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The New Woman Of Late Victorian England History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The label “New Woman” signaled new forms of femininity which were brought to public attention in the second half of the 19th century. According to the Westminster Review in 1895: “It is not possible to ride by road or rail, to read a review, a magazine or a newspaper, without being continually reminded of the subject which lady-writers love to call the Woman Question. ‘The Eternal Feminine’, the ‘Revolt of the Daughters’, ‘the Woman’s Volunteer Movement’; Women’s Clubs are significant expressions and effective landmarks.” [1] New Woman novels soon made their appearance, becoming a vital and popular part of the late Victorian cultural landscape; between 1883 and 1900 over a hundred novels were written about the New Woman. [2] On the cusp between fiction and fact, her status was fiercely debated in prose and parlours. The New Woman did not appear from nowhere.

During 19th century, women had increasingly challenged their subordinate social and political position. “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792), by Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical inheritance for the women that condemned the sexual double standard and urged women’s right to education, employment and full citizenship. [3] Wollstonecraft saw the newly industrialising Britain and the rise of the bourgeoisie as a major cause of women’s enervation since middle-class women that had made a vital contribution to family economies were becoming increasingly leisured. [4] Versions of these ideas would recur in New Woman writing a century later. The South African New Woman writer Olive Schreiner devotes the first three chapters of her political tract “Woman and Labour” (1911) to a malaise she terms “parasitism”: the condition of the unlabouring woman. While a discourse of health and nature was clearly present in Wollstonecraft, such arguments would intensify in the wake of Darwin, as New Women began to exploit the new biological discourses in their various demands for social change, giving not just a social and political but a biological rationale to their arguments against the reduction of women to a parasitic state. [5] Ideas on progress, passion, morality, femininity, domesticity, development and evolution are replayed and reworked by New Women in the last decades of the 19th century. [6] 

Early feminism started developing in Victorian England due to several factors: the number of “surplus” women that reached 400 000 in 1851 [7] and the fact that in the second half of the nineteenth century the social and economic position of women underwent accelerated change. [8] Moreover, primary and secondary education advanced in favour of women and marriage law underwent a reform that favoured them too. [9] Another important area closely connected with developments in feminism in the second half of the nineteenth century was the moral reform that occurred during the second half of the 19th century. [10] 

Talia Schaffer’s discusses the term “New Woman” in the “The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact”. She argues that the term was invoked in the 1890s by opposing camps, male and female, both to fictionalise the New Woman and to emphasise her status as a fact. [11] She suggests that the figure of the New Woman was able to “stretch, distort, and duplicate” for a variety of rhetorical or psychological purposes which journalists were not slow to adopt, and that she became one of society’s most exploited portents and scapegoats. [12] Chris Willis takes the popular representation of the New Woman further, focusing on the beautiful bicycling Amazon. She notes that the New Woman of predominantly male-authored popular and detective fiction was physically and mentally healthy, but seldom able to find men that matched up. She was presented as having to negotiate powerful maternal instincts, and was nearly always forced to reveal her womanly credentials at the story’s end in order to salvage the romance plot. [13] 

James Eli Adams argued that “when evolutionary speculation unsettles traditional conceptions of nature as a maternal being, it also disturbs Victorian typologies of the feminine”. [14] Stott based her thoughts on this argument taking us into the areas of race, colonisation, and evolutionary discourse. Stott demonstrates New Women as brooding or negligent, monstrous or man-eating mothers and argues that in place of a nurturing landscape these mothers consume the lifeblood of their victims. [15] 

Matthew Beaumont considers the utopian ideas that occurred during the late 19th century important to the feminist politics. He suggests that utopianism was informed by a politics of fellowship which was convinced that an egalitarian society could be birthed through individual choices and the interpersonal relations of its activists; in this climate of hope and apprehension, visions of an as yet non-existent new world proliferated. [16] Beaumont concludes that the political importance of utopian appeals to the New Woman should not be underestimated.

The New Woman was the cultural icon of the “fin de siècle”. In the guise of a bicycling, cigarette-smoking Amazon, she romped through the pages of Punch, the British weekly magazine of humour and satire, and popular fiction. In the pages of New Woman novels, such as Sarah Grand’s “The Heavenly Twins” and Grant Allen’s “The Woman Who Did It”, she appeared as a neurasthenic victim of social oppression that suffered. The New Woman was not one figure, but several.

Eastwood said that the New Woman had been “flashed upon us in a rapid succession of startling and vivid pictures” [17] – and it was true. Smoking, rational dress [18] and bicycling provided cartoonists and satirists with easy targets and through such powerful visual iconography the New Woman became firmly established as a cultural stereotype. Journalists and cartoonists of the century had their own significant role in establishing the cultural status of the New Woman in late-Victorian England. Patricia Marks suggests that such caricatures of the New Woman embodied fears about the changing status of women and as far as the New Woman’s opponents were concerned, the more startling and vivid the picture, the better. [19] Furthermore, these cartoons and caricatures embodied hopes and fears about racial development as the New Woman was seen as a physically degenerate creature or as a strapping Amazon who could do whatever she pleased; out walk, out cycle and outshoot any man. A cartoon in 1894’s Punch demonstrated the New Woman as “Donna Quixote”, a bespectacled intellectual [20] – its message was clear: the fictional New Woman of the late-Victorian England was a bad influence for the female readers.

The New Woman novels varied. Most of them were strongly and overtly didactic, bringing debates that concerned femininity and its nature to a broader audience. Some of them also underscored the negative publicity that the figure of the New Woman gained because of the way in which the periodical press presented her. Allen’s “The Woman Who Did It” was one of the most successful and controversial novels on the “marriage question”. Only in its first year of publication it ran nineteenth editions [21] but it was condemned as an incitement to immorality. Allen viewed the New Woman as a supporter and fighter of free love. This point of view became the cause for various drawings and discussions. Women like Sarah Grand and Margaret Oliphant got involved in these debates outraged by Allen’s representation of their case. [22] Millicent Garrett Fawcett, political economist and president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1897 to 1919, wrote in the “Contemporary Review” in 1895 that “‘The Woman Who Did It” had damaged the feminist cause by linking the claim of women to citizenship and social and industrial independence with attacks upon marriage and the family” and she continued: “Allen purports to write in the interests of women, but there will be very few women who do not see that his little book belongs very much more to the unregenerate man than to women at all.” [23] 

Despite the fact that New Women were essentially middle class, some of their social and political goals overlapped with the working-class women. This resulted to the growth of political activism at the fin de siècle. Although trade unions had been dedicated mainly to men, during the late 1880s there was a rise in women’s trade union membership and militancy. [24] In 1874, the Women’s Provident and Protection League was founded by the suffragist Emma Paterson to encourage the creation of women’s trade unions. At the beginning it developed quite slowly, being predominantly a middle-class organisation rather than an initiative by the workers themselves. [25] By the last two decades of the 19th century however, working women started becoming more and more involved with the League. The Women’s Provident and Protection League’s influence became that massive that it played an important part in the Bryant & May match girls’ strike of 1888 – probably the most famous example of working-class female militancy in this era. [26] It would be wrong to assume that middle-class women were the most politically active. There was a dramatic increase of women workers joining unions and campaigning for their rights. There were 19 500 women in female trade unions in 1876; by 1906 the number advanced to 166 425 women. [27] Various political pressure groups were formed during the 1880s and the 1890s, like the Women’s Cooperative Guild (1883) and the Fabian Women’s Group (1908).

In conclusion, in the second half of the 19th century new technologies spread rapidly across the globe – the telephone, the telegraph and the elevator are only some of them. These technologies brought the need of new jobs, thus more opportunities were appearing in the lives of late-Victorian people since more workforce was needed. Men had an advantage over women, but gradually, the woman factor began to advance significantly into professional employment over men. [28] During the reign of Queen Victoria, Victorian feminism emerged as a political force. The New Woman started being real, it was a reaction against the traditional long-held ideas around women and femininity. This massive reaction was cause by several factors, as well as – ironically – by the reforms that were made to enfranchise men. The late-Victorian era’s newspapers, periodicals and journals promoted the luxuries and leisure of city life which was difficult to resist. For the first time in history young women left their home in order to go to work as professionals. [29] It was Queen Victoria herself that represented a kind of femininity focused on family, motherhood, care and respectability. That is why the Victorian period is referred to as the domestic age “par excellence”. [30] The icon of middle-class femininity and domesticity that the New Woman adopted was that represented by their Queen. Throughout the second half of the 19th century and until the very end of the Victorian period women’s mission was not only moral but political as well. The late-Victorian New Women feminists fought for better, advanced education, more employment opportunities, improved working conditions, higher wages and, eventually, the coveted right to vote – so that women might have some influence over their fate – for both working and middle-class women. [31] 


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