The New Woman in Cather, Fitzgerald, Hemingway

Essay, 2003

11 Pages, Grade: 1.0 (A)


Qu. 1: Examine the treatment in the literature of the period of the ‘new woman’.

The New Woman came into existence in the second half of the nineteenth century, but remained nameless until 1894, when Ouida and Sarah Grand used the term for the first time in two North American Review articles. Today, the New Woman is generally seen as the manifestation of changing gender norms at the fin de siècle. Critics such as Sally Ledger and Caroll Smith-Rosenberg differentiate between ‘first and second-generation New Women: the first living and writing in the 1880s and 1890s, the second in the 1920s and 1930s’ (Ledger 1). As this quotation shows, the label is mostly applied to female authors. However, it can also be used to describe fictional characters such as Lena Lingard in Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia, Jordan Baker in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Lady Brett Ashley in ‘Fiesta’ (The Sun Also Rises) by Ernest Hemingway. This essay will, first of all, explain what was ‘new’ about women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and thus attempt to define the term New Woman. It will determine a number of characteristics that are considered typical of the New Woman in fiction, and use these as criteria to examine whether the characters mentioned above can be called New Women. Finally, the essay will compare the manner in which Cather, Fitzgerald and Hemingway present the characters.

To begin with, the New Woman can generally be seen as a challenge to conventional gender roles. There are three main areas in which the New Woman differs from her predecessors: lifestyle, work and sexuality. That is, her attitude towards these topics bears little or no resemblance to the attitude of the early nineteenth-century woman.

First of all, there is a contrast between the lifestyle and fashion of the New Woman and females from earlier generations. That is, in the 1890s fashion changes significantly. Instead of heavy corsets and petticoats that restrict her ability to move freely, the New Woman tends to wear lighter blouses and long skirts that even allow her to ride a bicycle or play tennis. By about 1915, the so called Flapper emerges and becomes the visual representation of the New Woman. The Flapper not only dares to shorten her skirts to ankle-length, and, eventually, to knee-length, but she also wears her hair in a short, boyish cut and emphasised not her curves, but her slenderness. In fact, many Flappers even wear restrictive undergarment that makes them look thin, flat-chested and long-limbed. This constitutes a major deviation from of the ideal of beauty of the early nineteenth century. In addition to her changed outward appearance, the New Woman also begins to take part in activities that are, until then, considered inapt for women. For example, a large number of New Women takes up smoking, drinking and dancing. Others play sports or even begin fishing and hunting. In short, the New Woman has a liberal attitude towards life and usually refuses to follow established, conventional codes of behaviour. Therefore, one of the parameters of the New Woman is independence of conduct. It is the New Woman alone who decides how she wants to dress and what hobbies she wants to take on.

Secondly, while the lives of most middle- and lower-class nineteenth-century women were restricted to the domestic world, that is, the home and the family, an increasing number of women enters the public world at the fin de siècle by working outside of the home. In contrast to their predecessors, New Women do not only have low-wage jobs in factories or domestic service, but benefit from ‘the advent of the typewriter,… the expansion of metropolitan department stores and … the professionalisation of nursing and of the teaching profession’ (Ledger 19). Even though they are not on equal terms with men as far as wages, career opportunities and recognition are concerned, New Women are often seen as a threat to the status quo, that is, the economic superiority of men. Not being dependent on men for financial support, the New Woman can defy existing norms and live much more autonomously than her female ancestors. For instance, earning a regular income enables many young women to move out of their parents’ home. Financial independence is thus the second parameter of the New Woman.

Thirdly, the idea of the New Woman has a strong sexual connotation. In the mid-nineteenth century, William Acton writes on the subject of female sexuality that a woman ‘submits to her husband, but only to please him, and, but for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attention’ (Acton quoted in Ledger 101). This view of female sexuality begins to change at the fin de siècle. In general, one can state that in contrast to the nineteenth-century woman, the New Woman actively participates in a mixed-sex culture and enjoys the freedom to date and flirt. However, New Women are harshly criticized for their attitude. For example, in 1895, Hugh Stutfield characterizes the emancipated woman as one who

‘loves to show her independence by dealing freely with the relations of the sexes. Hence all the prating of passion, animalism, “the natural workings of sex”, and so forth, with which we are nauseated. Most of the characters in [books written by New Women authors] seem to be erotomaniacs.’ (Stutfield quoted in Ledger 13)

The sexual liberation of women may be linked to the fact that by the end of the nineteenth century, more and more schools offer sex education to their pupils, mostly to inform them about topics such as the venereal disease. This education includes information about birth control, that is, the use of condoms. Many feminists think that knowledge about contraception is the key to women’s liberation because it separates demands of reproduction from sexuality. As an illustration, rubber condoms were mass produced from 1844 onwards. By 1935, 1.5 million latex condoms were made each day in the United States. Because of all this, a liberal attitude towards sexuality can be seen as another main parameter of the New Woman. This does not mean, however, that the New Woman invariably opposes the idea of matrimony and having children. On the contrary, sexual independence means that the New Woman is in a position of power insofar that she can decide if, with whom and when she would like to have children. Moreover, a New Woman who is both sexually and financially independent may choose not to marry at all.

In the following paragraphs, the characteristics of the New Woman – an unconventional lifestyle, financial and sexual independence – will be applied to three female characters. Can they be labelled New Women?

First of all, in contrast to Fitzgerald’s and Hemingway’s novels, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia is set in a rural area, that is, in Nebraska, between circa 1880 and 1910. Cather dedicates about one quarter of her novel to the character Lena Lingard who is, in many ways, the opposite of Ántonia Shimerda. Lena craves excitement and independence and is highly ambitious. These traits are somewhat typical of the New Woman. Having spent her country childhood dressed in ragged clothes, Lena begins to dress very carefully once she lives in the town. She wears hats, stockings and high-heeled shoes and, as she learns to be a dressmaker, imitates the style of richer women such as Mrs. Gardener. Lena has long hair that she usually does up neatly on her head. The older Lena gets and the more successful she becomes as a dressmaker, the more fashionably does she dress. When Jim meets her in Lincoln, he describes:

‘[Lena] was so quietly conventionalized by city clothes that I might have passed her in the street without seeing her. Her black suit fitted her figure smoothly, and a black lace hat, with pale blue forget-me-nots, sat demurely on her yellow hair.’ (Cather 265)

Clearly, Lena is not a Flapper. However, if one keeps in mind when and where My Ántonia is set, it becomes clear that Lena is, in fact, dressed very fashionably. As a tailor, she takes great care of wearing clothes that reflect the latest trends. Jim’s description of Lena can be dated at roughly 1890, when Jim is about 19 years old. The Flapper, as explained above, is not only an urban phenomenon, but also does not emerge until 1915. As far as her hobbies are concerned, Lena, like many New Women, enjoys dancing very much and does not mind that people disapprove of her ‘free and easy’ behaviour (Cather 207). For instance, a young man named Sylvester Lovett, a cashier at his father’s bank in Black Hawk, enjoys dancing with Lena very much and becomes infatuated with her. ‘He took all the dances Lena Lingard would give him, and even grew bold enough to walk home with her,’ the narrator recalls. However, ‘if his sisters … happened to be among the onlookers ... , Sylvester stood back in the shadow under the cottonwood trees, smoking and watching Lena with a harassed expression’ (Cather 203). On the whole, Lena’s lifestyle fits an early New Woman.

When Lena Lingard leaves the family farm and moves to Black Hawk, she wants to become a dressmaker. Her aim is not only to become financially independent, but also to be able to support her mother and siblings. ‘I’m going to get my mother out of that old sod house where she’s lived so many years. The men will never do it. Johnnie, that’s my oldest brother, he’s wanting to get married now, and build a house for his girl instead of his mother,’ Lena explains (Cather 241). This statement shows, first of all, Lena’s closeness to her family. Second, Lena does not expect men to assume financial responsibility for women, but is determined to earn enough money to help her mother herself. She quickly succeeds. When Jim meets Lena again in Lincoln, she proudly tells him that she is going to start building her mother’s new house in summer. Moreover, Lena’s own business in Lincoln is a big success. The narrator writes,


Excerpt out of 11 pages


The New Woman in Cather, Fitzgerald, Hemingway
University of Kent  (School of English)
American Modernism
1.0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
465 KB
An excellent analysis of the New Woman in turn-of-the-century America. Distinguishes between first- and second-generation New Women, defines the term and applies it to Lena Lingard (from Cather's My Ántonia), Jordan Baker (Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby) and Lady Brett Ashley (Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises).
Woman, Cather, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, American, Modernism
Quote paper
Nina Dietrich (Author), 2003, The New Woman in Cather, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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