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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Author: tammayauthor

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes historical and contemporary fiction about characters who must examine their past and the time in which they live to move on to the future. Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga, of which the first book, The Specter, is now available for preorder. She is also working on a historical mystery featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman female sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California. She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.

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