Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895-1915

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Challenging monolithic images of the New Woman as white, well-educated, and politically progressive, this study focuses on important regional, ethnic, and sociopolitical differences in the use of the New Woman trope at the turn of the twentieth century. Examining a diverse array of cultural products, Patterson shows how the seemingly celebratory term of the New Woman becomes a trope not only of progressive reform, consumer power, transgressive femininity, modern energy, and modern cure, but also of racial and ethnic taxonomies, social Darwinist struggle, imperialist ambition, assimilationist pressures, and modern decay.

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Please enter 5 or 9 numbers for the ZIP Code. Handling time. Will ship within 10 business days of receiving cleared payment - opens in a new window or tab. The seller has specified an extended handling time for this item. Taxes may be applicable at checkout. Learn more. Yet, despite this connection, and the fact that many suffragists saw themselves as feminists, the terms feminist and woman suffrage were not interchangeable. Some saw woman suffrage as the ultimate goal, others as a means through which they could reform society.

Some white middle-class activists hoped to use suffrage as a tool for maintaining white supremacy and class privilege, employing a conservative stance that imagined women voters as protectors of the domestic sphere. Others, mainly working-class and African American suffragists, saw woman suffrage as part of a larger effort to gain independence and power for those who were otherwise largely disenfranchised.

Although many supported woman suffrage, they preferred to concentrate their efforts on improving labor conditions in factories, seeing it as a more urgent issue than gaining the vote. Representations of the political New Woman in the media, whether as a suffragist, feminist, or social reformer, often portrayed her as masculine, unattractively clothed in bloomers, and sometimes smoking.

Figure 5.

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Other depictions ridiculed women who were active in politics, presenting them as either hysterical fanatics or frivolous women who only cared about shopping and bargains. Figure 6. Feminists and suffragists defended themselves by presenting alternative images that emphasized their femininity and attractiveness. Utilizing all kinds of theatrical and spectacular tactics—from outdoor gatherings and colorful parades to pageantry and picketing—suffragists presented a respectable, stylish, and fashionable appearance that turned their public image into a positive and palatable one.

A photograph of a parade exemplifies this idea, showing suffragists marching in formation, their bright clothing contrasting sharply with the sidewalk crowds of men in dark-colored suits. Figure 7. On October 23, , twenty thousand women marched in the pre-election parade for suffrage in New York. These feminists capitalized on the popular Oriental trend of the s and constructed their image as modern fashionable women by adapting the Japanese kimono to convey their progressive ideas. Figure 8. Instead of the masculine, dowdy suffragist wearing oversized clothes, untidy short hair, and a masculine hat, the new type of suffragist, as the illustration showed, was a fashionable young woman, dressed in a fashionable one-piece dress and wide hat with feathers, with a sash hanging from her shoulder.

Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895-1915

The intersections between the media, consumer culture, and politics that gave rise to new understandings of femininity were not limited to white America. By the s, however, the New Negro Woman image evolved to suit the new reality of millions of African Americans who left the South to seek better lives in the growing urban centers, mainly in the North. Marking the period of the first Great Migration, the proportion of black residents in all American cities rose significantly, from 22 percent in to 40 percent in Single women in their twenties became the second-largest group of migrants after single men.

Like men, they hoped to escape racial violence and Jim Crow segregation and improve their economic fortunes.

New Negro Woman – Quiet Persistance

Although for many migrant women, moving north did not necessarily free them from racial discrimination or domestic service, it did provide more options for upward mobility and political participation through the right to vote. Black women took an active role in the construction of these new identities. Like their white counterparts, they too used the growing emphasis on appearance to further their claims for freedom and equality.

Figure 9. The black press offered examples of modern black femininity as an attempt to refute racist stereotypes.


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But it was also through an emphasis on a fashionable and modest appearance that middle-class black women could push for racial uplift and personal betterment, urging young female migrants to improve their communities and to participate in reform and political causes. We must go into our communities and improve them.

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Walker and Annie T. By expanding definitions of beauty and appropriate body display, black women like Walker assumed new spaces and positions from which they could actively participate in the project of racial uplift, while at the same time challenging it. Young women, particularly working-class migrants, also adapted the idea of respectability to the new consumer culture and embraced a more brazen appearance through bolder and more expressive aesthetics choices.

For them, it was a way through which they could claim access to the growing youth culture and the promises it entailed. As they strolled city streets dressed in the latest fashions, these women asserted control over their bodies and appearances, far from the supervising eye of their white employers or the confining realms of middle-class propriety. In that context, the female performer—the dancer, the vaudeville actress, and particularly the blues singer—became an important emblem of modern black femininity that gave rise to a new concept of beauty that defied earlier notions of respectability.

The new cultural scene in Harlem and other urban centers provided the black female performer with new possibilities for reclaiming female sexuality as a source of female power and pride. Ethel Waters, for example, bragged about buying a mink coat after signing her first record deal, a purchase that marked both her stardom status and her economic independence, eschewing familial duties.

The image of the black female performer also defied sexual and class boundaries. In addition, most blues performers came from the South, and to many of them, such as Alberta Hunter and Ethel Waters, their performance career served as a route out of a life of poverty and discrimination. Occupying a liminal space between middle-class and working-class worlds, blues singers managed to construct a new ideal of femininity that acknowledged the worthiness of working-class and rural southern culture even as it stood for upward mobility and economic success.

Thus, by offering an alternative and commodified image of the New Negro Woman, blues singers and black female performers expanded New Womanhood in ways that challenged racialized gender norms within white and black communities. Young women bobbed their hair, wore makeup, and discarded corsets before the war, but only in the s did these fashions come to symbolize the freedoms women were beginning to claim, and the new moral values they promoted. Sophisticated, sexually liberated, and independent, the flapper marked the rise of a new youth culture that emphasized individuality, pleasure, and sexual expression.

Figure Also associated with urbanism, skyscrapers, the growing numbers of automobiles, and modern aesthetics in art, the flapper became more than the quintessential image of the New Woman in the postwar decade; she became the visual representation of a modern cultural consciousness that defined the s. Her image, as depicted in advertisements and popular media, was associated with a range of consumer products that denoted modern living: cars, cosmetics, clothing, and electrical appliances. Indeed, youth became less a marker of age and more a state of mind that valued novelty and innovation.

The flapper image conveyed a youthful and boyish silhouette. John Held Jr. These changes shattered Victorian stereotypes of the passionless white middle-class woman, and redefined womanhood to allow for greater public visibility of and positivity regarding female eroticism and sexual expression. The increasing popularity of mixed-sex, age-based socialization and the growing availability of automobiles provided a space for young people to experience and experiment with new courting customs and sexual practices away from parental or adult control.

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