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The Dangerous New Woman in the Victorian Press: “blind alike to maiden modesty and maternal dignity”
By Danielle Nielsen
Present in photography, artwork, fiction, drama, and popular journalism, the New Woman was a familiar presence in late-Victorian Britain. By analyzing the journalistic portrayal of the New Woman and the construction of a negative femininity by those authors who opposed her and the values she represented, this essay draws from that popularity and presence. I argue that Victorians who disagreed with the political and social ramifications of the New Woman participated in discourse communities or communities of practice. These discourse communities portrayed the New Woman as one who was first, competitive rather than cooperative, and second, a mythical, unnatural creature. These labeling practices illustrate the gender roles to which one part of late-Victorian society subscribed and established a dichotomy between women who continued to perform admirably, according to stereotypical desires of the Victorian woman, and those who challenged those perceptions of femininity. By villainizing the New Woman, such writers encouraged readers to fear advances in women’s rights and to adhere to what they saw as traditional gender roles. Grounded in a rhetorical approach to print culture of the fin-de-siècle, this essay suggests avenues of further research on the New Woman as she was portrayed in journalism, as well as elucidating some of the expectations and fears of British femininity at the turn of the twentieth century.
The archive for this project contains eighteen articles published in mainstream American and British periodicals from 1894 to 1897. The sample contains both male and female authors, and there is no clear gender divide between New Woman advocates and opponents (not all of the anti-New Woman authors are men, not all of the pro-New Woman authors are women). To create this archive, I searched for articles containing the keywords “New Woman” in the Nineteenth Century Masterfile database and mined contemporary readers that compiled New Woman journalism, specifically Ann Heilmann and Stephanie Forward’s collection Sex, Social Purity and Sarah Grand and Carolyn Christensen Nelson’s A New Woman Reader. 1 Although literary scholars cite Olive Schreiner’s character, Lyndall, in The Story of an African Farm (1883) as the first official New Woman portrayed in literature, I selected 1894 as the start date for my archive to coincide with Grand’s coining of the phrase “New Woman.” 2 All of the articles in the archive feature the phrase “New Woman;” and this use of “New Woman” is understood to demonstrate that the author participated specifically in the New Woman debate and not in a more general debate about women’s rights or the Woman Question. I selected 1897 as the final year because after 1897 articles with the words “New Woman” dwindled to one or two a year, making it more difficult to recognize active communities. I eliminated the debate entitled “Revolt of the Daughters” because it is self-contained, and though it took place within the given timeframe, it began before the 1894 coining of “New Woman.” 3
The New Woman, Communities of Practice, and the Late-Victorian Periodical
Late-Victorian print culture played a significant role in the portrayal and development of the New Woman, making her an ideal figure for a discussion about the ways in which print and language construct our understanding of not only the New Woman but also late-Victorian culture and femininity. 4 Journalism allowed writers to develop and participate in “communities of practice” or “discourse communities.” These communities played an especially important role in how discussions of the New Woman developed, the relationships authors built with one another and their reading public, and the ability for women to participate in these debates in the public sphere.
To understand the creation of such rhetorical communities, it is important to understand how scholars define these types of communities. In Linguistic Variation as Social Practice: The Linguistic Construction of Identity in Belten High (2000), Penelope Eckert defines a community of practice as a group who is “united by [a] common enterprise” that encourages group members “to develop and share ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, values—in short, practices—as a function of their joint engagement in activities” (35). In Situated Learning (1991),Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger describe communities and how they become communities of practice. They explain that
[when] using the term community, we do not imply some primordial culture-sharing entity. We assume that members have different interests, make diverse contributions to activity, and hold varied viewpoints. In our view, participation at multiple levels is entailed in membership in a community of practice. Nor does the term community imply necessarily co-presence, a well-defined, identifiable group, or socially visible boundaries. It does imply participation in an activity system about which participants share understandings concerning what they are doing and what that means in their lives and for their communities. (97-98, original emphasis)
Many of these same features—participation in a system, common goals, and similar practices—also appear in definitions of discourse communities. John Swales, in Genre Analysis (1990), assigns discourse communities six features: they share public goals; they enable or allow for communication between members; they provide feedback to members of the community; they use specific genres appropriate to the community’s communication needs; they possess specialized vocabulary or terminology; and they have a diverse group of participants that includes both experts and novices (24-27). The similarities between discourse communities and communities of practice have not gone unnoticed, and Paul Prior in “Are communities of practice really an alternative to discourse communities?” (2003) suggests that in some cases linguistics scholars have considered replacing the term “discourse communities” with “communities of practice.” In this essay, however, both the terms “discourse communities” and “communities of practice” apply equally well to the late-Victorians. Though the boundaries were not always consistent, two communities developed: a supportive community who encouraged change and saw women’s rights as a boon to British society, and a group of New Woman critics who urged Britons to adhere to what they understood as traditional gender roles.
The fin-de-siècle writers who addressed the New Woman were united by the Woman Question, concerns about femininity and gender roles, and social politics. The press provided the medium through which authors in both groups honed their rhetoric, affording them opportunities to engage with both peers and opponents. Moreover, through their journalism they “share[d] understandings concerning what they are doing and what that means in their lives and for their communities” (Lave and Wenger 97). Through engagement with the New Woman debate in the popular press, the authors purposefully put forth their opinions about the New Woman and how she affected “their lives” and “their communities.” Through the press, these writers provided feedback to one another, they presented diverse points of view, they used specific genres—in this case the popular letter to the editor and journal column—and, as I argue below, they developed a language particular to the topic they were united around: the New Woman.
These characteristics place the New Women authors firmly within the definitions of the community of practice and discourse community. One of the most important features of these authors’ practice was intercommunication between members. They used common metaphors, referenced their own writings, and quoted from one another’s work. As the writers adapted material from outside sources, they developed relationships within the community. For instance, in her article “New Woman,” published in the May 1894 North American Review, Ouida quotes directly from Grand’s “The New Aspect of the Woman Question” (1894). Ouida uses quotations from Grand’s article, which promotes the New Woman, to prove the dangerous qualities of the figure. Ouida’s use of direct quotations in her response to Grand’s article in the same periodical establishes a conversation between the authors which shows not only each writer’s values, but also how her chosen language defines or elucidates her opinion of the New Woman. The exchange between Ouida and Grand not only begins to establish language used to describe the New Woman (common lexicon or shared rhetoric), but the publicly circulated periodicals also enable the necessary intercommunication of authors who may not be able to reach one another in person. Without the conversation—the intercommunication—the debate about who the New Woman was, what she did, and stood for, and the dangers or interests she represented would have been less meaningful in determining how late-Victorians thought about and represented femininity. In other words, the fact that intercommunication and a shared lexicon exist allows modern scholars to argue that these views are not the ideas of one author, but rather may have been (and in fact were) adopted and presented as valid within a wider community. The community shows the presence and reality of these ideas about Victorian femininity.
This ability to develop a conversation between multiple authors with a shared lexicon is only one advantage that the periodical held in the debate about the New Woman. The number of periodicals, the range of topics covered, and the widespread availability allowed authors to create communities without requiring in-person contact or simultaneous verbal exchanges. Lave and Wenger note specifically that communities of practice do not require “co-presence, a well-defined, identifiable group, or socially visible boundaries” (97). That authors were available to speak to one another was not a prerequisite to developing a thoughtful or functioning community that focused on depictions of femininity at the turn-of-the-century, rather it was the ability to communicate that was most important. Through Victorian periodicals, the authors were not necessarily “co-present,” but they were able to communicate with one another, as demonstrated in the example of Ouida and Sarah Grand’s exchange and multiple other examples of writers quoting one another in their defense or persecution of the New Woman.
In addition to enabling communication, the periodicals used contentious topics to sell issues and encourage reader participation. These periodicals, in other words, not only provided a space for the communities, but they also fostered them. In Gender and the Victorian Periodical (2003), Fraser, Green, and Johnston explain that Victorian journalism “was a fundamentally provocative and reactive medium, initiating dialogue on topics of the day, and demanding a response” from the readers (1). Andrea Broomfield notes that the periodicals’ editors often encouraged reactions by specifically asking contributors to write about controversial topics (255). Popular periodicals like the satirical magazine, Punch, and the more scholarly, Nineteenth Century, not only moved debates about gender from the judicial and legislative houses into the sitting rooms of middle-class families, but they also spurred conversations and openly asked readers to consider the consequences of either maintaining or challenging gender expectations. Consequently, journalists and their readers consumed and responded to the New Woman narratives. Those writers who supported the New Woman described her in terms that privileged career, political, and personal opportunities for women while, as I argue below, those who opposed her constructed a dangerous figure who refused to remain appropriately feminine and threatened British men’s masculinity. As more descriptions and commentary circulated, the communities of practice developed their “ways of talking, beliefs, [and] values” or the shared lexicon that revealed the central concerns of femininity during the late-Victorian period in ways that showed not only what novelists like Grand, George Egerton, or Grant Allen believed, but also, through letters to the editor and columns, what anonymous or less well-known members of the reading public thought.
In addition to providing publishing opportunities where communities developed, Victorian periodicals allowed middle-class women to participate in widespread social debates without compromising their propriety, specifically the idea that women were expected to act with a “proper” sense of decorum attending to the children and family. 5 This ability to write from the privacy of the home was particularly important for those women who believed that the New Woman’s social and political activism was dangerous and ill-advised. The press, Barbara Onslow explains in Women of the Press in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2000), was by the late nineteenth century already a particularly useful tool for women. Throughout the century, women “found the press a valuable channel for sustaining their arguments, and promoting specific causes” (170). In other words, women recognized the potential for the periodical press to enable them to participate in these communities and public debates. During the Victorian period, women published pieces not only in the predominantly feminist periodicals like the Englishwoman’s Review and the Englishwoman’s Journal, but they also circulated articles in generalist journals like Nineteenth Century, Contemporary Review, and Blackwood’s Magazine. 6 The readership of many of these periodicals, especially the latter journals, was wide-spread, and thus, the more that women wrote, the more likely that the general public might be better informed of their ideas and familiar with the New Woman.
In addition to the wide circulation of discussions about feminist issues, the nature of journalism, particularly opportunities to write anonymously or pseudonymously, allowed more women to participate. In Discourses of Difference (1991), Sara Mills describes the obstacles Victorian women faced when they attempted to enter public debates. Mills explains that “Many [Victorian] women were discouraged from writing since it was considered not only to be of high status, but because it was seen to be sexually improper for a woman to enter into the realm of this public, high language” (41). These comments illustrate a hierarchical attitude toward gender:
Victorians believed that women were not “high status,” and their opinions unnecessary, unwanted, or unimportant. If women aspired to the “high status” of men, they would become “sexually improper” and “low.” According to Mills, some Victorians believed that for a woman to write was to endanger her femininity and social standing. Women’s writing, thus, threatened Victorian social norms: it moved women (certainly their ideas and at times their bodies) from private to public spaces, and it disrupted the high/low dichotomy of masculinity/femininity. To keep women in the relatively private sphere of the home may be seen as limiting the value of women while privileging men and their public sphere. 7
Because periodicals could provide anonymity, they protected women from losing their social status and allowed them to avoid the risk of censure. Some women like Sarah Grand and Ouida published under pseudonyms, yet were well known and popular at the time and thus could not necessarily benefit from the anonymity. Many of the texts that I examine, however, are by anonymous or unnamed authors who were decidedly protected by this anonymity. Moreover articles, especially those that addressed the conditions surrounding women, could be written from home and did not necessarily require research outside of the scope of a woman’s daily life. When periodicals published women’s work, the authors and publications contrasted, challenged, and reified gender identities and exhibited the complicated relationship between some women’s desires to maintain propriety and yet contribute to contemporary debates. On the one hand, women published work in periodicals, and therefore challenged the idea that it was improper for women to write. On the other hand, some women (Ouida, Eliza Lynn Linton, and Eliza Winston) publicly opposed the New Woman, and risked their own status by writing, publishing, or, in the case of Linton, lecturing about the dangers of greater women’s freedoms. These women, while they argued against women’s rights, embraced freedoms they sought to deny other women. 8 Thus, the debate about the New Woman brought to the fore society’s power over women’s bodies, women’s ability to regulate their own minds and bodies, and a distinct level of discomfort, even among women, about what they ought or ought not to do.
New Woman writing, especially in periodicals, illustrates the popularity of anonymous and pseudonymous writing during the period as many Victorian letters and review articles remained unsigned by their authors. Three of the most significant authors who wrote under assumed names were: Sarah Grand (Frances Bellenden-Clarke McFall), Ouida (Maria Louise Ramé), and “One of them,” author of “The Wail of the Male.” Additionally, H. E. Harvey, A. H. Coleman, and B. A. Crackenthorpe signed articles with only their initials so that no judgment could be made about their gender. Others like Mrs. Morgan-Dockrell, made clear their marriage status and gender but omitted first names. Anonymity did not prevent these authors from participating in the discourse community and from taking up, using, and embodying the “ways of talking, beliefs, [and] values” of their peers and opponents (Eckert 35). Just because the identity of the writer was obscured does not mean that her (or his) participation in the community was any less valuable in determining how the press helped to define late-Victorian femininity within the realm of the New Woman debate. Journalism provided an opportunity to develop communities that allowed men and women, readers and authors, to debate gender roles without necessarily compromising propriety.
The New Woman Loses her Propriety
Victorian New Woman critics argued that the New Woman wasunfeminine and improper because she was not appropriately domestic. These New Women spoke and wrote in public, chose not to raise families, to participate in social and political causes, attended institutions of higher education, and practiced traditionally male professions such as law and medicine. To highlight the inappropriateness of these activities, critics used competitive adjectives and active verbs to compare New Women to men. For instance, men and New Women are described as people who bully (Stutfield 237), boast and demand (Winston 170), and who are conceited (Andrew 187), conspicuous (Coleman 220), and masculine. In contrast, the traditional Englishwoman is one who desires to bring her community together. She builds, directs, trains, and educates children; she “gives silent testimony” (Winston 171); she is charming, cheerful, and delicate. 9 While the list describing the New Woman portrays women who desire to compete or who act like men, the traditional Englishwoman worked with children and was cheerful. The authors who argued against the New Woman demonstrated what she should not have been, conspicuous or demanding, but also what the Victorian woman should have been, silent.
Winston, Andrew, and “One” suggest that when women placed themselves in public, they abandoned their homes and families, the primary space and responsibility of the Victorian woman. When the New Woman did not perform domestic duties, she became “sexually improper,” as Mills described her (41). For instance, Winston explains that when the New Woman “neglects private duties for public works, her reforms are not noble, but extremely unworthy of her” and that “[t]he New Woman refuses to believe that duty, like charity, begins at home” (175). Andrew suggests that New Women, “blind alike to maiden modesty and maternal dignity, enter the arena of strife to struggle for an impossible freedom and a pernicious equality” (190-1). Similarly, “One” argues that “[c]auses, platform oratory, and public life generally are suitable for the unmarried and for widows” because “[h]appy married life is notoriously inimical to the woman-outside-the-house sphere” (360, 365, original emphasis). “One” suggests that, rather than politically-active wives and mothers, it is women who are “single, or widows, or very ugly, or those who see little and want to see little of their husbands, or whose husbands are failures, or nonentities, or villains, or who have no children or sphere cut out for them at home” are best suited to work for social change (366). For “One,” the New Woman failed because she was neither married, nor attractive, nor caring toward her children (if she had them). “One” suggests that only the most undesirable women—or women who did not act like traditional women—were appropriate, though not necessarily fit, for public life.
All three authors’ portrayals of an ideal femininity depend on the separation between the private and public spheres. While “One” provides opportunities for women to work in the public sphere (but only if they are single, widows, ugly, have bad husbands or are childless), Winston and Andrew argue that women should not work in public because it causes them to ignore their duties at home and lose their “maiden modesty.” This “modesty” and a desire to bear and raise children represent propriety: not only are women appropriately modest, but they are also appropriately maternal. Propriety is both psychological and behavioral in this instance. Andrew also concentrates on the propriety of women in the public sphere (recognizing the ability for women to successfully attend to the gender hierarchy) and suggests that New Women “struggle” for freedom and a “pernicious equality” (191). Rather than working for synthesis or using some other possibly cooperative method of finding freedom, the women “struggle.” Like bullying and demanding, when women struggled, they were negatively perceived by these authors as active. If Victorian women were expected to demonstrate cooperative attitudes such as moral righteousness, modesty, and “maternal dignity”—all instances of behavioral propriety—then to “struggle” for freedom outside of the home allowed them to compete with those who wanted to prevent women’s independence. Furthermore, the phrase “pernicious equality” suggests that the equality for which women struggled was potentially dangerous. For Andrew, the New Woman moved within the political arena, demonstrating the danger of unregulated, undomesticated feminine bodies. When women moved outside of the home, when they were not carefully monitored, when they acted with impropriety, they could, according to these authors, harm families.
It is this movement outside the home, the competition with men, and the improper actions of lecturing, writing, and agitating that allowed Morgan-Dockrell to condense anti-New Woman attitudes into one list. The New Woman, Morgan-Dockrell writes, is an “intensely aggravated type of the unwomanly, unlovable, unlovely, untidy, undomesticated, revolting, shrieking, man-hating shrew of all the centuries” (340). In every instance on this list, men were either unable to control the woman’s body because she was “aggravated,” “revolting,” “shrieking,” or “man-hating,” or men experienced a woman who was the direct opposite of what Morgan-Dockrell believed she should be—lovable, lovely, tidy, and domestic. The New Woman portrayed characteristics outside of patriarchal expectations of femininity and produced not only concern about her femininity, but also challenged the established hegemony when she revolted against the restrictions and refused to be domestic. The desire to control women’s subversive bodies was a particular concern for the anti-New Woman communities and their rhetoric. Although these authors may not have used exactly the same words to describe the New Woman, the meaning of their words—the impropriety stressed—joins these authors together. They knew what they wanted for “their communities” and “their lives.” For these anti-New Women writers, the New Woman’s body needed control because if it was not, she might “revolt” or “shriek” and encourage those women around her to do the same. To confine and control the New Woman’s body in the private sphere or home was to discourage “struggles” in the public sphere.
Mrs Morgan-Dockrell’s assessment illustrates the perceived differences between the cooperative private and competitive public spheres. In “The use of masculine and feminine to describe women’s and men’s behavior” (1995), Campbell Leaper defines two categories of descriptive phrases—”socioemotional” (“cooperative” or communal) and “instrumental” (competitive or “agentic”). Adjectives like sympathetic, kind, helpful, affectionate, warm, and gentle are socioemotional words and active, assertive, competitive, decisive, independent, and self-reliant are instrumental (Leaper 364). The New Woman, according to Morgan-Dockrell, possessed what Leaper calls instrumental characteristics, and unlike the college students who did not necessarily assign genders to particular characteristics, late-Victorian writers like Morgan-Dockrell certainly saw instrumental adjectives as masculine when they categorized the ideal man as active and independent and the ideal woman as sympathetic and kind. When Morgan-Dockrell addresses the New Woman’s lack of domesticity and loveliness, she shows that the New Woman lacked the skills needed for not only housekeeping, one of the most important jobs of middle-class British women, but she also lacked those needed to maintain a happy marriage. By calling the New Woman a “man-hating shrew” and suggesting that she revolted, Morgan-Dockrell implies that the New Woman cared neither about her household, husband, nor children because she would rather strive in public for her own independence. With words like “untidy” and “undomesticated,” Morgan-Dockrell implies the revolution took place outside the home and that it was more dangerous than one inside the home. A woman who revolts is certainly active, assertive, and independent, and these words, in the minds of the New Woman critics, were not easily associated with affectionate, warm, or gentle. Thus, Morgan-Dockrell contrasts the appropriately behaved Victorian woman’s propriety with the New Woman’s impropriety. The words Morgan-Dockrell uses to define the New Woman are negative not only in the context of the article but by definition too.
It is clear that, for Morgan-Dockrell and others in her community who subscribe to these terms of description, that the New Woman and those who either aspired to be like her or who supported her, inspired impropriety in Victorian women. This fear of inspired impropriety or a developing revolution is important to the community-building aspect of New Woman rhetoric. These authors and readers wrote and thought in a community. Because members of the community share understandings, it is not surprising that critics of the New Woman might be afraid that other female readers will begin to “understand” the New Woman’s arguments.
The community created by the journalism of writers like Morgan-Dockrell, “One”, Winston, and Andrew were “united by [a] common enterprise”: the fear that the New Woman and her proponents moved the Victorian woman out of the house and into the public sphere where she could agitate for freedoms and ignore her duties as wife and mother. They “develop[ed] and shar[ed] ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, values” which encouraged readers to see the New Woman as a dangerous figure (Eckert 35). Though these authors may not have recognized the rhetorical community their work created, their writings demonstrate to modern critics a concerted effort by at least one segment of the population to argue against the New Woman’s work.
The New Woman as a Mythical Creature
Not only did authors use specific verbs (bully, berate, revolt) to negatively describe the New Woman’s actions and make her appear competitive, but they also employed metaphors to frame her as a mythical being. Five of the seven opponents described the New Woman as a dangerous creature and three authors in favor of the New Woman provided examples of how New Woman critics depicted her as a myth. The authors drew from Greek and Roman myth as well as more contemporary European myths, such as vampires, to inspire fear of the New Woman. While some mythical characters, such as Hestia (goddess of hearth and home), Artemis (protector of young women), and Penelope (Odysseus’ faithful wife), might suggest intelligence and inspire feelings of loyalty in ways these critics could support, this discourse community emphasized dangerous mythical creatures like harpies, gorgons, and sirens when they discussed Victorian New Women. When the authors present the New Woman as a dangerous mythical creature, they situate the New Woman in a familiar world of mythology. Many Victorian readers were familiar with a wide range of mythologies, for they encountered it in literature as diverse as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Lord Tennyson’s “Boadicea,” and by the end of the century Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Middle- and upper-middle-class men who had attended public schools were fluent in Greek and Latin. In short, the readers of these periodicals—targeted to middle- and upper-middle class Britons—would have been familiar not only with the figures themselves but also with their connotations. Bram Dijkstra in Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture (1986) explains that, at the fin-de-siecle, authors and scientists alike were portraying women simultaneously as saints and monsters:
two designations for a single dualistic opposition: that of woman as man’s exclusive and forever pliable private property, on the one hand, and her transformation, upon her denial of man’s ownership rights to her, into a polyandrous predator indiscriminately lusting after man’s seminal essence, on the other (334).
Readers of this literature were very familiar with the power of the feminine monster. As a result, rather than explain how New Women were like harpies or vampires, the authors could simply pronounce the New Woman a vampire, and allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Moreover, the common or related language and knowledge base of these writers (eight authors in the archive discuss the New Woman in terms of mythological creatures) strengthens the likelihood of a community of practice and the completion of shared goals.
Although overt sexuality may also have also fallen under the category of impropriety, many of the above examples eschewed discussions of sex: it was enough for women to be simply present in the public sphere. Those women who were described as mythical creatures, however, were often portrayed as sexualized. According to the New Woman critics, the formidable (and herself mythical) Angel in the House no longer reigned: she was replaced with a creature, dangerous and ugly, who used her powers to lure British men. When women are presented as rapacious, sexualized creatures, like harpies, men turn into prey—a reversal of the roles traditionally represented in Victorian sexual dramas. The sexually-proactive New Woman stripped Victorian men of a power that they held over their wives and sisters in traditional literary and journalistic portrayals and women appeared to become more resourceful and active. 10 It is important to remember, however, that the criticism of women and the depiction of them as sexualized monsters came from both women (like Eliza Lynn Linton) and men. Both men and women in the late-Victorian period worked to maintain women as Angels of the House. The women, however, are almost always portrayed as monsters who prey on men.
Through their discussion of women’s sexuality, the critics also emphasized the New Woman’s innate power over men, underscoring qualities that critics deemed both unnatural and unfeminine. The women overpower, lure, and control men; actions, for these authors, that were unbecoming of Victorian women. Both Eastwood and Linton depict British men as weak and easy victims. They argue that the New Woman would destroy and dishonor men and ultimately British culture. If men were weak, they suggest, they had no opportunity to guard against these abnormal or unfamiliar women/creatures. Victorian men, in this view, were not prepared to love women who were strong, willful, and sexually aware. Although this may seem like a criticism of Victorian men rather than assertive women, Linton’s and Eastwood’s depiction of the New Women as sirens, harpies, and vampires demonstrates their belief that New Women “lured” men. The New Woman was not innocent but devious. She did not “attract” men as faithful suitors with her purity, she tricked and trapped them. The emphasis on “lure,” a word with negative connotations that brings to mind words like “ensnare”, “entrap”, “entice”, and “tempt”, moved readers to see the New Woman as someone to destroy. For these authors, these unnatural women, who acted in ways that were inappropriate to Victorian women, ought to be restrained from influencing others. For those concerned with maintaining the patriarchal hierarchies of middle-class, late-Victorian Britain the possibility of change—and the competition inherent in change—was disruptive.
The critics’ portrayal of women as mythical creatures positioned the New Woman debate in a familiar history for Victorian readers, for in much of Western literature, women had been constructed as monsters or angels. Victorian women (and even women today, perhaps) were required to “come to terms with …. those mythic masks male artists have fastened over her human face both to lessen their dread of her ‘inconstancy’ and—by identifying her with the ‘eternal types’ they have themselves invented—to possess her more thoroughly” (Gilbert and Gubar 16-17).
In fixing or “identifying” the New Woman as a monster, these journalists not only created their own community of practice, but also participated in other predominant Victorian discourse communities—those who may not have been directly concerned with The Woman Question, but who thought and wrote about women’s place in Victorian culture. When the New Woman critics employed the trope of woman as monster, they sought to shape the audience’s reading practices by appealing to persistent and familiar forms. If the audience were already familiar with the metaphors, authors could devote more time to developing arguments that address the specific dangers of the New Woman rather than arguments designed to convince readers that women weremonsters.
When these journalists placed the “mask” of a monster on the New Woman, she became, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest, controllable, someone who could be written and created but who was otherwise lifeless and powerless. Though these authors portrayed the New Woman in fictional stories, as characters in sketches, or in non-specific musings on Victorian femininity, this journalistic production of Victorian women also reflected what these journalists saw happening in Britain. Authors used the figure of the monster to reassert Victorian femininity, specifically the masked angel that men could control. Thus, the designation of the New Woman as monster rather than angel provided these authors with two different definitions of femininity. The monster portrayed the opposite traits of the ideal woman. To be ideal, the Victorian woman must not be like a siren or harpy. The authors, in other words, defined femininity through negatives.
The New Woman and The Woman Question consumed Britain during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Through the press, New Woman critics and advocates alike responded to one another and encouraged debates about the role of women. Through these responses and debates, they created discourse communities or communities of practice that held the common goal of putting forth arguments that sought explore the social work of the New Woman. Even though universities admitted women, and women moved, worked, and campaigned in public in greater numbers than ever, many opponents still saw the New Woman and her active, real-life counterparts as inherently dangerous to the fabric of Victorian society. One of the most effective methods that opponents of first-wave feminism devised was an effort to control bodies and to prescribe certain spaces, attributes, and skills for women. In doing so, these critics portrayed the New Woman as dangerous: she was mythical, deranged, hysterical, competitive, and improper according to Victorian standards. By analyzing only a few of the ways that New Woman journalists constructed negative portrayals of Victorian femininity, this essay demonstrates the complex and often fraught state of Victorian femininity. Though these authors employed similar language and perceived femininity in comparable ways, the diversity of naming practices, verbs, and adjectives used to describe the New Woman shows the difficulty that the public had in developing a constant, ideal woman.
This essay presents only the beginning of the potential possibilities for research in the linguistic and rhetorical practices in New Woman journalism. Research questions such as the following still need to be addressed to better understand the role of linguistic representations and journalism on late-Victorian femininity: How was the New Woman positively portrayed in the press? How do the New Woman authors (whether advocates or opponents) integrate their peers’ writing into their own to make their argument more appealing to the community? In what ways did the rhetoric of the New Woman sustain and challenge conceptions of masculinity? and How do the linguistic and metaphorical portrayals of third-wave, modern feminists reflect those of their precursors? These questions, along with this essay, open up new possibilities of work with what was a powerful popular press that shaped and disseminated cultural opinions.
Danielle Nielsen is Assistant Professor of English, MurrayStateUniversity. She has published on Samuel Butler's Life and Habit and The Way of All Flesh in English Literature in Transition (January 2011).
1 Though more articles were returned than used in this study, many were coded “New Woman” by the database but did not specifically use that term in the text.
2 Most critics consider Ellen Jordan’s article, “The Christening of the New Woman: May 1894” in the Spring 1983 Victorian Newsletter as the first instance of a contemporary critic crediting Grand with the coinage.
3 This debate’s archive would be an appropriate starting point for a similar study on the discourse of the “daughter” in Victorian society.
4 Our analysis of this language must be aware of the temporal differences between the Victorian period and our own. On the one hand, the language used to describe the New Woman suggests how Victorians viewed femininity and their own society. When we as contemporary readers, on the other hand, interpret this language, we must ensure that we do not automatically assign contemporary definitions to the ways in which the women were discussed. Though there are similarities between Victorian and contemporary language, the differences too are important.
5 It is important to note that while many women were confined to writing from their homes others spoke frequently about women’s rights. For instance Josephine Butler toured the country to argue for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts and Sarah Grand and Olive Schreiner, another prominent New Woman author and suffragist often spoke at public rallies. Interestingly, Eliza Lynn Linton, an active New Woman opponent, used her own public platform to fight against furthering women’s rights.
6 The periodicals in which these authors wrote were popular during the period. For instance, The Nineteenth Century, a monthly review edited by James Knowles, included essays about literature and culture like the relationship between Britain and the United States and the role of Empire, and features writers and intellectuals such as Ouida, Leslie Stephen, and Cornelia Sorabji, a well-known Indian activist. Blackwood’s, a long-standing monthly printed in Edinburgh, was politically conservative and published well-known authors and thinkers like George Eliot, Margaret Oliphant, John Buchan, and Joseph Conrad. Contemporary Review, a liberal leaning magazine, published works by John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, and is still published today as a global arts, literature, and culture quarterly. Needless to say, the periodicals in which authors wrote about and thought about the New Woman were widespread, reaching both liberal and conservative audiences as well as those interested in politics, arts, and culture.
7 The hierarchical distinctions between masculinity and femininity are not as obvious or as unchallenged as Mills suggests, however. Though the separate spheres ideology continues to be important to understanding Victorian culture, we must consider race and class differences within Britain at the time. For instance, Victorian ethnographic and sociological studies and even literature show that those who practiced or embraced the separate spheres ideologies were often middle- and upper-class. Lower-middle and working-class women and immigrants alike undertook work outside the home, serving on one end of the spectrum as governesses and household servants, while on the other end, as actresses and prostitutes. Undoubtedly, women during at the fin-de-siècle were active and working in the public sphere. Furthermore, New Woman advocates like Sarah Grand argued that women served a higher role in the home as moral arbiter and exemplar, privileging the ethical education that children received over the market education they sought outside the home.
8 It is not within the scope of this essay to address the discrepancies with which women like Linton or Ouida denied greater freedoms to other women while taking those rights as their own. What is important to note, however, is the challenges that women’s writing, particularly in periodicals provided to the gender divide, the idea of women’s propriety, and the ability of women to use the press to circulate their own ideas and participate in these debates that were at the forefront of social policy discussions during this period.
9 It is interesting to note that although women are criticized for trying to build, direct, or train people outside of the home, or to participate in education outside of the role of the governess, it is appropriate, in fact preferable, for women to teach and direct children in the home.
10 The late-Victorian literary representations of men threatening women’s purity are well documented. See Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Christina Rosetti’s poem “Goblin Market,” George Moore’s Esther Waters, and Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins.
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--. “The Voice of Woman.” Westminster Review 145 (Feb. 1896): 193-196. Rpt. in A New Woman Reader: Fiction, Articles, and Drama of the 1890s. Ed. Carolyn Christensen Nelson. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2001. 207-210. Print.
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--. “Tommyrotics.” Blackwood’s Magazine 157 (June 1895): 833-845. Rpt. in A New Woman Reader: Fiction, Articles, and Drama of the 1890s. Ed. Carolyn Christensen Nelson. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2001. 234-243. Print.
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