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 AustralianWomenWriters.com, 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 StatesWiki, 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.
‘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)