The New Woman (Again)

The article “The New Woman Fiction” by Dr. Andrzej Diniejko draws a compelling timeline of the challenging and transformation of female gender norms at the tail end of the Victorian era. Diniejko tracks the satirical and parody representations of “New Women”, or in other words, women who were challenging gender norms and embodying a new level of independence and expression. Consistently, “new women” were compared to men, represented as “male-identified, or manhating and/or man-eating or self-appointed saviour of benighted masculinity.” (Richardson and Willis, as quoted in Diniejko)

This came off as very queer to me, as it no doubt was offensive to some women who didn’t identify with masculinity, while also possibly being affirming to people of non-normative gender expressions. This reminded me of a 1925-era song, “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” another example of mainstream gender parody which has since been reclaimed by queer communities. It’s my aim to briefly illustrate the similarities between the ideas of the “New Woman” of Diniejko’s article and the song text, hopefully illuminating the pervasive fear of masculine women through time. 

Diniejko writes that a central tenet to “New Women” philosophy was fashion, and a move towards pants-wearing and bike riding. Many satirical representations included bloomers. In “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” there is a similar expression of worry about pants challenging the status quo, “Knickers and trousers, baggy and wide/ Nobody knows who’s walking inside” Despite being separated by thirty years, the two eras share a worry about pants fundamentally changing women who wear them, and how pants conceal gender once they’re adopted outside of the traditionally male wearers.  

Diniejko also mentions the role of smoking in “New Women” art and literature, a symbol of independence, maturity, and manhood. In “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” the singer quips, “Auntie is smoking, rolling her own,” similarly positioning smoking as an independent act that becomes threatening when women adopt it. 

Finally, more generally, I believe the anxiety around the “New Women” and “Masculine Women” is fueled by the same desire to return to tradition. Diniejko writes there was a strong connection between the “New Woman” philosophy and other cultural revolutions of the time, rejecting the past and imagining a new future. In “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” the singer laments about the past, “Girls were girls and boys were boys when I was a tot / Now we don’t know who is who or even what’s what” and “Things are not what they used to be, you’ll see.” Without going into too much detail, I believe the cultural revolutions of the 1890s and 1920s were similar in their embrace of extravagance and pushing cultural norms. The worry about tradition being interrupted is evergreen.

So is the “New Woman” new? Or has she always existed? I believe throughout time there is an undercurrent of fear of women pushing gender boundaries and experimenting with masculine expressions. The very same fears of the 1890s “New Woman”, in all her pants-wearing, cigarette smoking, and tradition-interrupting glory, come back in full force in the 1920s. 



Monaco, James V, Leslie, Edgar and Hugh J. Ward (Firm). Masculine women! Feminine men! Melbourne: L.F. Collin, 1925.

Diniejko, Andrzej. “The New Woman Fiction.” The Victorian Web, 17 Dec. 2011, 


2 thoughts on “The New Woman (Again)”

  1. Oh I adore this! I think that you are spot on to compare the normative concerns between the 1890s and 1920s. The growth in female independence through employment and and increased migration to urban areas definitely influenced these concerns during both periods as women moved out from under parental or even paternal control without moving into the control of their husbands. I think it is also interesting that these societies drew connections between independence and masculinity, implying that dependence or even a lack of liberty is a feminine condition.

  2. This is such an amazing analysis of the New Woman, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. The New Woman is an ever-changing idea; women will always push gender boundaries, all the way into the twenty-first century as more and more women move into places where traditionally only men have dominated (e.g. the U.S. presidency — we’re almost there!!). It is so interesting, however, that such a large issue, that of the New Woman, originated from such a small thing: women wearing pants. Perhaps it is the worry that something constantly between the legs (more than just a bicycle seat!) would corrupt the 20th century lady.

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