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 New Woman, Marriage, and Sexuality
For the Victorian lady, sexuality was only a natural part of life under the sanctions of marriage. A woman's sexuality was not her own, but a sacred virtue which was the man's to invade upon marriage. In this way, Victorian women came to be seen as guardians of morality because unlike men, they were not driven by passions, in fact, they were hardly believed to have a sex drive at all.
The New Woman movement understood that to remove themselves from male dominance, they needed to take possession of their own bodies--to change their position from sexual object to sexual subject; to be an active participant and agent of their own sexual desires, power, and pleasure. This new female figure, one who could choose whether she will allow a man to have her sexually, became feared and often rejected because of the new instability upon which manhood began to teeter.
Suddenly it was revealed that women, who had been assiduously protected from reading about sex, had a ton to say about venereal diseases, contraception, divorce, and adultery. Marriage, traditionally regarded as woman's ultimate goal and highest reward, became a sort of limitation which quelled and ignored female passions. Manifested in the new literary heroine, sexual power became a chief means by which Victorian constraints could be fought. Through her newly heightened sexual awareness, honesty, and expressiveness, these heroines became symbols of escape from the sexual confines within which many women found themselves.
The only problem with this new and aggressive sexuality was that the New Woman movement did not exactly explicate how a woman was supposed to apply it. The adulterous relations that women read in novels seemed like a fantastic way to overturn convention, but it was not very credible for these new feminists to tell women to cheat on their husbands. Some women tried to emphasize that the movement wanted to reaffirm monogamy, but that monogamous marriages should be based on mutual compatibility, that a woman should have more of a say in whom she marries, and that heterosexual relationships should not demean individuality and personality.
After the death of her husband Oscar, while Kate was managing the affairs of the business initiated by him, she engaged in a romance with a local planter named Albert Sampite. Although not much is known about the discreet affair, it is obvious that Chopin practiced many of the same sexual freedoms as some of her characters.
A glib commentary on the sentiments of new women towards marriage can be seen in Chopin's tale "The Story of an Hour." After finding out her husband is dead, Mrs. Mallard is overjoyed about a new sense of freedom which marriage never afforded her. Upon his surprise return, she is a little less than happy to think these freedoms could again be taken away. In regards to a new female sexuality, Chopin's story "The Storm," which was not published until after her death, is a sensual exploration of the temptations of adultery and the fulfillment of female desires. As the title promises, the story quickly descends into a steamy exploration of the passions marriage can never seem to fulfill. It is likely that the story may not have been published in Chopin's lifetime because the nature of the story's content and society's unwillingness to accept this side of women.