In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The New Woman

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Edited Collections
  • The New Woman Novel
  • Women Readers

Victorian Literature The New Woman
Clare Mendes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0045


Since the 1970s, interest in the New Woman has flourished threefold, with numerous attempts to capture her complex nature and continue the lively debate that raged in the last decade of the 19th century. The New Woman emerged during a time of great social change, when notions about sexuality and gender had become complicated through increased awareness of homosexuality and the rising number of women who were finally making their voices heard. There has been argument over when the New Woman was officially born, but the general consensus is that it was in 1894, when the social purity feminist and New Woman Sarah Grand and author Ouida wrote about her in the North American Review. The New Woman was imbued with the contradictions of the fin de siècle, at once too sexual and not sexual enough, desiring a single emancipated lifestyle yet advocating eugenic procreation. Although New Women did not necessarily agree upon every aspect, in their writings and through their representations in novels, they did address a number of contentious issues, including the marriage question, maternity, and education for women. The New Woman was a construct in both fiction and the periodical press, attached to journalistic catchphrases such as the “Revolting Daughters,” the “ Shrieking Sisterhood,” and the “Wild Woman.” She was linked to the degeneration of Victorian society and, simultaneously, a regenerative force for women who had spent their lives following patriarchal rule. Numerous female, and indeed male, authors become synonymous with the New Woman novel that was produced amid great controversy. Less canonized female authors included Olive Schreiner, Sarah Grand, and Mona Caird. By the end of the 1890s the New Woman had more or less disappeared. There have been claims that this happened because her desires had been set in motion and there was no longer a need for her didactic and frank address of issues such as education and marriage, of which a review process was beginning. The shock experienced from her “outrageous” opinions at the beginning of the decade was less perceptible as the century drew to an end.

General Overviews

Heilmann 2000 provides a useful introduction to the New Woman figure, asking the complex question “Who or what was the New Woman?” and proceeding to form an answer through the discussion of New Woman fiction, examining it in terms of first-wave and second-wave feminism. Pykett 1992 acknowledges the way sensationalist and New Woman fiction of the latter part of the 19th century had fallen out of public view until their resurgence in 1970; Pykett’s study shows that they occupied an important space in both the cultural and literary world. Showalter 1984, a groundbreaking examination of women’s writing from the well-known, such as Brontë, to those who have not been considered among the “great” female writers, looks at the late-19th-century feminists and their contribution to women’s writing. The genesis of the New Woman is a regularly disputed issue, and Jordan 1983 provides an interesting discussion of when the New Woman was first named. Cunningham 1973 considers the female New Women writers whose names have been largely forgotten. Cunningham provides a picture of the circumstances leading to New Woman fiction, citing Henrik Ibsen’s influential English production of A Doll’s House in 1889 as the point where writers began more fervently to take up the woman’s cause in their work. Murphy 2001 takes an innovative approach to gender and the New Woman by focusing on the Victorian’s obsession with time. Ardis 1990 argues that New Women fiction takes part in an intertextual debate, an aspect that the writers were aware of and refused to disregard. Dowling 1979 considers the link between the major degenerative forces in 1890s society: the decadent dandy and the New Woman. Dowling claims that the Victorians believed that the decadent was new and the New Woman decadent. Ledger 1997 is a fantastic study of the New Woman, providing a broad yet detailed picture of the different realms in which the New Woman was involved, considering the New Woman and socialism, the relationship of feminism to imperialism, and lesbian identity, among other fascinating topics.

  • Ardis, Ann L. New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

    Identifies three aspects of New Women fiction that have previously been overlooked: its intertextuality, its self-consciousness, and the way in which it subverts traditional ideas of culture and art.

  • Cunningham, A. R. “The ‘New Woman Fiction’ of the 1890’s.” Victorian Studies 17.2 (December 1973): 177–186.

    Distinguishes two types of New Women: the less radical “purity school” and the more sensitive “slight, pale ‘bachelor’ girl,” more aware of feminine psychology. Discusses authors whose writing fits into these categories with Sarah Grand, “Iota,” and Grant Allen in the former; and Mona Caird, George Egerton, Emma Frances Brooke, and Ménie Muriel Dowie in the latter.

  • Dowling, Linda. “The Decadent and the New Woman in the 1890s.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 33.4 (March 1979): 434–453.

    DOI: 10.1525/ncl.1979.33.4.99p0041a

    Although contemporary criticism views the New Woman and the dandy as oppositions to each other, the Victorians persistently associated the two figures, both perceived as a threat to society.

  • Heilmann, Ann. New Woman Fiction: Women Writing First-Wave Feminism. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Macmillan, 2000.

    Takes a historical approach in the first two chapters, looking at feminist and socialist theory in conjunction with New Woman fiction. The second half adopts close readings of the texts, such as Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins and Lady Florence Dixie’s Gloriana, considering the ways that issues such as marriage are dealt with. Includes a list of abbreviations for New Women novels.

  • Jordan, Ellen. “The Christening of the New Woman: May 1894.” Victorian Newsletter 63 (1983): 19–21.

    While by 1893 characteristics of the New Woman had been firmly cast in the writing of George Egerton, George Gissing, Iota, and Emma Frances Brooke, she was still missing a name. Although there were a number of attempts to attach a title, such as “Wild Women,” it was not until Grand’s 1894 article that she was named.

  • Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997.

    Includes a lengthy first chapter examining the New Woman and who she was, providing definitions from various New Woman scholars.

  • Murphy, Patricia. Time Is of the Essence: Temporality, Gender, and the New Woman. Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

    Examines the writings of Olive Schreiner, Sarah Grand, Mona Caird, Thomas Hardy, and H. Rider Haggard, discussing late-19th-century concerns about gender in their novels and its relationship to discourses of time.

  • Pykett, Lyn. The “Improper” Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing. London: Routledge, 1992.

    The last third of the book focuses on the New Woman, examining the dominant feminist concerns of marriage and maternity, as well as women’s writing. Produces a close study of several New Women novels, including Ménie Muriel Dowie’s Gallia and Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins.

  • Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. London: Virago, 1984.

    Split into three phases: “feminine,” “feminist,” and “female.” The “feminist” phase scrutinizes New Women novelists, devoting part of the chapter to short-story writer George Egerton. Provides insight into the contradictions of New Women ideologies, at once believing in the maternal instinct yet disgusted by sex.

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