Despite sometimes being controversial, the New Women mostly remained a symbol of middle-class respectability, and she defended it fiercely by staying clear of more criticised positions. This is precisely what turned her respectability into a weapon for different kinds of activists.
Whether she was the end-of-19th-century Gibson Girl or the beginning-of-the-20th-century flapper, the New Woman was more than anything, an expression of the middle-class. She might have done things no woman had done before her, yet her respectability remained integral to the concept.
Soft and subdue like the Gibson Girl or loud and in-the-face like the flapper, the New Woman always carried a subversive vein carefully balanced with the need for decorum. Because, despite what everyone said of her, the New Woman wanted to achieve new freedom of expression and new aspirations, but she also wanted to be a nice girl. She wanted to be accepted for what she wanted, even if she wanted to be something different from her mother. She was aware that her achievements would only matter if her society accepted the change, however begrudgingly. Only by remaining a part of her society would the New Woman change her role.
The New Woman’s respectability as a mode of inclusiveness
On the whole, she succeeded, though by tempering her demands. Even the wildest flapper eventually sought respectability. She would marry, build a family and become part of a respectable community.
This respectability was recognised not only by society at large but also by other groups of women, who – in different ways – used the respectability attached to the New Woman to support and sustain more problematic positions.
It was the case of the New Negro Woman. Adopting the New Woman’s looks and behaviours allowed African American women to become part of New Woman’s respectability, offering a genteel image of modernity that sharply clashed – and therefore, challenged – the most prevailing racial stereotypes.
Second-generation immigrants also used the New Woman’s image to gain inclusion in American society. By presenting themselves and acting like any other New Woman, they could claim the New Woman’s personality, which was distinctly national.
In large part, activists and feminists, who were often on the cutting age of the New Woman movement and were earlier adopters of even the most controversial behaviours, used the New Woman’s respectability to let their message be heard over the noise of possible subversive attitudes. In the past, these women had acted in unique ways, frequently contrasting what was expected from women. When advocating women’s freedom, activists often adopted a very masculine look. The point was, of course, to challenge the prevailing ideas of women as the weaker sex, but this gave commentators an easy way to dismiss them as freaks.Respectability (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) The New Woman successfully turned her respectability into a weapon in the fight for change and equality #WomenHistory Click To Tweet
In the new century, activists realised that by presenting themselves as New Women and therefore taking part in the New Women’s respectability, commentators would be more careful because criticising them would be criticising all New Women. And besides, removing the ‘noise’ of their looks and behaviour made the message easier to receive.
The New Woman always protected her respectability because she knew it was a weapon in the battle she was fighting. And often, she did so victoriously.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977
I wonder if that desire for respectability played a role in the women’s temperance movement in places like the US? Of course, that would change later, but it seems a sort of natural partnership, at least at the outset, if that makes sense?
You’re probably up to something, there, Margot. Respectability seems to have been both a concern and a weapon for different kind of women groups.
That’s an interesting take. I think today it is still a dilemma, balancing between playing by the rules for respectability, and breaking them for more profound change…
The Multicolored Diary
I think you’re right. And I think we still judge people’s respectability by their clothes.
Ronel Janse van Vuuren
I like how they used respectability as a weapon for equality.
Me too. The New Woman seem to have done this over and over again. Turning what coudl have been a weaknes into strength.
I think this was a natural corollary of women proving themselves that their place is not just within the home, or more specifically in the kitchen, but she can too be out in the open and do as many things as men can. With that came respect.
And also that they remained respectable women even if they were doing things that women had never done.
Respectabilty was – and is – quite tricky.
What an interesting take on the matter 🙂
I actually came across this concept in the book Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, 2021. I found it fascinating.