Around the turn of the 20th century, a curious, new creature emerged in the world. This creature was called “the new woman” or 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 suffragist
- Worked outside the house
- Highly educated
- Sexually aware and, in some cases, sexually liberated
- A sense of identity outside of daughter, wife and mother
- A social life
- A member of the upper classes
The new woman was scary to many people. She challenged the status quo and the image of the demure lady whose brain was taxed by learning, who didn’t understand politics and who never thought of sex.
World War I
World War I 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. Clothing became less constricting and more practical.
The Debate Continues in the 21st Century
In our “modern” world we still debate 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 in 2011. The advice contained in the article that 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, the article 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.
Updated: 22 October 2020