New Woman was a feminist ideal that was profoundly influential on 19th and 20th-century literature, as well as broader feminist beliefs.
New Woman refers to an independent woman who is seeking change in her life. These women controlled their own futures, finances, social, and personal lives. The literary history of the moment dates back to Belinda by Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s well-loved ‘Aurora Leigh.’ Both of these pieces explored the idea that a woman could become more than a wife.
Explore the New Woman Movement
Definition and Explanation of New Woman Literature
“New Woman” was used for the first time by Sara Grand, an Irish writer, who made use of the term in an important article. It was later used by Maria Louisa Rame, who was known at the time as Ouida. In addition to these female writers, Henry James helped to popularize the term. It was used to refer to the heroines in his novels, such as Daisy Miller in the novel of the same title. His use of the term was defined by Ruth Bordin. She wrote that he wanted it to characterize “American expatriates living in Europe.” These were own who “accustomed to acting on their own” and who had an independent spirit, “despite or perhaps because of their wealth.”
The movement was influenced by the 19th-century suffragette movement to gain equal voting rights for women as well as increasing employment opportunities that meant women could get and keep jobs. They were increasingly able to attend college and take on a true profession, such as doctor, journalist, professor, and more.
Examples of New Woman Literature
Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
One of the first examples of the New Woman in literature, ‘Aurora Leigh,’ is a long poem/novel that is written in blank verse. It stretches for nine books and was published in 1856. The poem is set around Europe and is told from the perceptive of Aurora. She describes her present and past and was one of Browning’s works that she was the proudest of. Aurora expresses a love for reading, writing, and other artistic attributes. Unfortunately, the men in her life can’t see or don’t want to acknowledge her potential.
“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen
“A Doll’s House” is a three-act play that explores the role of a woman in society and the rules placed upon her. Despite this, Ibsen said in his own words, the play is not about women’s rights. The main character is Nora, a housewife married in an upper-class society who eventually leaves her husband and her children. The story’s nature resulted in an outraged reaction from a great deal of the public. Here are a few lines from a passage early on in the play when Nora is considering what the circumstances would have to be for her to tell her husband that she took out a loan that saved his life:
One day I might, yes. Many years from now, when I’ve lost my looks a little. Don’t laugh. I mean, of course, a time will come when Torvald is not as devoted to me, not quite so happy when I dance for him, and dress for him, and play with him.
Read more literature by Henrik Ibsen, such as his poetry.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Awakening is a novel published in 1899 and set in New Orleans. The novel follows Edna Pontellier and her views on femininity and feminism as her understanding of her life changes. It focuses on women’s issues in a way that was quite new within the realm of English-Language literature. It is a work of early feminism that was not always positively received by critics. The novel ends when Edna returns to Grand Isle and is finally able to escape in the only way that many women of her time, and later decades would turn to, through suicide. Here are a few lines from the novel, specifically Chapter VI:
In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight—perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman.
Anne Veronica by H.G. Wells
Anne Veronica is a New Woman novel published in 1909. The novel describes the title character who rebels against her father’s rules. The novel also mentions the suffragette movement and alludes to the broader struggles for equal rights between men and women. Here are a few lines from the novel:
To think that is my father! Oh, my dear! He stood over me like a cliff; the thought of him nearly turned me aside from everything we have done. He was the social order; he was law and wisdom. And they come here, and they look at our furniture to see if it is good; and they are not glad, it does not stir them, that at last, at last we can dare to have children.
These lines come at the end of the novel as Anne, her husband, and Anne’s father have reconciled their differences, at last to an extent. This section of the novel is also interesting in that it suggests that Anne’s “rebellion” was not as extensive as was suggested at the beginning of the novel.
New Woman Writers
Some of the other writers who used the idea of the New Woman, or a character that embodied her, in their work included:
- Olive Schreiner
- Bram Stoker
- Annie Sophie Cory
- Charles Reade
- George Bernard Shaw
- Ella Hepworth
- Ella D’Arcy
- George Egerton
- Henry Arthur Jones
This is far from a comprehensive list but is a good place to start to expand one’s understanding of how a “new woman” might write or how a character might display the character traits of a “new woman.”
Related Literary Terms
- Imagism: a literary movement of the early 20th century. The proponents were interested in the use of precise imagery and clear language.
- Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.
- Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused on Europe and North America.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.