The New Woman of the 1890s to the 1920s was the first strong movement of women towards a fuller life, one they could have control over. Did it fully flower?
We often think the New Woman was kind of a failure because her more full expression was also her swan song. The 1920s flapper was the mature incarnation of the New Woman, the one that most fully expresses what the New Woman was about. But from the 1930s, women’s social advancement went through a setback that lasted almost as long as the New Woman’s historical arc. After the flapper, Western women didn’t experience another season of evolution in their social role until the 1960s sexual revolution.
But is it fair to judge the New Woman by her fading?
Would women in the 1960s really have had the opportunity to do what they did if their grandmothers hadn’t done what they did?
In the arc of forty years, the New Woman achieved incredible advancement. She went from being the frail angel of the house to participating in the war effort. Not only she began working outside the home, seeking her own realisation and her own ambitions, but she proved to be as good as men in all aspects of life.
She fought fiercely for her right to vote to make a difference in how the nation was conducted. Yes, in many western nations, women didn’t get the vote until after WWII, and in others, they won the right to vote and then lost it, but this doesn’t detract from the effort suffragists endured both before and after WWI.
Personally, I think the New Women’s most impressive achievement was maybe less apparent but far more life-changing. It was the difference she created in everyday life and in the people’s minds, both women and men.
It’s how she managed to change her dress to break that chain society had created about her. Through criticism and ridicule, she stubbornly pursued a fashion that didn’t detract from her femininity and beauty but was far more comfortable and liberating.
She affirmed the idea that being beautiful should be self-expression, not society’s expectation. And that the will to be active and have her own job and independence wasn’t masculinisation but simply self-affirmation.
The New Woman faced society’s anxiety toward her without fear. They called her vampire. They called her ugly and unattractive. They called her unfit to wield the vote and destroyer of family and society.
It took the upheaval of the Great Depression and another World War on its cue to stop her. For a time.
But I think what she did was invaluable. I think we won’t be where we are without the New Woman of a century ago.
She had something inside her that shone brightly. And we still see that light. One hundred years later.
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