Dutiful Daughters?

The “New Woman” at the fin de siècle was the great specter of female independence for the traditional society at large. Buzwell’s “Daughters of Decadence: the New Woman in the Victorian Fin de sciècle” highlights the larger concerns about the New Woman, whether she was the intelligent sexually and societally liberated being or the surly, masculinized suffragette. Both ultimately posed great threats to the heteronormative ideals of typical Victorian life as the New Woman typically held few if any aspirations towards marriage. Ultimately this was due to “educational and employment prospects for women improving” which resulted in marriage and motherhood no longer being the inevitable methods of securing financial security (Buzwell). So, women with other aspirations were able to pursue education or employment in the new “pink-collar” jobs that became available to women in the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods.

However, the New Woman, both literary and literal posed a threat to the status quo of the society. Not only did these women overthrow the norms of familial duty and typical gender roles, but they also represented and worked towards broader social change. The quintessential New Woman was often a suffragette, campaigning for the vote in a pair of bloomers on a bicycle. Ultimately, she breaks the rules: few mannerisms that were to masculine, promiscuous or prohibitively unattractive, always breaking the rules of propriety, whether through her mode of dress or through a behavior like smoking.

Art, particularly satirical comics in newspapers were often used during the late Victorian and early Edwardian period. The Dutiful Daughter comic from 1916 gives one satirized example of a potential New Woman, who goes marching out in her thigh high boots, cheekily following her mother’s advice. Like many other New Women, she is technically following the established rules, but clearly her method meets disapproval. Obviously she is also being critiqued for her sexuality, filling a role like the sensual Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Buzwell). Other depictions of the New Woman featured a mannish and brusque woman who chain smoked and refuted any sense of feminine delicacy (Buzwell). Frances Benjamin Johnston reclaimed this title in her self-portrait as a New Woman, sitting with a cigarette in one hand and a beer stein in the other, she embodies the negative stereotypes of the brutish new woman and embraces them as well.

Victorian literary New Women are either embraced or punished in their respective works, but Victorian and Edwardian visual also functioned as a public method to either condemn or praise the women who engage in the society as “new women”. Satirical cartoons repressed the New Woman into a stereotype and painting her as the most undesirable type of person with a sad and bitter life, urging women to return to a more traditional social role. On the other hand, art like that of Johnston replaced the power back into the hands of “new women” allowing them to claim and correct their own image.

New York Tribune, Dec 17, 1916
Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Self Portrait (as a New Woman) 1896

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