More Than Just a Gibson Girl: The New Woman

New Woman Satire Pic

The New Woman prompted a lot of satirical photos and cartoons by the male establishment who felt threatened by her growing popularity and power. This photo depicts the “masculinized” New Woman. Dressed in turn-of-the-century male garb (the straw hat and knickerbocker pants), she stands over her man with a cocky, stern look on her face, cigarette in her mouth (smoking was acceptable for men but not for women at that time), supervising him while he meekly does the washing, I.e., “women’s work”.

Photo Credit: 1901, Underwood & Underwood, United States Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Underwood

Identified by contemporaries as a Gibson Girl, a suffragist, a Progressive reformer, a bohemian feminist, a college girl, a bicyclist, a flapper, a working-class militant, or a Hollywood vamp, all of these images came to epitomize the New Woman, an umbrella term for modern understandings of femininity.” (Rabinovich-Fox, par. 2)

Last week, I wrote about the Progressive Era and how Americans at the time were waking up to the wrongs created by Gilded Age corruption, excesses, and materialism. If you read any book on the reforms of the Progressive Era, one of the most prominent ones that was the suffragist movement. Indeed, the fight for women’s right to vote and other political and social reforms pertaining to women’s place in the world gained steam during this time to cumulate in the passing of the 19th Amendment that specified women could not be denied the right to vote because of their gender.

But suffragism wasn’t just about politics. It was, indeed, almost as much about the psychological realities women in the past had faced, locked in the cage of the separate sphere ideology which placed boundaries upon their lives. It was about breaking free of the limitations put upon women and in this vein, it was only natural a new kind of woman would be born at the turn of the century.

I often write about characters, especially woman characters, who were both products of their time and rebels of it. This revamped idea of a woman, called the New Woman, straddles both fences. As Einav Rabinovich-Fox points out in her article, “New Women in Early 20th Century America”,

“The New Woman emerged out of the social and cultural changes in early 20th-century America—the rise of urban centers, increased and shifting immigration, industrialization, technological advances in print culture, the growing influence of consumer culture, imperialism, changes in the structures of the labor force, post-Reconstruction race relations…” (Rabinovich-Fox, par. 3)

All the factors mentioned above, some of which I discussed in my Progressive Era blog post, combined to make it impossible for the “angel in the house” ideal so prevalent in Victorian women to survive. In fact, the New Woman, largely a younger generation of women who were coming of age at the dawn of the new century, pitted themselves against this ideal hanging over the heads of their mothers and grandmothers, the “Victorian ‘True Woman,’ which was associated with an understanding of femininity as an essential, timeless concept that emphasized domesticity and submissiveness” (Rabinovich-Fox, par. 3).

Gibson Girl Pic

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

The New Woman was anything but submissive. She was as illustrator Charles Dana Gibson first created her in the 1890’s in women’s magazines such as Ladies Home Journal: “a young, white, single woman, dressed in a shirtwaist and a bell-shaped skirt, with a large bosom and narrow, corseted waist” (Rabinovich-Fox, par. 4). The physical image of the Gibson Girl 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 underlayers, dressed in a button-down shirt and a much lighter corset that held her together but didn’t limit her mobility as it had 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 “often appeared outdoors, engaged in an athletic or leisure activity such as golf or cycling, or depicted in social activities such as dances and dinner parties, all of which suggested her bourgeois origins” (Rabinovich-Fox, par. 4). In addition, the New Woman was not only willing to take on sports but male-dominated careers as well. In Gertrude Atherton’s Mrs. Belfame  (1916), the New Woman appears in the form of women reporters who cheer Mrs. Balfame on when she is tried for the murder of her husband and are willing to stoop to the type of “yellow journalism popular among their male contemporaries at the time.

However, while the New Woman and the Gibson Girl represented a fresh, contemporary approach to womanhood, she wasn’t necessarily a rebel per se. That is, she gave women a new image to look up to but not one that would threaten the male order. In fact, they offered an alternative femininity to their mothers and grandmothers that would benefit their male counterparts, not take away from them:

In Gibson’s illustrations, she represented a confident and assertive type of femininity that carried a potential challenge to existing sexual hierarchies and gender roles. However, Gibson framed this challenge as playful romanticism in relationships with men, not as a demand for political rights.” (Rabinovich-Fox, par. 5)

In my historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, the series protagonist, Adele Gossling, is such a 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, 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 house and runs her own stationary shop and prefers to help her deputy brother and the sheriff in town 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.

The New Woman did not remain on the fringes of American life which is another reason why she can’t really be considered a rebel. She was appropriated by commerce and politics. Indeed, “By the mid-1890s, she became one of the most marketed images of the time, appearing in advertising and on a myriad of consumer products, including fashion, wallpaper, silverware, and furniture” (Rabinovich-Fox, par. 5). Later on, the epitome of the suffragist in the early 20th century was this shirtwaist, lightly corseted young woman so that “by the 1910s, the political New Woman became mostly identified with the campaign for woman suffrage” (Rabinovich-Fox, par. 15). Still, we can’t discount the New Woman as a passing phase, as she kicked off the fight for women in later generations not only for their political and social freedom but their psychological freedom as well.

Works Cited

Rabinovich-Fox, Einav. “New Women in Early 20th Century America.” American History. Oxford University Press, 2019. August 2017. Web. 6 February 2019.

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