The New Woman and Her New Education


In the second book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, the theme is education. Millie Gibb, the murder victim, is a teacher for an all-girls school in Arrojo (which readers of Book 1 will know well). She’s a good teacher but she has higher aspirations. She wants to be an etymologist (a word expert) and she even intends to study the subject under a prominent (fictional) professor in the field. Millie is, like many New Women of her time, college-educated. In fact, a fellow occupant at the boarding house where she lives remarks her college education makes her stand-offish to the rest of the boarders.

I’ve always been interested in women’s education but I was reminded of it recently when I found the 1988 mini-series The Murder of Mary Phagan (if you love historical mini-series, you can catch the entire thing, commercials included, on YouTube here) The mini-series is based on a true story of a 14-year-old factory girl in Atlanta who was found murdered in 1913 and the trial that took place. In the film, the prosecuting attorney discredits a character witness from Columbia University who attests the defendant (a young man) treated people with kindness and respect by pointing out that, since Columbia University was not co-ed, the man had no chance of observing how the defendant treated women (which is an important part of the case against him).

Photo Credit: Postcard of Columbia University campus 1903 (a good 80 years before the college became co-ed), New York Public Library: NYPL’s Public Domain Archive/CC0 1.0

It wasn’t only Columbia University that barred women from its ranks (it didn’t become co-ed until 1983) but many other universities in the country. While public schools had been co-ed for a while, colleges in America were much slower in embracing women amongst their ranks. A lot of this had to do with the idea of the separate spheres (remember, a woman’s destiny was home, family, and church – not higher education). It also had to do with the perception that women were “too delicate” for the rigors of college study. It was generally thought if a woman had too much knowledge, she would be less appealing to men in the marriage market. We can write these off as utter nonsense (or whatever colorful word you want to use) today, but back then, it was taken very seriously.

We have only to look at the statistics to see how true this is. In 1900, about 19% of students in colleges across the United States were women. And note that in the 19th century especially, many women might enter college but they weren’t allowed to graduate or earn a degree. They could take classes only. Thankfully, as the New Woman began to advocate for a more well-rounded vision of femininity (one that included education) and women fought for their rights, increased opportunities for education became part of the agenda and that number increased. By 1920, 39% of college students were women. And this year, a whopping 74% of enrollees were women! From 19% to 75% is pretty impressive.

See how women’s education plays out in A Wordless Death, which you can get here

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Boston Marriages and The New Woman


This month is LGBTQ+Pride month so let’s talk about Boston marriages. 

These were not really marriages (that is, legally) and they weren’t always in Boston. The term came from Henry James’ novel The Bostonians, published in 1886. This book (made into a film almost 100 years later starring Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Reeve) tells the story of women’s suffrage and the New Woman from a man’s point of view. In it, the very prim and proper spinster Olive takes under her wing a free-spirited, charismatic speaker named Verena with the intent of educating her and grooming her as a leader of the suffragist movement. Their affectionate and mutually respectful relationship is challenged by Olive’s Southern cousin, a Civil War veteran who is not exactly a believer in women’s lib.

James’ novel is set in Boston and depicts the Olive/Verena relationship as a kind of intellectual marriage of minds — hence, Boston Marriage. But Olive and Verena’s relationship wasn’t exclusive to fiction. In fact, James took the model for their relationship from his own sister. Alice James lived in a Boston Marriage with her companion Katharine Loring for almost twenty years.

Photo Credit: Alice James (reclining) and her companion Katharine Loring, 1890, Royal Leamington Spa in England, unknown source, unknown author: Elisa.rolle/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 70 expired

To understand the appeal of Boston Marriages, we want to go back to the philosophy of the separate spheres that dominated the 19th and early 20th centuries. Women were confined to a very small space and expected to remain there, physically, mentally, and intellectually. Women who had intelligence, wit, and charisma were oftentimes encouraged not to express it, and those who did have the courage to be themselves were oftentimes ridiculed and mocked.

Women who entered a Boston Marriage, which means they created a domestic partnership where they shared a home, finances, and an emotionally attached relationship, sought to be respected and revered for their intelligence. It was no wonder many of them were New Women, as the ideals and values of New Women fit in with the Boston Marriage perfectly. These were women who were independent in mind and spirit, usually financially well off (so they didn’t need a man to support them), educated, and intellectually curious. They knew they had a lot to give and chose to give it to a female partner instead of a male one.

The question debated for years about these domestic arrangements is: Were they lesbian relationships too? Many say there is evidence from passionate correspondences that many did have a sexual component. However, one thing to remember is the line between romance and friendship wasn’t as tightly drawn in the 19th century as it is in the 21st. If you look at letters written between women friends, and even men friends, during this period, you’ll likely find language we would consider appropriate only for a romantic partner nowadays. So romantic language was not always evidence of romance during this time. 

The likely answer to this question is: Some of the relationships were sexual and some were platonic, and because of the taboo put on same-sex love in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we’ll probably never know which ones were and which ones weren’t. 

Boston Marriages were one way out of the conventional path for many intelligent and independent women. They had the companionship they deserved and were able to pursue their own values without being expected to behave in certain ways that they found constricting and inauthentic to them.

Between Adele Gossling, my protagonist for the Adele Gossling Mysteries, and Nin Branch, her sidekick, there exists not a Boston Marriage (Adele lives with her brother while Nin prefers to live on her own) but the same respect and reverence for women’s intelligence and wit. Each woman honors the strengths of the other and encourages her in her talents. They give one another emotional support and comfort throughout the series, especially when faced with the more restrictive mindsets of men like Jackson, Adele’s brother, and the county sheriff.

Book 1 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries is out and you can pick it up here at a special price. And don’t forget to check out Book 2 of the series, which is now on preorder also at a special price!

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The Progressive Era’s New Woman

history, women, Victorian era, Progressive era, turn-of-the-century, New Woman, Gibson Girl

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.

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

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.  

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