New Woman  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The New Woman was a feminist ideal that emerged in the final decades of the 19th century in Europe and North America.

Definition

It was a reaction to the gender role, as characterized by the so-called Cult of Domesticity, ascribed to women in the Victorian era. Advocates of the New Woman ideal were found among novelists, playwrights, journalists, pamphleteers, political thinkers and suffragettes. Men and women who favoured the new cause gathered, for example, in the Fabian Society in the United Kingdom, a precursor of the Labour Party. The supporters' aim was to encourage women to liberate themselves from male domination, manage their lives and leave behind anything that might restrict their pursuit of happiness and self-realization. Heavily opposed by conservatives, the New Woman movement started to fade away in the course of the First World War when, due to a shortage of "manpower", many women took on jobs and when, shortly after the war, universal suffrage was achieved.

Certain characteristics were seen as pertinent to the new ideal. By general consent, a "New Woman" was supposed

  • to have received an adequate education (primary, secondary and preferably also tertiary) and to be able to use her knowledge wisely;
  • to earn money and thus be financially independent;
  • to participate in political discussion and decision-making;
  • to decide herself if, when and whom she wants to marry and how many children she wants to have;
  • to show outward signs of being different by wearing more comfortable clothes, see rational dress;
  • and, generally, to defy convention and social norms in order to create a better world for women.

Not all proponents of the New Woman went equally far in their demands. For example, while it was generally acknowledged that the Victorian moral code and in particular double standards of morality must be abandoned, the concept of free love was by no means universally advocated.

In fiction, Victoria Cross's Anna Lombard (1901) and H. G. Wells's Ann Veronica (1909) ("this poisonous book", according to The Spectator) are just two of the classic New Woman novels, whereas Grant Allen's The Woman Who Did (1895) was a controversial contribution. In drama, Henry Arthur Jones's play The Case of Rebellious Susan (1894) deserves mentioning in this context. Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) also deserves mention.

Quotation

[…] The finest achievement of the new woman has been personal liberty. This is the foundation of civilization; and as long as any one class is watched suspiciously, even fondly guarded, and protected, so long will that class not only be weak, and treacherous, individually, but parasitic, and a collective danger to the community. Who has not heard wives commended for wheedling their husbands out of money, or joked because they are hopelessly extravagant? As long as caprice and scheming are considered feminine virtues, as long as man is the only wage-earner, doling out sums of money, or scattering lavishly, so long will women be degraded, even if they are perfectly contented, and men are willing to labor to keep them in idleness!

Although individual women from pre-historic times have accomplished much, as a class they have been set aside to minister to men's comfort. But when once the higher has been tried, civilization repudiates the lower. Men have come to see that no advance can be made with one half-humanity set apart merely for the functions of sex; that children are quite liable to inherit from the mother, and should have opportunities to inherit the accumulated ability and culture and character that is produced only by intellectual and civil activity. The world has tried to move with men for dynamos, and "clinging" women impeding every step of progress, in arts, science, industry, professions, they have been a thousand years behind men because forced into seclusion. They have been over-sexed. They have naturally not been impressed with their duties to society, in its myriad needs, or with their own value as individuals.

The new woman, in the sense of the best woman, the flower of all the womanhood of past ages, has come to stay — if civilization is to endure. The sufferings of the past have but strengthened her, maternity has deepened her, education is broadening her — and she now knows that she must perfect herself if she would perfect the race, and leave her imprint upon immortality, through her offspring or her works.

Winnifred Harper Cooley: The New Womanhood (New York, 1904) 31f.</small>

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "New Woman" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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