Thursday, 17 March 2016


‘So you are the politician who wants to undermine my acquired rights? Who does not legislate in favour of progress and equality? Who is not concerned about promoting measures aimed towards maternity protection? Well, you have definitely lost my vote in the upcoming elections!’. An allegation such as this one could have only been made by a British woman from the twentieth century onwards, since it was not until 1928 that equal suffrage was established in this country1.

Even though 1928 was the date when equality in this field was achieved, the fight for women’s suffrage began long before. The Victorian era was a rather active period with regards to this matter. In 1872, the formation of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage and the subsequent National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) attributed this campaign with a sense of a national movement.

It was in this context that this idea of “The New Woman” emerged.


So what was exactly a “New Woman”? What made a Victorian lady a “New Woman”?

It was a feminist ideal that arose from the movement that claimed the role of women in a patriarchal society. Female rights were extremely limited and mainly regarded their responsibilities within the home sphere. Women were seen as “pretty figurines”, pure and naïve, and with no other purpose in life than to adorn, have kids and take care of the house. Figure 1 is a painting that represents quite an accurate reflection of this empty lifestyle. Faced with this, women – both from high and low social classes - were tired of being seen as the image Isabella Beeton gave of a perfect mistress in her Book of Household Management2. In opposition to this, they wanted to be an active part of society, be given the chance to make decisions and take control of their own lives.

Figure 1: Toilette
by Jules James Rougeron, 1877
Consequently, the imperative need for a change aroused. Women began to take action, especially in the form of particular campaigns, to demand commodities we take for granted nowadays like female suffrage, the abolition of female slavery, education, reforms of the divorce laws or property, amongst others. Some of the most relevant names of this movement were Emily Davies, Josephine Butler, Millicent Garrett Fawcett or Barbara Bodichon, whose efforts were effective though not immediate. Some of their achievements were, for example, the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act (1857), which allowed limited divorce to women or an act in 1891 which gave women a say in terms of men’s conjugal rights to their wives’ bodies.3   

This revolution based on a change of mentality triggered an evolution on the image of women themselves. The “New Woman” was no longer submissive, neither to her husband nor to society. She was educated; an education meant a way of emancipation. Linked to this idea, she was independent, not only due to the change in the mindset, but also thanks to the introduction of a key element in women’s lives: the bicycle.

 This picture is quite a representative image of a “New Woman”. Not only is she in possession of a means that allowed her to move about without the need nor consent of a husband, but in order to ride it she needed new clothing, far from the sumptuous and uncomfortable dresses ladies used to wear. This new look resembled more the clean and straight lines of men’s garments, achieving with this to make a statement on equality.

However, clothes were not the only point where women began to resemble men. Another sign of their growing power was smoking, which had been historically regarded as an immoral and inappropriate habit for women, and mainly attributed to prostitutes and disgraced women. Motherhood and sex became a controversial topic as well. This new independence and open-mindedness led women to acknowledge the fact that they were entitled to so much more than just raising children and mostly being sex slaves to their husbands. These new educated females had the power and the strength knowledge provides and they prioritized these new needs over their old traditional role.

Unfortunately, such a disruption in a male-dominated society was bound to attract both positive and negative reactions. Most men saw this movement as a threat and were not willing to accept a change that would put in jeopardy their comfortable lifestyle. Oddly enough, opposition also came from female writers such as Mrs Humphry Ward, who found feminism was a threat against marriage and motherhood4. However, one of the most notable cases of propaganda against “The New Woman” was Punch magazine.



     ‘By the way, doctor, the “New Woman”, what’ll she be like, when she’s grown old?’
     ‘My dear colonel, she’ll never grow old!’
     ‘Great Scott!’ You don’t mean to say she’s going to last for ever!’
     ‘She won’t even last out the century! She’s got every malady under the sun!

 The biggest opposition to this quest for equality came from the press, especially from a satirical magazine called Punch. Their archives are replete of cartoons criticising and parodying every aspect of “The New Woman”. This type of magazine was one of the most harmful and effective ways to attack feminism due to their easy understanding and comicality. Down below will be shown some examples.


Flower woman. ‘I wish them suffragettes would move along. They’ve ruined my business today!    

The first cartoon is a parodic ensemble of some of the features already mentioned: the two main figures in the middle are “New Women” in bloomers – the name of their characteristic new piece of clothing -, smoking and therefore being looked down upon by traditional, respectable Victorian women. Along those lines is designed the second one, which shows again how “normal” women did not support the new movement, and in a way how suffragettes were “a disease” for society.


Wife of his Bosom. ‘Upon my word, Mr Peewitt! Is this the way you fill up your census! So you call yourself the ‘Head of the Family’ – do you – and me a ‘Female’!    


   Edwin (suddenly, after a long pause) ‘Darling!’
   Angelina. ‘Yes, darling!?’
   Edwin. ‘Nothing, darling. Only darling, darling!’

(Bilious old gentleman feels quite sick)    

These satirize the new generation of men, young males who were not as narrow-minded as their parents or grandparents, and somehow accepted these new and powerful women as they were. This change of authority led to the representation of “New Women” as bigger in size, thus having a domineering physical presence.


Father of the family. ‘Come, dear; we so seldom go out together now – can’t you take us all to the play tonight?’
Mistress of the house. ‘How you talk, Charles! Don’t you see that I am too busy. I have a committee tomorrow morning, and I have my speech on the great crochet question to prepare for the evening.’ 
This cartoon is probably the most satirical of all. Not only does it ridicule men by attributing this male character the traditional role of women yet still calling him “father of the family”, but it also ridicules “New Women” by making this female character so busy, yet her speech being on the great crochet question and she still is the “mistress of the house”.


“The New Woman” was a relevant concept both in real life and as a cultural phenomenon. In literature, through the use of individual characters, writers addressed the attitudes of the Victorian society. Some of the most relevant representatives of this literary movement were Thomas Hardy, George Egerton, George Meredith, Sarah Grand and George Gissing.

Angelique Richardson’s Women Who Did5 gathers a series of short stories about “New Women” written by both male and female authors between 1980 and 1914. Hereafter will be discussed two of them: She-Notes (1894) and If I were a Man (1914), two relevant yet opposite examples.

She-Notes is a parody that Punch created mainly in response to George Egerton’s (Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright) writings. She was very interested in one of the key topics of the “New Women” movement, the freedom of exploration of female sexuality, rejecting the traditionally male-imposed purity. These allegations doomed her to be satirized by the magazine in this short story. It attacks Egerton’s work directly by having the trusted maid run away with her mistress’ lover, since the writer explored different kinds of relationships between women. However, the idea of intimate bonds between women of different social classes was quite distressing for the society of the time, especially because it deviated the attention from traditional heterosexual plots.

If I were a Man, on the other hand has a strong focus on gender inequality. It examines the thoughts of a woman who experiences what it feels like to be a man, and this leads to almost comical situations, for instance, when she encounters pockets for the first time with all the power their belongings give her. The humorous tone is also present due to the description of her at the beginning; she is described as ‘a true woman’, little, pretty and charming. Nevertheless, she manages to represent the ideals of a “New Woman” at the end, when she gives an excellent speech that refutes every sexist comment she hears and sets the path for the equality we are fortunate enough to enjoy today.


1 Parliament. “Living Heritage. Women and the vote.” UK Parliament. Accessed: 02/03/2016. Found at:

2 Beeton, Isabella. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. London: S. O. Beeton Publishing. 1861. Print.

3 Dinlejko, Andrzej. “The New Woman Fiction”. The Victorian Web. Accessed: 04/03/2016. Found at:

4 Buzwell, Greg. “Daughters of decadence: the New Woman in the Victorian fin de siècle. British Library. Accessed: 10/03/2016. Found at:

5 Richardson, Angelique. Women Who Did. Stories by men and women, 1890-1914. London: Penguin Group. 2002. Print.

1 comment:

  1. This was a really interesting read. I expected there to be resistance from the men when it comes to women rights, but the fact that some women like Mrs Ward also was so opposed to the idea is rather frightening. Maybe it's change in general these women oppose?