Around the turn of the 20th century, a curious, new creature emerged in the world. This creature was called “the new woman” and an “independently minded female”. She was the sign of things to come, a woman who relied on herself, not a man.
Who Was the New Woman?
The term “new woman” was coined in the mid-1890s and popularized by novelist Henry James and others who created heroines that embodied new woman ideals. The Gibson Girl also was said to embody these qualities.
New women exhibited the following traits:
- Politically involved, a suffragette
- Worked outside the house
- Highly educated
- Sexually aware and, in some cases, sexually liberated
- Had a sense of identity outside of daughter, wife, mother
- Had a social life
- A member of the upper classes
The new woman was scary to many people because she challenged the status quo of the demure lady whose brain was taxed by learning, who didn’t understand politics and who never thought of sex.
World War One
World War One ended the era of the new woman. By 1914, it was no longer shocking for women to take over and succeed at formerly male-dominated positions such as nursing, teaching, clerical work and manufacturing. In many nations, women gained the right to vote. Fashion became less constricting and more practical.
Sexuality changed as well from the beginning of the war into the 1920s. Couples no longer courted but instead dated. Women could divorce without ruining their reputations, and premarital sex became more common.
The Debate Continues
In our “modern” world we still see the debate over whether and how much a woman should be independent. Do a search for “independent minded female” and many articles show up in the results.
One of the most sexist was published by dating website eHarmony. The advice contained in the article sounds like it could have come straight out of the 1900s. “Can it be that you’re too independent for your own good?” it asks.
It goes on to say, “women long to feel adored and secure, men crave the feeling of being needed and appreciated for what they can do for you” and “remind yourself that men want to do things for women. They enjoy it; it makes them feel like men.”
Worst of all, it said, “Men are also natural problem-solvers and can give good advice and a fresh perspective that the female brain can’t always see.”
We like to think that we’ve made great progress in the past 120 years, but clearly some of the stereotypes that faced our great-grandmothers persist today.
Women have come a long way, but there is still a way to go. What women do you see breaking barriers today? Leave a comment below.
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