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, 


The World’s Favorite Bed-Time Story is Finally a Bed-Time Story…

content description: discussions and analysis of sexuality and porn, as well as nude screenshots from an erotic film and magazine

The hit 1865 Alice In Wonderland was adapted as early as 1866 into a widely popular musical. Caroll had a direct hand in the piece, going as far to personally design and purchase costumes for the two young girl actors in the play. In letters to the show’s playwright, he stressed the importance of avoiding “any coarseness, or anything suggestive of coarseness.” (1) 

Lewis Caroll would then, no doubt, be very alarmed to learn of the 1976 production, “Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy”.

‘Alice in Wonderland’ plays Park Mall – one of the Mann Theaters, Tucson, AZ (April 29th 1976)
‘Alice in Wonderland’ plays Park Mall – one of the Mann Theaters, Tucson, AZ (April 29th 1976)

The movie was produced by Bill Osco and Jason Williams during the 1960s-80s “golden age” of adult film and entertainment. (2) It had both softcore (explicitly sexual, but without penetration) and hardcore (penetrative) releases. Despite being massively popular and raking in millions, many of the actors and crew saw none of the profits, due to shady dealings of producer Bill Osco. 

Why use a children’s story as the premise? Producer Jason Williams explained, “I thought it would be a good idea to have the polarity, the contrast. Contrast is interesting and gets your attention.” (3) This strategy is not dissimilar from Caroll’s method of using absurdity and humor. 

The 1976 film revolves around an adult Alice, who argues with her boyfriend because she wants to wait until after marriage to have sex. 

Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy, 1976. Screenshot.
Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy, 1976. Screenshot.

She sings the song, “(Guess I Was Just Too Busy) Growing Up”, in which she laments she isn’t able to properly perform adulthood (sexuality) because she repressed her childhood. It isn’t until 1976 Alice enters a dreamworld, free from consequence, that she is able to masturbate and have sex for the first time. In the end of the film, she enthusiastically has sex with her boyfriend after becoming sexually liberated during her Wonderland experiences. This is a continuation of the journey of 1865 Alice, who, after confronting her doubts about the rules of adult life in her dreamworld, achieves adulthood.

The 1976 film follows the original text’s obsession with the relation between size and identity, a powerful metaphor for puberty/sexual maturity. Both Alices grow and shrink, but 1976 Alice becomes nude as a result, marking her transition into owning her sexuality. The 1865 Alice questions her identity because of her “number of changes [in size].” (4) She also remarks on the size of the animals she meets, expressing fear and surprise.

Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy, 1976. Screenshot. 
Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy, 1976. Screenshot.
Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy, 1976. Screenshot. 
Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy, 1976. Screenshot.

The 1976 Alice expresses the same incongruence of identity between body/mind, as her boyfriend remarks, “Your body is grown but your mind is a child.” In typical porn fashion, 1976 Alice expresses fear and surprise when finding out how large the Mad Hatter’s penis is before performing oral sex. In both texts, size, identity, and power are interchangeable.

While the 1976 film is explicitly sexual, it simply builds on the implicit sexual themes of the original. When you put these texts in conversation with each other, they share more than they differ. Caroll may have claimed to want to avoid vulgarity, but his obsession with girlhood and children is nothing if not sexual. This sexualization of girlhood continues with the 1976 film. The Victorian age seems like the exact opposite of the heyday of adult films, but they share similar desires and strategies of speaking about them. 

April 1976 cover of Playboy, photographed by Suze Randall.
April 1976 cover of Playboy, photographed by Suze Randall.

The brief analysis I did here couldn’t remotely come close to a full exploration of these two texts, but I hope to have begun to illuminate the surprising similarities in content, as well as the origins of their creation. Perhaps now we can see the 1865 Alice in Wonderland in a new way. 

  1. Morton N. Cohen (ed.), The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll, (New York, Pantheon Books, 1982), 163. 
  2. “What Is the Rialto Report?” The Rialto Report, August 29, 2021. 
  3. “‘Alice in Wonderland’ (1976): What really happened?” March 22, 2015.
  4. Lewis Caroll, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, (New York, Bantam Dell 1865), 40.

“he might have been a man half an hour ago… at present he is simply a portfolio stand.”

Quote in title can be found on pg. 158 of “A Woman In White” and is said by Mr. Fairlie when describing his servant Louis. 

The Victorian age was filled with the anxiety to define gender in a legal and economic sense, but also to define its “very nature” (Norton 992). Accordingly, it is impossible to understand Victorian gender without accounting for the role of class and employment. By using the analysis of class provided in the Norton Anthology, I will attempt to analyze Greg’s “Why Are Women Redundant?” with a special focus on the gendering of the female servant class. Once the servant class’s particular position is clear, it becomes easier to understand the role of economics in the shifting and fluid boundaries of all Victorian genders.

In the Norton Anthology, the authors illustrate the limited employment opportunities for middle-class women. They argue the most socially acceptable job that afforded a claim to gentility was working as a governess (Norton 992). When explaining the difficulties such a position presented, including limited pay and poor job security, the authors make a powerful conclusion. Women employed as governesses had an “ambiguous status, somewhere between servant and family member,” (Norton 992).

In Greg’s “Why Are Women Redundant?” he rants and raves about the dangers unmarried women have to Victorian society. He argues in favor of a balance of genders, in accordance with the ‘natural law’ (Greg 160). While he has many choice words for unmarried women, he makes certain to state that “female servants do not constitute any part of the problem we are endeavouring to solve,” (Greg 161). This is because he believes they serve the greater good of society – “they are supported by, and they minister to, men,” (Greg 161).

By putting these texts in conversation with each other, I aim to reveal what Greg refuses to say plainly. According to Victorian definitions of gender, female servants were not women – they were a different gender entirely. While the Norton Anthology speaks to governesses particularly, which are figured a step above servants, I believe their concept of “ambiguity” can be extended to female servants too. Victorian women were defined by their roles as mothers, wives, and sisters – without these identities, it becomes difficult to identify their class, role in society, and right to property. Female servants were often unmarried, hold no property, and rarely had familial ties visible in their workplace. But they served miscellaneous female roles, and as Greg says, “fulfil [the] essentials of woman’s being” hence their ambiguity (Greg 161). They just reached the threshold of womanhood, but their class denied them the full privileges of being respected as a woman. If they were, they’d be seen as more sensitive, soft, and in need of protecting; and further, been viable marriage options for men of all classes. They were decidedly not. That being said, according to Greg, they were respected on the basis of being useful as opposed to independent unmarried women (Greg 161).

Based on Greg’s angry tirade, I propose a concept of Victorian female gender hierarchy which follows the conventional (upper, middle, lower) class, but accounts for marriage and servant/served status. Gender and class were not separate things, but directly linked. As Greg says, female servants were not automatically beneath all other women, as an understanding of class may lead you to believe. In fact, being employed as a servant probably allowed many queer people to continue their relationships and unconventional familial structures.

“how do you hate rank and family!”

“He was a big fat, odd sort of elderly man, who kept birds and white mice, and spoke to them as if they were so many Christian children.” (p.400)

Count Fosco is, undoubtedly, portrayed as the most villainous character in The Woman In White. He is secretive, mysterious, and charming all in one; and his role in the story prompts conversations about fatness, foreign identity, queerness, and much more. It is my goal to focus on Count Fosco’s proximity to (and from) the Victorian institution of family through a close reading of his servant, Hester Pinhorn’s, testimony in the Second Epoch. In fact, it is in part because of his queer family, that he is such a villain.

The institution of family held many meanings in the Victorian era; it was closely linked to class, politics, and race, and the protection of the aforementioned’s strict binaries, as well as being women’s gendered duty to maintain. In every character’s description in the novel, time is taken to explore their immediate and distant family, as it informs so much of their personality as well as social role. Maintaining a family, whether that be with children, or extended relatives, is key in both gender and social performance. Fittingly, the conclusion of the novel is a remark about the importance of Walter and Laura’s children, as they are the inheritors of the Fairlie estate.

But Count Fosco doesn’t have children – human children, that is. Instead, he has a plethora of domestic and exotic pets which he treats lovingly (almost to an obsessive level). Hester remarks that he treats them as if they were “Christian children”, with a distinct tone of disbelief and amusement (p.400). Count Fosco performs heterosexuality, to an extent, in that he is married to a woman, but the lack of children complicates this. There is no mention of his extended family, as opposed to the thorough genealogy provided for even the most insignificant side characters. Count Fosco is frightening for many reasons, and a compelling one is that he cannot be configured into the social and economic lineage everyone expects.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also touch on the role of madness and circus arts in this. Hester describes Count Fosco as “more like a play-actor than a gentleman”, which conjures up the image of Fosco conducting his animals in a big top (p.400). She also describes him as “a little soft in the head”, a polite euphemism for madness (p.400). I believe both of these comments are significant because madness presents danger to the strong family institution. Wives are unable to dote on children if they are institutionalized (like Anne), so what do they do with that free time? If a parent or older relative is mad, like Count Fosco or Mr. Fairlie, the chance of social or political movement is limited. Madness and disability were central in the Victorian circus, as their taboo nature excited and tantalized audiences. Furthermore, circuses interrupted the family institution and created new found families. Count Fosco, in lieu of human children, has created a found family of animals.

In conclusion, Count Fosco terrifies readers and his fellow characters alike with his distinct posing threat to the concept of family – not to mention the very literal manner he threatens the Fairlie family.


effeminately disabled – gender, disability, and queerness

“Upon the whole, he had a frail, languidly-fretful, over-refined look – something singularly and unpleasantly delicate in its association with a man, and at the same time, something which could by no possibility gave looked natural and appropriate it had been transferred to the personal appearance of a woman.” (p.42)

A note on language used in this piece: I use disabled not as an insult or pejorative term, but as the most commonly preferred descriptor for medicalized peoples. It is important to note, however, disabled as a term was not popularized until the 1990s, so it could be said my use is anachronistic, however I’m trying to employ modern disability theory to my work. Words that were used in the Victorian era include handicapped, affected, idiot, and so forth.

The Victorian era witnessed the simultaneous birth of modern conceptions of gender and disability. This was no coincidence – ideas of health and gender performance went hand in hand with each other. If we understand gender through a performative lens – a process which requires people to exhibit certain behaviors and mannerisms to be “read” a certain way, we can extend that to disability as well. While an Victorian example of gender performance may be a woman covering much of her skin through layered petticoats and dresses, a performance of disability may be a poor disabled person begging on the street. Disability and the medicalization of difference often overlapped with conceptions of gender, especially as it came to body hair, skin color, and body size. One needs only to look to Victorian circus history to see performers labelled simultaneously as medically different (disabled) and gender variant.

In Wilkie Collin’s novel, the gender and ability of all characters are examined through his extremely long and detailed descriptions. Perhaps the most striking example of the gendering of disability is the paragraph introducing Mr. Fairlie. Through the perspective of Mr. Hartright, the reader is inundated with minute descriptions of Mr. Fairlie’s body hair, weight, skin color, and dress. The tone of Mr. Hartright’s description shifts from curious to disgusted. He begins by guessing at the Mr. Fairlie’s age, one of the most important markers for disability. In these modern conceptions of disability born out of the Victorian era, a young body is equated with health, whereas an older body is more likely to be sick. Next, he catalogs Mr. Fairlie’s body hair, which he describes as “beardless”, specifically denoting the lack of something (the beard) which men are expected to have. Mr. Fairlie’s hair is then further described as “scanty” and “soft to look at”. Softness is not typically associated with men. His feet are described as “effeminately small”, wearing “womanish” shoes, perhaps Mr. Hartright’s most transparently stated frustration with Mr. Fairlie’s conflicting gender and gender presentation.

In his conclusion, Mr. Hartright remarks that Mr. Fairlie is womanly, but in a way that would not translate if transferred on to a woman. This is one of the most revealing remarks, I believe, because Mr. Hartright reveals that he sees Mr. Fairlie not as a woman, not a man, but an effeminate (queer) man. His conclusion is directly tied to Mr. Fairlie’s disabilities, and therefore, his anger and frustration with his failure to conform is as well.