New Woman

A term coined by British feminist Sarah Grand in an 1894 essay to describe an independent woman who seeks achievement and self-fulfilment beyond the realm of marriage and family. According to Grand, the New Woman “proclaimed for herself what was wrong with Home-is-the-Woman’s-Sphere, and proscribed the remedy” (142). In a historical moment when women were beginning to attend university, enter the professions, and campaign for political representation, Grand’s coinage of this term struck a chord, providing a label for a new style of femininity that had already emerged in Anglo- American culture. Soon, the “New Woman” became a trans-Atlantic stereotype; she was an educated young woman of “advanced,” feminist views who lived an independent, Bohemian lifestyle. The stereotypical New Woman was associated with various ideographic “props.” Bicycles and latchkeys symbolized her freedom to move about public space; cigarettes, books, spectacles, and golf clubs symbolized her adoption of masculine pursuits and activities. The New Woman was mostly a middle- and upper-class figure; wealth and class position facilitated her choice to forgo the economic security of marriage and provided her with social privileges like a university education. While often the target of social derision in the popular press, the New Woman was also a mode of articulating real shifts in the relative freedom and occupational choice available to young women from the 1880s. As an image of modern femininity, she was a source of alarm to cultural conservatives, who considered her an emblem of degeneracy.

On the heels of the New Woman phenomenon, a new literary genre emerged called New Woman fiction. Most New Woman novels and short stories are realist or naturalist in genre, but they attempt a more candid account of women’s experiences and psychology than previous writers had done. As George Egerton put it, in literature, “there was only one small plot left for [woman] to tell: the terra incognita of herself, as she knew herself to be, not as man liked to imagine her— in a word, to give herself away as man had given himself away in his writings” (quoted in Nelson, 3). Egerton, like many New Woman writers, treated women’s sexuality with a frankness that shocked many of her contemporaries. In 1893, she published a series of short stories in the Yellow Book, an avant-garde British magazine associated with the Aesthetic movement; the series, titled Keynotes, was a cultural sensation, as was her second series of short stories, Discords (1894). The Yellow Book was a key forum for British New Woman short fiction, also publishing Netta Syrett’s “Thy Heart’s Desire” (1894), Victoria Cross’s “Theodora: A Fragment” (1895), and Ada Radford’s “Lot 99” (1896). Other British New Woman writers included Sarah Grand, Ella D’Arcy, Olive Schreiner, and Mabel Wotton.

Although “New Woman fiction” was a predominantly British term, it is now commonly applied to turn-of-the-century U.S. writing as well. New Woman short fiction in the United States includes work by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (such as “The Yellow Wallpaper” [1892]), Kate Chopin (such as the novella The Awakening [1899]), and Edith Wharton. African-American women writers of the period, including Pauline Hopkins and Jessie Redmon Fauset, applied New Woman themes to the unique social conditions of African- American women. New Women writers on both sides of the Atlantic were heavily influenced by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian dramatist whose plays often focused on women’s experience. Other male writers of the period who wrote about New Women include George Gissing, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and George Bernard Shaw. The term “New Woman” is particularly associated with the years 1880–1920, but its meaning has become somewhat adaptable, and it is continuously reinvented to describe new developments in feminism.

Egerton, George. Keynotes and Discords. Edited and with an introduction by Martha Vicinus. London: Virago, 1983.
Grand, Sarah. “The New Aspect of the Woman Question,” North American Review 158 (March 1894): 270–276. Reprinted in Nelson, 141–146.
Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the fi n de siècle. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Nelson, Carolyn Christensen, ed. A New Woman Reader: Fiction, Articles, Drama of the 1890s. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2001.
Richardson, Angelique. Women Who Did: Short Stories by Men and Women. London: Penguin, 2002.

Categories: British Literature, Gender Studies, Literary Terms and Techniques, Short Story

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