The Progressive Era’s New Woman

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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.  

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!

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DOUBLE COVER REVEAL!!! Waxwood Series Refresh + Dandelions Cover Reveal

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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.

historical fiction, series, Waxwood Series, 19th century, Gilded Age, family saga, family drama, women's fiction, coming-of-age

The Specter Photo Credit: 

The Specter Photo Credit: Portrait of Sonya Knips, Gustav Klimt, 1898, oil on canvas, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria: Aavindraa/Wikimedia Commons /PD Old 100

False Fathers Photo Credit: Karl Joseph Burkmuller, Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1830, oil on canvas, Miguelemejia/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 100)

Pathfinding Women Photo Credit: Painting of three women in white, long-sleeved dresses, Charles Perugini, 1839-1918, oil on canvas: Needpix.com /CC0

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:

historical fiction, women's fiction, Waxwood Series, series, Gilded Age, 19th century, US history, family saga, family drama

Dandelions Photo Credit: Couple painting, Dionisios Kalivokas, 1858, canvas and oil, Corfu National Gallery, Greece: File upload bot (Magnus Manske)/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 70)

Below are links where you can find out and purchase the first three books of the series:

The Specter (right now selling for 99¢)

False Fathers

Pathfinding Women

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!

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The History of Father’s Day in the United States

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Photo Credit: Story Time (Portrait Of The Artist`s Father And Daughter), Ekvall Knut, 1843-1912, taken 11 April 2013 by Plum leaves: Plum leaves/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Last month, I wrote a blog post about the history of Mother’s Day. In honor of Father’s Day, which this year will be on Sunday, June 21 in the United States, I’m taking a look back at the history of Father’s Day too.

Unlike Mother’s Day, which has definite origins, the history of Father’s Day is a little more vague. There were, in fact, two local celebrations going on during the Progressive Era that are thought to be the official kick-off of Father’s Day, both celebrated for personal reasons. In 1910, Sonora Smart Dodd, inspired by Mother’s Day, which was becoming a popular holiday at that time, campaigned in her home state of Washington for an official Father’s Day celebration in June, largely wanting to commemorate her own father, who had been a Civil War veteran and raised her and her five brothers and sisters alone on a farm when his wife died in childbirth. She succeeded, as Washington began celebrating a state-wide Father’s Day that year. The other celebration happened on a wider but no less personal scale. Two years earlier, in West Virginia, a local Methodist church in Fairmont celebrated the day in honor of 361 fathers who were killed in a local mining explosion.

But as far as official lobbying and support goes, this was slow in coming. There were national political figures, such as William Jennings Bryan and Calvin Coolidge who supported a national Father’s Day, but these recommendations didn’t get much traction. There are several reasons for this. As many of us know, Mother’s Day has becomes a commercially viable holiday and was that way from very early on. It was, in fact, its commercial appeal that helped get Woodrow Wilson to sign a proclamation declaring it a national holiday in the United States in 1914. But many felt that fathers just didn’t have the same monetary appeal as mothers, mainly because the sentiment attached to mothers from the long history of the separate spheres wasn’t attached to fathers. As I discuss here, the role of the father in the 19th and early 20th century was more of a teacher and disciplinarian. The same sentimentality also seemed to undermine the idea of the “manly man”, emphasizing the masculinity crisis, especially in the late 19th and early20th centuries. 

There were even some int he 1920’s and 1930’s who lobbied to abolish Mother’s Day and, instead, create an overarching Parent’s Day, arguing that it wasn’t the separate role of the mother, or the father, for that matter, that should be celebrated — it was the institution of parenthood that deserved the celebration (and my home country, Israel, went a step further and abolished Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the 1990’s in favor of Family Day). But the lobbying for a Father’s Day was strong and in 1972, Richard Nixon declared Father’s Day a national holiday on the third Sunday of June in the United States.

Fathers play a role in my Waxwood Series, though in a less conventional way than in most books. In False Fathers, Book 2 of the series, Jake Alderdice’s biological father is absent and, instead, his entire life had been filled with substitute father figures. It’s one of these figures that leads him to both chaos and maturity in the book.

Want to grab a copy of the book for Father’s Day? False Fathers is at a special price through Sunday. You can find out more about it and buy it at your favorite online retailer here. To find out more about the series, you can go here.    

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Classic Corner: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905)

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Photo Credit: Book cover for the Dover Thrift Edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, 2002, uploaded 6 July 2008 by Wolf Gang: Wolf Gang/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

~~~Classic Corner is a new blog post series where I talk about classic literature that I’ve read.~~~

I’m happy to announce I have a new blog series. Every now and then, I’ll be posting about a classic book I’ve read. I read a lot of classic fiction and, unlike contemporary fiction, it takes a different mindset to enjoy classic books (which will be the subject of a future blog post). I try to bring out a little of why I enjoy classic literature so much in these blog posts, and I hope readers who might be a little wary of those “old books” will see we can enjoy these books as much as readers did at the time they were published.

When I thought about how I wanted to start this series, there was no question in my mind — I had to begin with Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Wharton is one of my favorite authors, both because I love Gilded Age and Progressive Era literature, and because she is one of the godmothers of psychological fiction. Not only that, Wharton had a reputation for having been sympathetic to women’s plight and the limitations women endured in these eras, making her an early feminist writer.

The first time I read the book, I adored it. I loved the protagonist Lily Bart and saw her as a feminist character in the way she wouldn’t settle for any man, defying the Victorian ideal of the separate spheres. I also loved the descriptions of the elegant world Wharton knew, the New York elite at the turn of the century. Wharton’s novel was one of the first classic stories I read after I rejected potboiler romances in my teen years. I credit the book for beginning my love affair with classic literature.

The second time I read this book was years later while in graduate school. While my passion for the book hadn’t cooled (I still find it a page-turner), my affection for Lily Bart was a different story. By that time, I had studied quite a lot of women’s fiction and women’s history. I recognized Lily Bart as not the feminist heroine I had envisioned her the first time. I saw her as rather vain and selfish, the Victorian version of the entitlement generation. I had little patience for the ease with which she criticizes others and the snobbish airs she takes of the well-to-do New York society in which she circulates but, in terms of money and position, doesn’t really belong (the old saying, “beggars can’t be choosers” comes to mind). I was especially affected by the way she constantly puts down the one real friend she has, a working class reformer named Gerty Farish. In Lily’s eyes, Gerty is shabby, poor, and sanctimonious because she doesn’t live on Fifth Avenue, doesn’t attend afternoon teas, and works hard to help young women worse off than herself.

Photo Credit: Illustration from The House of Mirth, 1905 by A. B. Wenzell. From a scene where Lily Bart is leaving Lawrence Selden’s apartment house and passes by a woman cleaning the stairs. Note Bart’s haughty pose, as if to say “How dare this lowlife get in my way of passing on the stairs?”: Sherurcij/Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923 

My third reading of the book happened a few years ago. By then, I was a published author and working on my own Gilded Age novels depicting the upper class (though mine takes place in the West Coast rather than the East Coast). I can’t say I’ve changed my views much about what kind of character Lily Bart is. I still see her, for the most part, as self-centered and shallow, though not without other redeeming qualities (like her feminine charm and self-awareness). However, since experiencing my own characters caught up in the power of wealth and social status that identified the Gilded Age in America, I realized I had been making what is probably the biggest mistake readers make when approaching classic literature: I was reading the book from the point of view of my own time and not from the perspective of the time in which it was written. Armed with some background on the era, I now understand why she behaves the way she does, what motivates her socially and psychologically. 

Wharton was anxious to show the waste “old moneyed” New York put upon young women like Bart in order to be accepted into that society. Bart is a product not just of her time but of her social and psychological circumstances. She does what young women who wanted to belong to the exclusive circle of New York high society had to do. Beautiful, young women in Gilded Age New York were taught that their only asset was their looks and their willingness to comply and they had better make the most of these qualities while they could by snagging a rich husband. So Bart’s obsession with finding a rich husband may seem artificial by contemporary standards, but she was taught nothing else by her mother and the society in which she aspired to belong.

My interest in The House of Mirth isn’t just as a reader but also as a writer. In my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women, which is Book 3 of my Waxwood Series, the subject of marriage is very much on the minds of both Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series, and her mother, Larissa. Vivian doesn’t have the problem that Lily Bart has (no money). Her problem is more one of age. In this book, Vivian is twenty-six, and in Gilded Age high society, any young woman who wasn’t married by the age of twenty had a problem. There are also other, more personal reasons why both Vivian and Larissa are anxious to see her married.

Want to know more about this upcoming book? You can read about Pathfinding Women, which will be out in August 2020, here. If you’d like more information about the series, take a look at this page.

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Women Progressives in the Late 19th Century

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Photo Credit: Children gathered in Hull House for kindergarten, 1902, Allen B. Pond, James Addams Hull House Museum: JethroBT/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Last year, I wrote this blog post about the Progressive Era. But progressive reforms didn’t just begin the 20th century. The Gilded Age laid the groundwork in the last quarter of the 19th century, and especially its last decade when its dazzle of its excessiveness, idleness, and glitter were beginning to wear off, and Americans were becoming more aware of the political wrongs in the country that needed to be made right.

Women, mainly from the upper class social stratum (that is, wealthy and middle-class women) put themselves front and center as reformers during this time for several reasons. They took up issues they felt were of particular concern to, and in the domain of, women, such as sanitation, health and safety, and child labor. They saw reform as more about social problems than political problems (so they were not necessary suffragists, though the suffragists were certainly concerned about these issues as well). These women were social reformers who preferred to work within the woman’s sphere — that is, unlike the suffragists, who could rub the public the wrong way with their demand for a voice in public arenas such as politics, business, and law, women progressives preferred to work in areas that were more private. 

A myriad of social changes were happening in America during the last decade of the 19th century. One of them was the economic criss brought on by the Panic of 1893. In the wake of this panic, slums in big cities like New York and Chicago grew, as well as the population of the poor elsewhere in America. Added to this, immigration increased during this time (with the opening of Ellis Island), and conflicts between laborers and employers signaled a growing concern for the rights and conditions of working women and children.

Much of this social reform took place in the settlement houses largely run by middle-class women that offered a host of services for poor and working class people in urban communities. Probably the most famous of these was Hull House in Chicago, run by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. But there were others all over the country.

Photo Credit: Telegraph Hill from Sacramento and Powell Streets, 1858-1900, Thomas Houseworth & Co., Publishers: New York Public Library/Public Domain

Since I deal with San Francisco and the Bay Area in my books, I went seeking information about settlement houses in the city in the late 19th century and found that the first one that operated was very similar to Hull House. Located on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill (one of the most picturesque areas of the city), the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center opened its doors in 1890 in response to the area’s growing immigrant population and its neighborhood children being pulled out of school and play for work, Elizabeth Ashe and Alice Griffith, like Addams and Gates, were educated New Women who responded to the growing needs of the neighborhood after they got to know some of its children through their teaching of Sunday school. Like Hull House, their objective was to offer residents a myriad of social improvements, from education to physical activity. The center offered classes for children and adults and also a library, as well as a playground and gymnasium, encouraging nurture of the mind and body, as well as the soul.

In Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, women progressives make an appearance in two ways. First, there is a group called the Bay Area Women’s Social and Political Rights League made up primarily of wealthy women to which Vivian Alderdice, the main character of the series, was introduced in Book 2 by one of the Washington Street blue bloods, Marvina Moore. Vivian also meets some New Women in the book through Annette Grace, a Waxwood native who owns a pharmacy/drug store in town. Though from different classes, both these groups are concerned with women laborers and their situation in the late 19th century, and both are looking to implement social changes as the nation moves into a new century.

Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women, will be out this summer, and you can find out more about it here. And to find out more about the series, go here.      

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