The New Woman
Womanhood and literature at the turn of the 19th century
The New Woman | The Victorian Woman | Education & Work | Marriage & Sexuality | Fiction | Cartoons | Works Cited
The Educated and Working New Woman
For the New Woman movement, an education became a means to emancipate oneself. In England, Girton College was founded in 1869 as the first women's residential college in the nation. "A Girton education became the stock attribute of the intellectual new woman of popular fiction. As the first woman's college, Girton was subject to considerable public interest. The 'Girton Girl' became a cultural stereotype, being the subject of many new stories, articles, cartoons, and novels" (Cunningham). In America in 1870, statistics show that women made up 21% of all college attendees, but that only 0.7% of women in the United States were actually receiving a college education. By 1900, all but three American state colleges (Louisiana, Georgia, and Virginia) accepted women on the same standards as men.
Although a college-level education was usually something reserved for upper-class women, it signified a shift in the domain of womanhood. No longer were her efforts solely concentrated in the domestic sphere; her interests became worldly; she became a part of a higher intellectual stratum, one that would allow her to penetrate patriarchal society at influential political levels. An increase in female attendance both in college and secondary schools shattered the Victorian conception that a woman's mind could not develop to the same levels as a man's.
Women writers called out to other women, encouraging them to pursue their intellects and to escape the mind-numbing cycle of domesticity which had been forced upon them; the cycle which subdued their intellectual development and maintained their subordination. In 1904, Winifred Harper Cooley emphasized that "there is no sex in education," and that education should place a "premium upon scholarship, rather than the accident birth which made a child a boy, not a girl" (35). With the leaps that women were making at the university level, the threat upon male intellectual domination was becoming very evident.
Although Kate Chopin never attended university, she was educated at the Sacred Heart Academy by extremely intelligent women until a mature age, she joined literary circles, and was encouraged throughout her youth by the independent women who raised her to pursue her intellectual self.
Winifred Harper Cooley once wrote: "As long as man is the only wage-earner, doling out sums of money, or scattering lavishly, so will women be degraded, even if they are perfectly contented, and men are willing to labor to keep them in idleness...once the higher had been tried, civilization repudiates the lower" (18). Due to the increase in female participation required by the industrial revolution, men felt that women were actually threatening their job security. It was as if for the first time, women were proving that they had a social usefulness outside the home, that they were not as weak as they once had appeared, and that they were indeed contributing to society.
For women, earning one's own living became liberating--no longer did women need to turn to marriage for financial stability. Factories populated with women became communities where women were often provided with living accommodations and encouragement to pursue education. At the Lowell Textile Mill in Massachusetts, the women even published a journal of their personal poetic and fictional works called the "Lowell Offering" in which the factory workers could express their personal opinions on their condition. The point at issue was often the sub-humane conditions in which women were forced to work, partly because women would accept lower-paying and more dangerous jobs out of fear.
In the American South, much of the lower class female workforce was confined to rural agricultural endeavors, but after the Civil War, even the "soft-voiced" upper class women, who had lost their husband in the war, were forced to take on male executive roles. Surprisingly many of these women stepped-up and the tact with which they took on management roles shocked men all around. In fact, after her husband Oscar died, Kate Chopin took over the duties of managing the general store her husband had ran in Cloutierville, Louisiana.
In her story "Miss McEnders," Kate Chopin creates two opposing female characters that interact and exemplify societal reactions to the advent of the New Woman. Miss McEnders is a well-educated upper-class lady who engages with a lower-class woman, Mademoiselle Salambre who survives and raises a child on her own meager income. Although Miss McEnders would believe herself to be a liberal minded new woman, she is shocked to find that Mademoiselle Salambre would have a child out of wedlock, and proves that she still participates in the traditional societal judgment of the truly independent woman.