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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Author: tammayauthor

As soon as Tam May started writing at the age of fourteen, writing became her voice. She writes historical women’s fiction and historical cozy mysteries. She loves to take readers into the nooks and crannies of the past, and she wants to inspire readers with her resilient and autonomous female characters. Most of her fiction is set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area because she fell in love with the city and found her independence and writing voice when she lived there in the 1990s. Her book Lessons From My Mother’s Life debuted at #1 in its category on Amazon. She’s also published a Gilded age family saga set among San Francisco’s Nob Hill elite titled the Waxwood Series which follows the Alderdices as they discover their place amidst revolutionary changes and shifting values in the last decade of the 19th century. Tam’s current project is a historical cozy mystery series titled The Paper Chase Mysteries. The series takes place in Northern California at the turn of the 20th century and features amateur sleuth and epistolary expert Adele Gossling, a progressive and independent young woman whose talent for solving crimes comes into direct conflict with her new community apt to prefer the previous era's angel in the house to the current century’s New Woman. 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 yummy vegetarian dishes.