The New Woman

Australian Women Writers Gen 0 Week 14-21 Jan. 2024

I’ve been studying and writing about the Independent Woman in Australian Lit. for twenty years, first for my degree then in this blog. We, in this blogging community, first looked at the origins of the Independent Woman in AWW Gen 1 Week in Jan. 2018. These days I am privileged to be able to focus my reading and reviewing through, but now I want to look at the ideas swirling around the Anglophone world, which led to and paralleled the rise in Australian women’s fiction, in the second half of the nineteenth century, of the idea of young women rejecting marriage and seeking employment.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), followed by John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869), is probably our starting point for AWW Gen 0, though there are others, not least Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) – though she does get married a lot.

Other works and authors which spring to mind are George Sand, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth, Charlotte Bronte’s Villette and The Professor. Willa Cather, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland. There’s a list on the AWW Gen 0 page which I will update as more come to mind or are suggested.

Over all this is the New Woman movement which until now I haven’t read up on at all. Wikipedia’s ‘New Woman’ entry begins:

The New Woman was a feminist ideal that emerged in the late 19th century and had a profound influence well into the 20th century. In 1894, Irish writer Sarah Grand (1854–1943) used the term “new woman” in an influential article [in the North American Review] to refer to independent women seeking radical change. In response the English writer Ouida (Maria Louisa Ramé) used the term as the title of a follow-up article. The term was further popularized by British-American writer Henry James, who used it to describe the growth in the number of feminist, educated, independent career women in Europe and the United States

Wiki, 22 May 2023

Catherine Helen Spence, Australia’s preeminent first wave feminist began writing in the early 1850s; and Rosa Praed, whose heroines famously dispose of inconvenient husbands, in 1880; so the fit with the New Woman is not perfect; though later writers like Catherine Martin, Mary Gaunt and Miles Franklin, fit better. It is notable too that universities in Australia and the UK began allowing women to take degrees in 1881 (USA was earlier, I don’t know by how much).

‘New Woman’ appears quite often as a subject heading in Australian newspapers after 1894, but as a far as I can tell it was for little joke pieces making fun of women. Here’s one from the Adelaide Observer, Sat 1 Feb 1896


“Come, be brave now! Don’t disgrace your bloomers!” It was the tall, masculine woman who spoke. Her younger companion held her protector’s arm nervously and shook visibly. “Oh, but,” she said, “it is so dreadful, and it is coming this way.” Just then the monster came with a rush and a swish and a hypnotic glitter of its beadlike little eyes. It dodged right between the feet of the new woman, and vanished through a little hole in the wall, while the cat, which had aroused it, sprang after, but brought up with a thump against the wall, unable to follow further.

There were two shrieks, a wild clutching of bloomers, a leap towards the table, and then a fall. The young woman had fainted. Nature had again asserted herself. The new woman was unmanned.

p.34 (here)

‘Bloomers’ might be a reference to bicycle riding, which was closely associated with the idea of the New Woman, or might just have been a staff writer getting his rocks off.

Emeritus Professor Lynn Pykett has written widely on 19th and 20th century fiction, including Emily Bronte (1989), The Improper Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Women’s Writing (1992) and Engendered Fictions: The English Novel in the Early Twentieth Century. I have a paper she wrote, in 2000, on the origins of the New Woman. She positions the beginnings of the concept (though not the capitalisation) a year before Sarah Grand:

It was … in the pages of the fin-de-siecle [sic] feminist press that [the New Woman] was first invented as a fictional icon to represent the political woman of the coming century. The feminist version of the New Woman was not the mannish and overly sexualized New Woman popularized in novels and mainstream periodicals of the 1890s but a symbol of a new political identity that promised to improve and reform English society …

Pykett quoting Michelle Tusan, “Inventing the New Woman” (1998)

Pykett goes on to demonstrate that the idea, if not the name, had been extant for some time, probably dating from the 1840s: “as early as 1855 Margaret Oliphant had reminded the readers of Blackwood’s of the way in which a new kind of woman had burst upon the fictional scene with the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847″; and again, “from at least the late 1840s, commentators on modern British life and letters were addressing issues of modernity through their focus on women and particularly the new kind of woman.”

The New Woman takes many shapes, as the focus of men’s fears and of women’s ambitions – housewifely, sexual, and in the wider business and political world.

Another reviewer, in 1865, wrote (and seemingly moves the naming of the New Woman back three decades), “The New Woman, as we read of her in recent novels, possesses not only the velvet, but the claws of the tiger. She is no longer the Angel, but the Devil in the house … Man proposes, woman disposes, is the new proverb.”

For AWW Gen 0 Week I would like you to review a work or works which fit my loose criteria, and of course to let me know of reviews you have done already. Lisa and I have a George Sand site, sadly not updated for some time. I can see the ‘Independent Woman’ in Sand’s life but I would like to see it too in her work. Bron did a great post some time ago on Wollstonecraft, referencing another blogger who had done a series of posts (A Vindication of Accidental Feminists). Ouida (one of whose racy novels Tom was reading on the banks of the Lachlan in Such is Life) is generally counted as anti-feminist, but perhaps her advocacy for the New Woman means I should give her a try.


Lynn Pykett, What’s “New” about the “New Woman”? Another look at the representation of the New Woman in Victorian periodicals (here)


26 thoughts on “The New Woman

  1. *ouch!* “Sadly not updated for some time”…
    Alas, I don’t have a single work by George Sand on the TBR.
    TBH, I set up the site because I was conscious of the fact that I had set up three collaborative blogs for French male writers (Balzac, Zola and Maupassant) and none for a French woman writer.
    But it’s never had the support or interest that the others have had, and not IMHO just because there’s not much on it yet.


    • I think Sand was a really interesting person and an excellent writer (eg Devil’s Pool). Hopefully someone will point me towards a work of hers which is autofiction for instance or otherwise illustrates her commitment to women’s independence.


  2. Thank you so much for this list/summary, Wad. I am fascinated and will follow up on some of these I haven’t read. My motivation is that I am planning an autofiction with a working title: The Woman Who Said No. This idea came to me after reading about half of The Good Wife of Bath, which I found tedious and in need of editing. I couldn’t understand why so many rave about it.

    I must reread Moll Flanders, one I skipped over in my first degree. I’ve recently re-read Villette and Jane Eyre. I love Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels; I think North and South has elements of the independent woman in it, and even Wives and Daughters, though it is more a satire-cum-romance within the Jane Austen tradition. To marry or not to marry: that is the question. And how to dispose of one’s husband if one does make a mistake. And more.

    I am re-inspired!




    • Christina, call me Bill (WAD is my initials. WordPress suggested wadholloway as a user name and I just went along).

      Miles Franklin and then Eve Langley set me on the path of Women who say No. It has proved endlessly fascinating. What set me off was that second wave feminists writers seemed to have almost no knowledge of Australian first wave feminist lit (it had been out of print a long, long time).

      It’s a long time since I read North and South, but I have it in my Audible library, so I’ll get to it again one day. Ruth though, I think is unique.

      “To marry or not to marry … And how to dispose of one’s husband” sounds like a lot of early Australian women’s fiction – but not so much in other countries, though Gen 0 Week might change my opinion.


  3. Thanks, Bill. I love North and South; a complex study of the working class, industrial culture of northern England against the background of the genteel, upper-middle class culture of the south, which is worked out in a romantic union between the man of the north and the woman of the south, but not without much conflict and loss on both sides. I’ve never read Ruth, but it’s on my TBR list now. N and S BBC serialisation is wonderful too.


    • I used to think of Eliz. Gaskell as Jane Austen with steam trains, but she’s much more complex than that. And I did see, and enjoy, N and S in the days when I watched television.


      • Love this Bill, so will have a think. I might have a Cather on my TBR. I have read a bit of her, and of other 19th century American writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin. etc. I have read Ruth … but I think if I read a Gaskell it would have to be Mary Barton which I haven’t read. (Have read Ruth, Cranford, North and south, and Wives and daughters).

        Much food for thought.


      • I’m sure I’ve read Mary Barton, but I just read a summary to check and I’m super impressed. It’s as much about class as it is about independent women, but definitely a worthy inclusion in our week.
        No work this weekend so I’ve driven down to my daughter’s, hence the delay in responding.


  4. I imagine the very first female writer to be given the New Woman tag was Sappho, especially as she was reimagined. rediscovered in the 17th & 18th centuries. Which reminded me of the list of (mostly European) women writers & artists I collated after reading After Sappho last year. I’m thrilled this challenge will be giving me a nudge to read some of them between now and January 2024!

    The list can be found here –


    • I’m thrilled you’re already thinking about contributing (and that you have not one but two posts already that we can include). I’ve been reading up on Sappho – if Sappho writes lyric poetry, to be accompanied by a lyre, does Paul Kelly write guitaric poetry?
      I’ll go off now and add your list to mine, or mine to yours seeing as yours is much longer

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha ha – perhaps if we went with the Latin for guitar – cithara – and therefore citharic. I’m not sure it will take off though!

        Your post has at least prompted me to tidy up the Accidental Feminist post and the defunct links – one more post wordpress-ised thanks 🙂


      • And I’ve tidied up the AWW Gen 0 page. I’ve provided a link to your post (not that I think readers ever actually look at pages) rather than making a copy of your list. But I’m sure we’ll end up with writers in common


  5. I’m really fascinated by this period of women’s history in the Anglophone world, where women started having access to higher education and the professions but still faced such barriers. I suppose the closest thing I’ve currently got to a review of a book about this is War Among Ladies by Eleanor Scott, which I read last year and really loved. It’s 1928, so perhaps a bit later than the relevant period, but it’s about women who would have started in professional jobs in the 1880s and 1890s and were coming to the end of their working lives in the 1920s. One of the books I have on my summer reading list is non-fiction about women’s suffrage and female scientists in WWI, which seems like it might fit as well. And I suppose Edith Wharton was writing about women’s lives in this period, although (in my limited knowledge of her work) she was more concerned with leisured than working women.


    • First wave feminism was largely theoretical, though they did eventually win equal rights for women to vote (only for white women in Australia) but in WWI it all became practical it seems to me, and lots of women stepped up. For Anzac Day (25 Apr) I ran a series of posts in my other gig on Miles Franklin and her participation in Scottish Womens Hospitals in Serbia. What I’m saying is, if my topic leads you to looking at how the New Woman worked out into the 1920s then that’s fine by me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I was thinking Edith Wharton too. The House of Mirth is probably closest to Bill’s themes. But I have her A son at the front on my TBR. I don’t know much about that one so will have to think.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Of new writing, I am enjoying The Bookbinder of Jericho by Pip Williams. I like it much better than her first book. Set in the era of WWI, the story of a young woman who began working as a bookbinder for Oxford University Press, and through her passion for books and her intelligence, manages to get a place at Somerville College. One of the names dropped is Vera Brittain, who is a student there.


  6. I have three Charlotte Perkins Gilman book reviews up on my site. They come up here:

    There is also George Eliot, which I read in school. I read Moll Flanders on your recommendation and enjoyed it. I haven’t read much Bronte, but I do want to tackle Wuthering Heights with Biscuit soon. We keep getting books that don’t lead to much discussion, so perhaps something more challenging.

    Great post; I really enjoyed reading the timeline, including the newspaper clips. I interpreted the “bloomers” comment to mean “big girl panties,” i.e. “if you think you’re so grown…”


    • I had provided a link to your Herland review but now I’ve updated my Gen 0 page to provide links to the other two. I was impressed by Charlotte Bronte’s determination to earn her own living. I’m not sure Emily was as determined, but you’ve made me remember I have Mrs Gaskell’s life of Charlotte Bronte which I should review later this year.

      I’m glad you liked the post. I think the story illustrates that my father and my grandfather’s generation had a thousand ways of putting down “silly little girlies”.


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