I’m talking this week about the sort of women who epitomized the new type of woman that was emerging in the 20th century.   

Suffragism, the right to vote, might seem to be just about politics, but it really isn’t. It’s almost as much about the psychological realities of the group which it affects as it is about their political and social rights. In the case of women, the past offered them many years locked in the cage of the separate sphere ideology. The separate spheres placed boundaries on women that permeated not only their physical lives but their emotional and spiritual lives as well. When women’s suffragism came to the forefront and, with it, awareness that women needed to break free of the limitations put upon their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, it was only natural that a new kind of woman should emerge at the turn of the century. 

The New Woman was the name given to young women who came of age in the latter part of the Gilded Age and in the Progressive Era. In the wake of so many changes happening during these times — the shift from rural to urban living for many Americans, the rise of big business, the awareness of the need for political reforms — women wanted and needed to be more active in public life. This made it impossible for the “angel in the house” ideal so prevalent in Victorian women to survive. In fact, the New Woman pitted herself against this ideal hanging over the head of her female ancestors, rejecting the ideals of complacency, docility, and submissiveness that characterized Victorian true womanhood for much of the 19th century.

The New Woman was anything but these things.  Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson first created her in the 1890’s in women’s magazines such as Ladies Home Journal as young and single, pursuing fun and leisure with as much right and vigor as her male companions. The physical image of the Gibson Girl (pictured above) was also a psychological one. Gone were the layers of petticoats, the bustles, the tight bone corsets of the Victorian woman that made her look demure but limited her mobility considerably (a physical constraints that mirrored the psychological one). In her place was a woman whose skirt was narrower and freer, who wore less layers, dressed in a button-down shirt rather than a tight bodice blouse, and wore a much lighter corset that didn’t limit her mobility as much as the corsets worn by her mother and grandmother.

Her freedom extended well beyond her dress. She used her liberty to establish her own identity separate of any man’s, and prove her strength not only emotionally but physically as well. 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 1890’s, because the fussy dress in which they were expected to present themselves as True Women didn’t allow for a comfortable ride. That changed with the Gibson Girl, who was often depicted as a bicycle enthusiast. In addition, 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 in the form of women reporters who cheer Mrs. Balfame on when she is on trial for the murder of her husband. They are willing to stoop to the type of “yellow journalism” popular among their male contemporaries at the time.

However, while the New Woman represented a fresh, contemporary approach to womanhood, she wasn’t necessarily a rebel. That is, she gave women a new image to look up to but not one that would threaten the male order. In fact, she offered an alternative femininity to their mothers and grandmothers that would benefit their male counterparts, not take away from them. Gibson, for example, frequently pictured his ladies engaged in the art of flirtation and romance, establishing that despite her “masculinized” appearance and manners (for that time, that is), she was still “just a woman,” out for love and marriage.

As I’ve mentioned before, women’s suffragism and women’s rights play only a small role in my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series. One of my characters, Marvina Moore, is a suffragist and helps Vivian discover her own dedication to women’s rights in the series. But neither women are New Women, though one could predict that Vivian won’t be far off at the end of the series when the Progressive Era comes around.    

However, in my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, the series protagonist, Adele Gossling, is this type of New Woman. She is the Gibson Girl image in her manner and dress and also in her life. The opening of the first book has Adele arriving to the small town of Arrojo, California, a town still caught inside the net of Victorian ideals as many small towns were at the turn of the 20th century, in a Model A Ford. A woman owning an automobile in 1903 would have been a rare thing! She soon establishes herself in town as an independent woman who owns her own home and runs her own stationary shop and prefers to help her deputy brother and the town sheriff solve crimes than participate in the type of social events of women of her class that were meant for one purpose and one purpose only — to allow young women to meet young men and eventually marry.

To find out more about my upcoming historical mystery series, you can check out this page. If you’d like to know more about Vivian and Marvina, you can read The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series. You’ll find information and buy links here.

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The Struggle for The Vote: Women’s Suffragism in America

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Photo Credit: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the godmothers of the women’s suffragist movement, in the Gilded Age, 1891, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: Taterian/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired

Last week, on August 18, to be exact, was the 99th anniversary of the day that the 19th amendment (giving women the right to vote) was ratified in America. I have written many times in my blog posts about the fact that women’s social and psychological position in history is of paramount interest to me and plays a role often in my fiction. This is true of The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series. I talk more about that in my blog post about why I write women’s fiction.

So in honor of the day, I thought I’d look into women’s suffragism in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the amendment was ratified, which was in 1920. First, we must distinguish between women’s suffragism and women’s rights, because they are actually not the same thing. The former refers only to the political right for women to vote. The latter, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses more specific political, social, economical, and psychological aspects of women’s freedom to act and be. Once women got the right to vote, women’s suffragism was no longer necessary, but the fight for other rights for women was and still is.

Why were women so concerned about getting the right to vote in the 19th century? Actually, they weren’t — no at the beginning, that is. By the “beginning”, I mean the 1840’s when the idea of women’s suffrage was first formed. The Seneca Falls Convention is generally considered the birth of the women’s suffragist movement and for good reason. It was the first time women organized to discuss their rights and make decisions as to what they wanted to accomplish in their efforts to ensure women were seen and treated as free and equal beings. The convention participants made eleven resolutions to this effect, all of which you can read fully here. What is interesting to me is that these resolutions keep within the framework of the separate spheres. Women were expected to remain in the private sphere, that is in the home and church, perceived as “angels in the house” — virtuous, morally superior to men, and too fragile to handle the dog-eat-dog world of the public sphere. The majority of resolutions don’t challenge this perception and in fact ask for equal and respectful treatment of women in their own sphere. There is one exception — Resolution #9, which declares the right of women to vote. Not surprisingly, this was the only resolution to stirred up controversy and was not voted unanimously by the participants. It may have been that the idea of women having a voice in the public sphere was too revolutionary to consider at that time.

However, in the Gilded Age, the idea of women having the vote started to become feasible in the minds of many women suffragists. Women’s political organizations began to form in the 1870’s specifically geared toward pushing government to pass an amendment allowing women to vote. Several women, including Susan B. Anthony, one of the godmothers of the Seneca Falls Convention, boldly went to the polls to vote and were turned away. Anthony succeeded in voting and was arrested for doing so. Women filed lawsuits but the Supreme Court ruled in 1875 to reject women’s suffragism as a right, claiming that the constitution does not grant suffragism to any group, including women. 

Women suffragism had many detractors, both male and female, and caricatures abounded in the papers. Here’s one where the supposed horrific consequences of giving women the vote is depicted, with women lining up to vote for the “Celebrated Man Tamer” while the harassed-looking man at the end of the line has a baby thrust in his arms to allow his wife to vote.

Photo Credit: The age of brass. Or the triumphs of women’s rights, Currier & Ives, 1869, lithograph, New York: Churchh/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

After this failure, women suffragist groups took a different tactic, one that is distinctly American. They figured that if they could lobby individual state legislators so that laws were passed granting women the vote in individual states, the federal government would soon follow. They were right, though it took about forty years. But by 1920, when the 19th amendment was ratified, according to the U.S map here, about three-quarters of the states had either granted full voting rights to women or partial voting rights. 

Many of us have heard of the guerrilla tactics used by women suffragists in Great Britain which were dramatized in the 2015 film Suffragette. Interestingly, American suffragists used less militant tactics to reach their goal. They mainly lobbied, petitioned, and picketed. This is not to say some didn’t experience their fair share of violence, though. One infamous example is the 1917 Night of Terror, where women’s picketing the White House led to torture and violence when they were jailed. However, a year later, the courts ruled that jailing suffragists was unconstitutional, and, two years later, women in all states in the nation gained full voting rights.

Women suffragism doesn’t play a big role in terms of the political stage in the Waxwood Series, though there are certainly stirrings of it. A minor character in the series, a wealthy widow named Marvina Moore, befriends Vivian and becomes a supporter of suffragism, educating Vivian as the series progresses. In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, women’s suffragism plays a more active role in Adele’s character, especially her views on the more militant aspects of the movement. 

To learn more about The Specter and order a copy, go here. To learn more about the Waxwood Series, you can take a look at this page on my website. If you like mysteries and are interested in finding out more about The Paper Chase Mysteries, you can do so here.   

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American Reform and Progress at the Turn of the 20th Century

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Although this cartoon refers specifically to only one of the reforms during the Progressive Era (women’s suffragism), it is visually a great example of what was going on with all reforms during this time.

Photo Credit: Political cartoon about suffrage in the United States. Four women supporting suffrage on a steamroller crushing rocks “opposition”. Illustration in Judge, v. 72, 1917 March 17, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: Unsubtlety/ Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923

I’ve talked a lot about The Gilded Age here and here because much of the Waxwood Series takes place during this time but also because the excess, glitz, and innovation of that age fascinates me. The Gilded Age led into the turn of the 20th century which proved to be as significant, if not more so, for American society, politics, and culture, than the era before it. If, according to humorists Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, the last quarter of the nineteenth century in America were gilded, the start of the new century tarnished that image somewhat. We might even venture to say that the progressive reforms of the turn of the 20th century came as a sort of backlash to the decades preceding it.

Life was good in America after the financial shock wore off from Panic of 1873. America was making a name for itself on the world stage, and there was promise and hope for a better life for most people with new inventions and attitudes. But the era also had a dark side. Excess was the name of the game, especially for those who became millionaires for the first time in their lives and had no qualms about flaunting their new wealth and social standing. Social and economic divides were becoming more prevalent and consumerism and commercialism more important to American life. Wheeling and dealing in politics and business ran rampant, and things were out of control. 

Enter the Progressive Era. There had always been civic-minded reformers, largely white and middle-class, who vocalized their concern as to the consequences of Gilded Age extravagance but at the turn of the 20th century, there began more aggressive push for the government to pass laws and make reforms. While much of this was positive, these reform had hidden agendas, kinks in the road, and unanticipated consequences.

Political reforms spring to mind when we talk about the Progressive Era, of course, like government clean-ups and the fight for the vote for women. But, as my fiction involves more social and psychological history, I prefer to focus on these issues in light of turn-of-the-century reforms. 

The settlement house movement was one of the best known reforms of the era. Settlement houses conjure visions of white, middle-class women whose privileged lives and separate sphere ideals left them with little space in which to exercise their energies. One of the few outlets for nineteenth century women to show their creativity, learning, and efficiency was in aiding those in need. But settlement houses were about more than this. They set out to educate the working-class with the goal of giving them skills they needed to get better jobs and build better lives for themselves. This included not only practical subjects such as reading and writing but also more culture-oriented topics like art appreciation and music. These well-meaning women, though, were not without their hidden agenda, which was to “Americanize” the largely immigrant population which they served. Many of their teachings was firmly grounded in white middle-class values and beliefs that these women held to be true and right. There was not the awareness of or respect for other cultures that we have today. In other words, the settlement houses offered help and education in exchange for acceptance of a narrow view of American life and values that was based on a privileged population.

One of these white, middle-class beliefs was that a pretty environment bred pretty thoughts and manners. Since urbanization grew rapidly in the second half of the 19th century, these reformers abhorred the filth and neglect of city streets and slums, and lobbied for better sanitation and housing conditions. They also started the City Beautiful movement. It’s no coincidence many city parks we have today were established in the late-19th century. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, was conceived in the 1860’s, but construction began to fall into place from the 1880’s when this movement was in its infancy. Of course, there were detractors of the movement who argued that these reforms were meant more for the eyes of the middle-class and did nothing to address some of the real issues many Americans living in the cities were facing, like shameful house conditions and lack of sanitation. 

Photo Credit: Photo of Modernist author Djuna Barnes (working as a reporter) being force fed, like so many of the suffragists of the Progressive Era with the headline for her article, “How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed”. World Magazine, 6 September 1914: Celithemis~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Many of my protagonists are women, so it’s no surprise women’s suffragism plays a big role in my fiction just as it did in the Progressive Era. Suffragism started to gain ground in the late 19th century after a hiatus of sorts from mid-century reformers and, indeed, this movement plays a role in several books of the Waxwood Series. At the turn of the twentieth century, women across the country were protesting the social and psychological limitations placed on them. Many of their guerrilla tactics are now more familiar to us since the film Suffragette was released in 2015. One of the most revealed articles that gave people a glimpse of what the suffragists went through was written in 1914 by Djuna Barnes who later became an icon of Modernist literature. The article describes in detail what it was like for these women reformers, who often went on hunger strikes to protest their treatment by government authorities and police, to be force-fed, one of the hallmarks of the more radical tenants of suffragism.

While the Waxwood Series is set somewhat earlier than the height of the Progressive Era, my upcoming historical mystery series puts Adele Gossling, its main protagonist, right in the center of these reforms. As a young, outspoken woman of this era, she embraces suffragism and other reforms and, in fact, earns the stigma of being a “radical” from some of the more Victorian-minded people living in Arrojo, a small town where she resides after her father’s death. She helps the police solve crimes, many of which are form fitted to the era and expose some of its rising tensions.

To find out more about this upcoming series, you can check out this page.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, go here. The first book of the series can be found here.

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