The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The New Woman

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The word “feminism,” in the sense of “advocacy for the rights of women,” was a late addition to the Victorian vocabulary; the Oxford English Dictionary only records its use from 1895. But feminism and “The Woman Question”–the matter of the nature of women and their role in society–haunted the Victorian era, and had been hotly debated in Great Britain since at least Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which had strongly argued on behalf of the rights of women to be educated, employed, and to gain the privileges of full citizenship. During the first half of the nineteenth century there was an increasing amount of discussion about the need for radical changes in women’s position in British society. In the 1820s and 1830s, socialists, following the writings of the utopian socialist Robert Owen (1771-1858), argued that the only way to end the treatment of women as property in English society was to abolish private property.1 The 1832 Reform Act confirmed the disenfranchisement of women but also helped organize feminists, who began campaigning for female emancipation, and by the early 1850s there was an organized feminist movement, centered around the Langham Place circle of feminist activists in London, in England, thanks in large part to the actions of middle-class female philanthropists and the writers for women’s magazines, whose work stimulated a desire for change. In 1866 a petition of 1499 women’s signatures was presented to Parliament demanding that suffrage reform be extended to women; the petition “acted as a hinge, linking, through its signatures, past campaigns and societies, such as the anti-slavery movement, the anti-Corn Law League, Chartism, the National Association for Promoting Political and Social Improvement of People, and the Law Amendment Society.”2 By the late 1880s English feminists were focused primarily on women’s suffrage, although activists worked on a number of other issues and problems, and women’s issues were an acknowledged if unwelcome part of the political landscape.

A number of factors aided English feminists and the feminist movement. The social and economic position of women significantly changed during the nineteenth century, particularly in the latter half of the century. Huge numbers of women entered the workforce: in 1851 approximately 2.8 million women worked;3 by 1901 that number had risen to 4.75 million.4 Feminist campaigns for education reforms in the 1860s led to the establishment of girls’ schools, mostly for middle- and upper-class girls, and the establishment of state-controlled primary schools, with attendance made compulsory in 1880. Women were first admitted to King’s College, London, in 1847, with Bedford College for Women being established in 1849, Girton College of Cambridge University enrolling women in 1869, and Owens College allowing women in 1871.5 Marriage law increasingly gave women rights which they had previously lacked. The Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1872 gave married women the right to own their own property. The campaign by Josephine Butler in the early 1870s to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act “forced people to confront deeply held views on women’s proper behavior, and paved the way for greater changes in women’s position.”6 In 1884 the Matrimonial Causes Act widened the classification of male desertion of a wife and allowed for men who refused to return to their wives to be ordered to pay alimony.

All of these developments led to the creation of the “New Woman,” a social and literary type who emerged in the 1880s. The term, coined by the writers Ouida (see: Under Two Flags) and Sarah Grand in a pair of articles in the North American Review in 1894,7 entered common parlance in the mid-1890s and referred to a group of women who took many of the theoretical ideas of feminism and put them into practice as a lifestyle. The New Woman was usually from the middle class and worked for a living, often at a job that until recently had been limited to men. She advocated self-fulfillment rather than self-sacrifice, and chose education and a career over marriage. (The phrase “Girton girl,” which has thankfully fallen out of usage, was derisively used in the late Victorian and Edwardian years to refer to women who had completed their university courses, after Girton College of Cambridge University, which had begun enrolling women in 1869). The New Woman spoke directly and was forthright about her political views, arguing publicly for the destruction of class distinctions and for economic independence for women. She smoked and drank openly. She decried restrictive fashions, rejecting petticoats and corsets and instead wearing “rational” (usually men’s) clothing. She exercised and played sports, especially bicycling, which moved from an eccentricity to a fashionable activity in the space of three months in 1895. And, most alarming to the critics of the New Woman, she was sexually active, or at least advocated sexual freedom, and avoided marriage, seeing it as a trap designed to rob women of their independence.

This goes against the popular stereotype of Victorian women as sexually and emotionally repressed, but the truth is that at the end of the nineteenth century women in England were presented with a variety of role models to emulate. Clerical, medical, sociological, literary and political spokesmen, all the mouthpieces of high culture, stressed the sanctity of marriage, family, duty, chastity, feminine modesty, and other attributes that we today think of as stereotypically Victorian. But there were a varied number and type of female figures, from writers to journalists to activists to explorers, on which women could and did model themselves, and some of these women were notable New Women. There were, of course, the Mrs. Grundys, the morally upright, prudish figures of the popular imagination, of whom Queen Victoria might be seen as the exemplar. But there were others who were not so confined to the morality of the upper classes and who not only acted independently but flaunted their unconventional lifestyle and were praised for it rather than scorned (see: The Adventuress). These women, whether or not they were open advocates for the ideas of the New Woman, lived their lives as if they were New Women.

The New Woman appeared in literature as well: over one hundred New Women novels were written between 1883 and 1900. Most of these novels were domestic dramas, like Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm (1883), Sarah Grand’s Heavenly Twins (1893), and Mona Caird’s Daughters of Danaus (1894). But some New Women, or female characters with the attributes of New Women, appeared in positive roles in adventure and detective fiction, either as the heroines of the stories or as female love interests who were more independent and less subservient than was the norm. In this they differed from the heroines of the Gothic novels, who were as often helpless and dependent on others as they were full of agency. The Gothic heroines appeared before organized feminism in Britain, while the female detectives and adventuresses had the benefit of a coherent feminist philosophy and movement.

New Woman fiction was often overtly didactic, determined to confront the reader with the problems of modern women. The aggressive nature of much New Woman literature brought about an inevitable backlash from the press, which used it to create an easy stereotype with which to criticize the New Woman, and from conservative critics, who saw New Woman literature as socially and sexually irresponsible. Although the heroines of many New Woman novels were socially above reproach and were more concerned with sexual autonomy and a freedom from male sexual predation, critics seized on and generalized about the New Woman as a group based a few examples of New Woman protagonists who were hostile to men, in favor of free love, or were opposed to motherhood.

One popular genre for the New Woman was the mystery (see: Female Detectives). The figure of the detective in mystery literature in the 1890s was particularly well suited to the New Woman. By the mid-1890s the influence of The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries had grown to the point where nearly all mystery writers were creating characters based on Holmes (see: Great Detective). The Great Detective character is financially and socially independent, extremely intelligent, and unconcerned with romantic relationships. The protagonists of New Woman novels generally shared those attributes, although the ideology of the New Woman writers (and the assumptions of the reading audience) often required that the New Woman protagonist become involved in some form of relationship. Like New Women, Great Detectives were products of the 1890s, modern men whose characters and habits would not have been possible in previous decades. The first of the New Woman Great Detectives was C.L. Pirkis’ Loveday Brooke (see: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke), and by the end of the century there were several more just like her.

The reaction in literature to the New Woman was mostly negative. For many middle and upper-class Victorian men, women were the guardians of civilization and English culture’s higher values. For the New Woman to strive for more than a role as wife and mother was deeply threatening to conservative moralists. Most troubling was the New Woman’s efforts to replace the conservative conception of sexuality, as something only men enjoyed, with a newer one which allowed women to not only initiate sex but also to enjoy it. Victorian men of all classes knew that women did enjoy sex–the diaries and letters of Victorian men and women are often revelatory on this subject8–but literature which espoused this view shocked moralists. That most New Woman literature was more concerned with the social and legal power structure of Victorian society, and used sex as a microcosm for it, and further portrayed the New Woman as the opposite of the Fatal Woman, was ignored by the moralists, who saw New Woman writers as aligning themselves with the forces of anarchy and as a danger to society. These moralists, both male and female, responded to New Woman fiction with stories and novels opposing the New Woman and portraying her as coming to bad ends. The New Woman in these works was aligned with other troubling developments of the 1890s (see: Fin-de-Siècle Unease) and was seen as the greatest danger to the English status quo.

For Further Research

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

Angelique Richardson and Chris Willis, eds., The New Woman in Fiction and Fact. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.


1 Barbara Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), xiv ff.

2 Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (London: UCL Press, 1999), x.

3 Duncan Bythell, “Women in the Workforce,” in Patrick K. O’Brien and Ronald Quinault, eds., The Industrial Revolution and British Society (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 35.

4 Kristina Huneault, Difficult Subjects: Working Women and Visual Culture, Britain 1880-1914 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002), 215.

5 Sally Mitchell, Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), 244.

6 Mitchell, Victorian Britain, 294.

7 Sarah Grand, “The Bawling Brotherhood,” North American Review 158 (Mar. 1894): 270-276, and Ouida, “The New Woman,” North American Review 158 (Apr. 1894): 610-619.

8 See, for example, the letters and diaries quoted in Peter Gay’s The Education of the Senses (1984).