The “New Woman” of Modern America rejected what it meant to be a woman in Victorian America. In the 19th century, women were either respectable and devoted to their families or were whores and prostitutes. The overwhelming majority of women got married and chose to live a respectable life. The Victorians thought that women were more religious and moral than men. Women were in charge of leading the moral and religious life of their households. This was the assumption that led to the passage of the 18th and 19th Amendments which established Prohibition and women’s suffrage.
The following excerpt comes from New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:
“Two groups of Americans, women and blacks, emerged from the war with heightened expectations and new attitudes toward their place in society. The emancipated woman was the standard-bearer of the modern age. “When the world began to change,” the restlessness of women was the main cause,” observed the writer Hutchins Hapgood. While mainstream feminists fought for the vote, a radical vanguard, the New Women, sought sexual equality with men, including the freedom to love and access to birth control. The war accelerated the triumph of women’s rights, as it did that of Prohibition. “The greatest thing that came out of the war,” said Carrie Chapman Carr, a suffragette leader, “was the emancipation of women, for which no man had fought.”
Writing to a Midwestern friend, Randolph Bourne, who had sympathy for the compromises women made, provided a graphic look at the New Women:
“They are all social workers or magazine writers in a small way. They are decidedly emancipated and advanced, and so thoroughly healthy and zestful, so it seems to my unsophisticated masculine sense. They shock you constantly … They have an amazing combination of wisdom and youthfulness, of humor and ability, and innocence and self-reliance, which absolutely belies everything you will read in the story-books or any other description of womankind. They are, of course, self-supporting and independent; and they enjoy the adventure of life; the full reliant, audacious way in which they go about makes you wonder if the new woman isn’t to be a very splendid sort of person.”
It seems incredible now.
The “New Woman” has become synonymous with women.
The only reason the 19th Amendment was passed by a Victorian male electorate is because it was assumed at the time that male alcoholism was the social problem and that women were more socially conservative than men and giving them the vote would elevate the manners and morals of society. This gives you a sense of the distance we have traveled over the course of a century.
The “New Woman” was a literary creation of Modernism. This is how the ideal began to emerge in Henrik Ibsen’s play The Doll House (1879):
“HELMER: It’s shocking. This is how you would neglect your most sacred duties.
NORA: What do you consider my most sacred duties?
HELMER: Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to your husband and your children?
NORA: I have other duties just as sacred.
HELMER: That you have not. What duties could those be?
NORA: Duties to myself.
HELMER: Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.
NORA: I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are — or at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right, and that views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer contain myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.”
There it is.
The Modern aesthetic ideal of self-exploration, self-expression, self-realization and self-fulfillment is a sacred duty on the same level of a woman’s moral and religious obligations to her family. The shift is that the claims of religion and morality have taken a backseat to an aesthetic lifestyle.
This is the philosophy of Oscar Wilde who believed “to become a work of art is the object of living.” It is the philosophy of Charles Baudelaire who believed in seeing beauty in evil. It is the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche who believed the art of the higher men was the bridge of the Übermensch and that creative geniuses were held back by the Christian slave morality of the masses. It is the philosophy of James Abbott McNeill Whistler in “The Ten O’Clock.” It is the philosophy of Théophile Gautier who believed in the religion of art. It is the philosophy of Walter Pater and Algernon Swinburne and Henry James and all the other late 19th century aesthetes who diminished the claims of religion and morality over life.
This was also the philosophy of Randolph Bourne, the “New Women” like Margaret Anderson and the first Moderns of the 1910s in America. These people were a radical vanguard who were living in bohemian enclaves in New York City and Chicago where they were experimenting with living out the new ethos of Modernism which they were absorbing from the European avant-garde and H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.
From the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism:
“A historical figure as well as a literary phenomenon, the New Woman was named in 1894 in an exchange between ‘Ouida’ (Marie Louise de la Ramée) and Sarah Grand in the pages of the New American Review. The New Woman was a ubiquitous presence in fin-de-siècle literature and journalism concerned with debates about the ‘woman question’, and influenced twentieth-century ideas about feminism and gender. The New Woman novel, with its mapping of female psychological space and emphasis on female consciousness, shaped modernist fiction.
New Women were often political activists as well as writers, and agitated for reform on political and domestic questions. Most New Woman fiction rejects aestheticism in favor of realism; it deals with sexuality with a frankness that departed from Victorian codes of propriety and takes up issues such as suffrage, marriage, domestic violence, and the emancipation of women. In its realism, New Woman fiction departs from the aestheticism of the period, although some writers, like George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright), used the techniques of aestheticism to examine women’s experience.”
The following except comes from Christine Stansell’s book American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century:
“When Hutchins Hapgood looked back on the heyday of bohemia, it was the New Woman he cast as the movers of history, standard-bearers of the modernist telos. “When the world began to change, the restlessness of women was the main cause of the development called Greenwich Village, which existed not only in New York but all over the country,” he elegized. Throughout the left intelligentsia, the emancipated woman stood at the symbolic center of a program for cultural regeneration. Her enactment of destiny was considered a historical spectacle: “The awakening and liberation of woman … is not an event in any class or an issue between classes,” proposes the Masses in 1913. “It is an issue for all humanity.” The innovation of the moment benefited all, but they were thought particularly to aid women. Free speech allowed them to break a long taboo against female sexual expression, the new writing invited them to share literary enterprises monopolized by men, and bohemian politics accepted the fundamental premises of women’s rights and expanded on them. Indeed, freedom of thought and action and “the removal of the barriers between the sexes” went hand in hand.
Men like Hapgood, Max Eastman, John Reed, and Randolph Bourne saw themselves as coconspirators of the heroines of the day. In their writings, political pronouncements, and friendships with the opposite sex, they articulated fond expectations of the advantages that would accrue to all – themselves included – from women’s eventual triumph. “Feminism is going to make it possible for the first time for men to be free,” the Masses predicted. This was a distinctly American sensibility; it was to prove enormously influential in modern sex relations, more so than the explicit antipathy to women (misogynistic at worst, ill-tempered at best) that wound through high-modernist corridors in Europe. Pound, with his animus toward women editors and patrons, Wyndham Lewis, Filippo Marinetti, T.S. Eliot – these men had variegated relations to women artists and subjects, to be sure, but they were given periodically to overt scorn for the modern woman’s quest for self-determination or to muted anxiety that their sex was losing control.
Men of the American cultural left tended rather to extol sexual democracy in the same terms as they extolled the concord of workers and intellectuals. A militant belief in sexual equality was, ostensibly, common ground between men and women, and feminism, like the workers’ commonwealth, would liberate society from a gloomy past. The moderns believed that the crippling conventions of their parents’ generation had set the sexes against each other by segregating people into separate spheres – the female-dominated home, the male-dominated world. Modernity, with its generative powers of communication, would overcome the division and thereby put an end to the ancient battle of the sexes. A third space of reciprocity would nourish transcendent friendships unimaginable to earlier generations, the “true companionship and oneness” of men and women that Emma Goldman preached in her lectures on love. …
Men and women drew sustenance from their faith in the availability for work from in the cities, from anarchist-tinged beliefs in the power of emancipated individuals to transform themselves and others, and from literary representations of New Womanhood. Their promises were not enunciated in tracts or manifestos but, haltingly and fragmentarily, as ethical predispositions: in romantic love, work, political activism, and sociability. In fact, few of these experiments were as successful as their participants billed them. Instead, the structures of sexual modernism proved highly elastic in their ability to accommodate elements of the old sexual hierarchies. The persistence, even the consolidation, of men’s privileges within an egalitarian framework would prove a defining feature of twentieth-century American society. Ironically, despite all their good intentions, the bohemians helped construct the fundamental paradox of a sexual modernism that was also a patriarchal modernization. They were the very first generation to live with the promises and perplexities of what came to be seen, much later, as a great change in the lives of girls and women.
Feminism as a synonym for women’s rights was a coinage of the 1910s, transposed from the French féminisme, a word around since the 1880s. Associated with the newest of New Women, feminism betokened not just a claim to the vote or to making mothers’ roles in society more honored but rather to economic independence, sexual freedom, and psychological exemption from the repressive obligations of wifehood, motherhood, and daughterhood – a jettisoning of family duties for a heightened female individualism. The appearance of the term in the urban lexicon signaled the cohesion of a politics – better yet, a sensibility – of equality distinct from the nineteenth-century tradition, which had consistently stressed women’s roles within the family and marriage and repudiated any idea of women’s sexual desires independent of making babies. Like other specialties of the metropolitan intelligentsia, feminism was new, “so new that it isn’t in the dictionaries yet,” an advocate boasted. The mixture of utopianism and advertising hype – “the stir of new life,” “world-wide revolt against all artificial barriers,” the “complete social revolution” – propelled the term into the limelight. Like so much else that was happening, feminism denoted a world-transforming rupture. “We have grown accustomed … to something or other known as the Woman Movement. That has an old sound – it is old,” another adherent explained. “But feminism!” – that was something different. Magazines buzzed, not just the Masses and the Little Review but the family periodicals, the stodgy Nation, the grave New Republic. “The word is daily in the pages of our newspapers. The doctrine and its corollaries are on every tongue,” marveling the Century in 1914.”
“Feminism” was coined in the 1910s.
“Feminism” was the arrival of the “New Woman” in America from France. It is essentially nothing but Modernism applied to relations between the sexes.
Randolph Bourne was an aesthete who loved Nietzsche. He dreamed of “revitalizing” American culture through the aestheticization of everyday life.
“Bourne was a moral and cultural radical, to be sure. In the era when intellectual production centered on “little magazines,” he and his circle inveighed against sterility in education, the embalmed canon of a “genteel tradition” in letters, and the puritanical and Calvinistic strictures of Victorian culture. Bourne characterized himself as a “literary radical,” and his affection for Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau resonated in the cadences of his prose. Despondent about American shallowness, complacency, and conformity, he touted, in his most heartfelt personal expressions, the romantic ideals of “youth” and “life” as vital resources for the regeneration of democracy. …
Both the Greenwich Village atmosphere of youthful experimentation and revolt and the worldwide workers’ rebellion that exploded toward the end of the second decade of the twentieth century were implicit in Bourne’s refusal to put his finger to the wind before speaking fresh and vital truths. Idealism, aestheticism, feminism, friendship, music, reading, and impassioned discussion were for Bourne social ideals, as reflected in his judgment that all great art was ethical, imbued with religion and politics. When we recapture the Bourne who emphasized “social consciousness,” “human progress,” and “the bringing of a fuller, richer life to more people on this earth” as against “that poisonous counsel of timidity and distrust of human ideals which pours out in steady stream from reactionary press and pulpit” — words that still have bite in our own epoch of Fox News and greed-condoning mega-churches — then we will have gone some way toward ensuring that the ghost of Bourne still giggles down our streets.”
The Moderns liked to emphasize that feminism liberated men too from the expectations of conventional religion and morality. Now everyone could focus on enjoying themselves and developing their own lifestyles.