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Teaching the New Woman
In this section of The Latchkey, we focus on teaching the New Woman and her issues in the classroom. Think of it as a treasure chest of ideas, texts, and resources to help in putting together class sessions or even whole teaching sequences on the New Woman.
Invitation to readers: We hope to expand this archive with every new issue and warmly invite you to send us a brief report of teaching ideas and resources of your own. For example, we would love to see further references to New Woman texts and useful secondary sources, or handouts of your own design you would like to share with other teachers. You may email us these materials or/and comments or ideas to the Latchkey editors at email@example.com. Please include a sentence or two addressing a) your specific teaching idea and/or goals for these materials in the classroom, and b) the student level for which these materials would be appropriate (such as high school, college/undergraduate, graduate students, etc.).
In each issue, we aim to introduce at least one particularly useful primary or secondary resource in depth. This time, it is the anthology Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle, edited and introduced by Elaine Showalter (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993), which is probably the most often taught anthology of New Woman fiction in U.S.-American classrooms today—many readers will already be familiar with it. The anthology is wonderfully put together to include both British and American New Woman writers (many of them writing under male pseudonym) as well as the South African Olive Schreiner. It includes the following texts:
- Kate Chopin, “An Egyptian Cigarette”; “Emancipation: A Life Fable”
- Victoria Cross, “Theodora: A Fragment”
- Ada Leverson, “Suggestion”
- George Egerton, “A Cross Line”
- ‘Borgia Smudgiton’, “She-Notes”
- George Fleming, “By Accident”
- Olive Schreiner, “The Buddhist Priest’s Wife”; “Three Dreams in a Desert”, “Life’s Gifts”
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”
- Charlotte Mew, “A White Night”
- Mabel E. Wotton, “The Fifth Edition”
- Constance Fenimore Woolson, “Miss Grief”
- Vernon Lee, “Lady Tal”
- Sarah Grand, “The Undefinable: A Fantasia”
- Edith Wharton, “The Muse’s Tragedy”; “The Valley of Childish Things”
As the title indicates, Showalter’s anthology does not include New Woman works written by men (such as Thomas Hardy, George B. Shaw). It does offer a useful introduction with an overview of New Woman issues and the authors included in the anthology, which can serve as a good general introduction for students (undergraduate and graduate) who are just beginning to familiarize themselves with the topic and these writers, and which I like to assign together with the introduction to A New Woman Reader: Fiction, Articles, and Drama of the 1890s, edited by Carolyn Christensen Nelson (Peterborough et al.: Broadview Press, 2001), see below under “Teaching Ideas.”
In her introduction Showalter also includes some helpful pointers for interpreting some of the more difficult short stories. Among these are, for example, Charlotte Mew’s “A White Night” (“a feminist counterpart Conrad’s apocalyptic Heart of Darkness,” Showalter xvii), which includes the sacrificial live burial of a white-clad, nun-like woman in a Spanish church while a modern woman, Ella, helplessly watches from her hiding place; also George Egerton’s “A Cross Line,” with references to Egerton’s interest in Freudian psychoanalysis.
Overall, the choice of materials and mix of very well known works such as “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Buddhist Priest’s Wife” with lesser known texts and authors, paired with Showalter’s useful introduction, makes this an excellent reading assignment for both undergraduate and graduate students. I have taught many of the texts in it in Victorian or Women’s Literature courses in the past few years, supplementing the primary texts with a variety of secondary sources and non-fiction texts by writers of the period (some of which I will be happy to write about in upcoming issues of The Latchkey). Some of my personal favorite texts in this collection (from the teachers’ standpoint) include: “The Buddhist Priest’s Wife,” “A White Night,” “Life’s Gifts,” “Emancipation: A Life Fable,” and of course the mandatory “Yellow Wallpaper.”
-Petra Dierkes-Thrun, October 2008
PRACTICAL IDEAS FOR TEACHING
- Introduction session to the New Woman writers and issues for undergraduates (may also be suited for graduate students if supplemented with other texts/assignments):
A typical introductory session to the New Woman writers and issues in one of my undergraduate classes might include the following reading assignments:
- Showalter’s introduction to Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle, edited and introduced by Elaine Showalter (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993), vii-xx(14 pages). See brief description above under “Resources.”
- The wonderful, brief yet rich and concise introduction to A New Woman Reader: Fiction, Articles, Drama of the 1890s, ed. Carolyn Christensen Nelson (Peterborogh et al.: Broadview Press, 2001), ix-xiv (6 pages). Highly recommended—Nelson explains origins of the term “New Woman,” major writers and issues, and manages to sketch a rich picture of the cultural stereotypes and controversies surrounding women’s issues (such as the moral purity debate, marriage laws) and the suffrage debate.
- Olive Schreiner, “Life’s Gifts” and Kate Chopin, “Emancipation: A Life Fable” (1/2 page each). These are two amazingly short, allegorical vignettes that introduce and complicate major concepts of the New Woman debate, such as freedom, happiness, and love versus (in)dependence. Students respond very well to both texts.
I usually start this class with a brief introduction to Chopin and Schreiner (biographical basics), then launch right into a close comparative reading of “Life’s Gifts” and “Emancipation: A Life Fable,” then move on to and interweave our discussion with the facts and information contained in Showalter’s and Nelson’s introductions. Class ends with a final reflection of the two primary texts and their fictional as well as historical relations with the New Woman controversy (I may fill in some more facts about Chopin’s and Schreiner’s lives and careers here as well).
-Petra Dierkes-Thrun, October 2008