The relationship between the New Woman and social and political female reformers was always kind of problematic and yet surprisingly fruitful. New Women mostly stayed out of social and political movements. Yet activists often capitalised on the New Woman’s respectability to make their statements more palatable to the public.
Society at large had fiercely opposed women’s activism long before the New Woman appeared. Mostly with criticism and ridicule. Women involved in any form of reformism – especially suffragists – were often dubbed freaks and even mentally unstable. And because they often appropriated men’s fashion – many wore trousers and cropped their hair long before this baìecame fashionable – they were ridiculed and considered ugly.
Reformers, politically involved women and bohemians toughed this out… until they found a more effective tactic.
How the New Woman’s fashion advanced women’s rights by keeping the fight respectable
When women involved in politics and women’s rights were few, it was relatively easy to deal with them. Commentators dubbed them freaks, abnormal, inherently an exception. And since no women wanted to be called or considered that, many stayed clear of any involvement.
But as all women started to participate in a form or another of liberation, dealing with them became more tricky.
In the 19th century, the prevailing notion was that women didn’t concern themselves with politics. Two very distinct social spheres existed. The home, family, and children were a woman’s sphere. Politics and economy were a man’s sphere. The two were never supposed to mix.
Many women didn’t advocate a change in women’s social role: it meant poking their nose into something that wasn’t their business. Besides, the majority of society considered women ‘not the equal of men mentally’; therefore, it wasn’t a good idea to let them enter men’s spaces of any kind, least of all, giving them the right to vote.
But when the New Woman appeared – the Gibson Girl, and especially the suffragette and the flapper – their attitude attuned to activists’ demands. She wanted more freedom and more control over her agenda. She wanted to earn her own money and pursue a professional career. And certainly, she wasn’t happy with what society considered her ‘traditional role’.
Yet New Women often stayed out of the social reform and political fight. There was a stigma attached to those activities, and New Women knew that adhering to them would make their lives harder. Yes, New Women wanted more freedom, but they knew that the change needed to be acceptable to the great majority of society if they wanted to achieve it. So they strove toward it, still keeping a respectable appearance: they dressed fashionably, presenting themselves as attractive. They still wanted to be good wives and mothers. Gibson Girl, in particualr, didn’t push the boundaries too hard.
Soon, activists realised that the New Woman strategy was winning. Make the change not shocking but almost attractive, and more people will listen. Don’t be too apparent and flashy, or people will talk about your dress rather than your message. So, they started to adopt the New Woman’s fashion that landed them respectability rather than an accusation of being freaks and ridiculous.Political Stance (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) The New Woman tried never to take a political stance in order to make her change acceptable. But politics and activism went after her #WomenHistory Click To Tweet
Then something unexpected started to happen. As activists adopted the New Woman’s modern fashion precisely to appropriate her respectability, they inevitably attached political and social meaning to that fashion. And as women adopted the New Woman fashion, they disseminated that social and political message even if they were not politically or socially involved.
The New Woman’s fashion of the 1910s, for example, became a sort of uniform for suffragettes. Women who donned it because they wanted to be modern and fashionable still echoed the suffragettes’ message because they dressed like one.
That fashion was becoming more accessible because it was mass-produced. Therefore it became more affordable for a larger number of women from different walks of life, allowing further dissemination not only to the fashion but also to the message attached to it.
No matter how much the New Woman tried to stay out of activism, her very clothes were a manifestation of social change and reform.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
The Guardian – The 1920s: ‘Young women took the struggle for freedom into their personal lives’
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History – Women and the Progressive Movement
Smithsonian Magazine – How the American West Led the Way for Women in Politics