5 The ‘New Woman’ – myth or reality?
For contemporaries, both the experience and challenge of modernity was prominently encapsulated in the motif of the ‘New Woman’. By the 1920s, women in many countries had not only won the right to vote, but were also moving into new occupations and choosing to wear ‘rational’, or at least much less restricted, garments. These developments seemed to pose a challenge to the traditional role of women as homemakers in the private sphere, especially at a time when anxiety about population growth and birth rates was rife. For historians writing since the rise of women’s history in the 1960s, debate has focused on whether or not the New Woman actually existed. In their discussions, the First World War has acquired a central place. Discussions have referred to the range of occupations that women entered during the war, as well as the challenges that war presented to traditional conceptions of both masculinity and femininity. However, the extent to which war generated lasting change has been disputed by successive generations of historians.
Read, Adrian Bingham’s article ‘“An era of domesticity?” Histories of women and gender in interwar Britain’. Try to summarise the main trends in the historiography on the New Woman, or, in other words, to isolate the main groups of historians and identify their primary contribution to the debate about the New Woman.
When I read this article I identified three main trends in the literature on the New Woman since the 1960s:
- During the 1960s and 1970s, a group of historians (including Arthur Marwick and David Mitchell) championed the notion that the First World War had ushered in significant changes to the lives of women, predominantly in the form of enfranchisement and widening employment prospects.
- However, during the 1980s another group of historians – Gail Braybon, Dierdre Beddoe, Harold Smith and Susan Kent – challenged this by presenting evidence of a backlash against women. Even if women had enjoyed limited freedoms in work and social life during wartime, these were quickly removed once war had ended, under a ‘prevailing atmosphere of domesticity’.
- By the late 1990s, a third group of historians had emerged (e.g. Cheryl Law, Caitriona Beaumont, Claire Langhamer and Birgitte Søland) whose research into other aspects of social activity revealed substantial limits to the backlash thesis of the 1980s. These historians argued that the 1920s formed an important moment of modernity, marked by changing expectations and greater opportunities for young women (note that they introduce an important differential here, which I will refer to again below). Moreover, they placed great weight on the importance of cultural representations of femininity, or the proliferation of images of the New Woman, which, even if not a strict reflection of reality, had significance as a way of asserting change.
Although it is not made explicit in this article, it is important to note that the last group of historians that Bingham identified (and of which he is a member) have largely shifted their focus away from debating the impact of the First World War on the lives of women. Let’s take a moment to consider this further. It could be argued that the second group of historians saw the First World War as a blip, an interruption to patterns of continuity in women’s lives as wives and mothers; after the war, things went back to normal. By sidelining the First World War, the third group of historians also suggest that the event might have been a blip, but one that interrupted a series of gradual changes present in the decades leading up to war and gathering pace in the early 1920s. This is especially noticeable in the use of the term ‘New Woman’. It is a useful shorthand to describe a process occurring across Europe in the interwar period. However, in France and Britain the term ‘New Woman’ has a much longer pedigree. It was used from the late nineteenth century to describe a small minority of mostly wealthy women who were able to live with some independence, dabble in careers that shocked their families, and experiment with some new fashions of rational dress. These ‘New Women’ were both related to and distinct from the ‘flapper’ and ‘garçonne’, or ‘Femme Moderne’ of 1920s’ Britain and France, as well as the ‘Neue Frau’ of interwar Germany. In other words, it is important to try to untangle changes that occurred as a result of war from developments that had begun before it.