The late 19th century “New Woman”

“One of the most important and most visible threats to traditional masculinity was the New Woman. As described by John Tosh in A Man’s Place, the term was coined in 1894 but the phenomenon which it described “had been discernible since the 1880s.” These New Women, emblematic above all of feminine independence, smoked cigarettes, rode bicycles, and spoke their minds. Many took on jobs, postponed or eschewed marriage, and renounced familial obedience. As Tosh demonstrates, traditional male elites found their authority questioned in every aspect—as fathers, husbands, teachers, and representatives as the state. Not only did allegedly rogue women put men on the defensive, so too did new laws that eroded male privilege in matters from parental prerogatives and property rights to access to education and the vote.”

Gail Bederman in Manliness and Civilization

“Immigrant and working-class men were not the only ones challenging middle-class men’s claims on public power and authority. Concurrently, the middle-class woman’s movement was challenging past constructions of manhood by agitating for woman’s advancement. “Advancement,” as these New Women understood it, meant granting women access to activities which had previously been reserved for men. Small but increasing numbers of middle-class women were claiming the right to a college education, to become clergymen, social scientists, and physicians, and even to vote. Men reacted passionately by ridiculing these New Women, prophesying that they would make themselves ill and destroy national life, insisting that they were rebelling against nature. As one outraged male clergyman complained, feminists were opposing “the basic facts of womanhood itself.. We shall gain nothing in the end by displacing manhood by womanhood or the other way around.” Yet the New Woman did “displace manhood by womanhood,” if only because her successes undermined the assumption that education, professional status, and political power required a male body. The woman’s movement thus increased the pressure on middle-class men to reformulate manhood.”

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