The New Woman Discourses of the Fin de Siècle

Laurie Garrison is Founder and Director of Women Writers School, an organization that offers online courses and networking for women who write. She has a PhD from the University of London, her books have been short-listed for the ESSE award and reviewed in the TLS, and her previous careers have included publishing, university lecturing and museum work. Her current work includes the long-term plan of making the world of literary publishing more equitable, especially for women.

We can identify a specific moment in history when lesbians became dangerous, nearly down to the exact year. We might argue that it was when Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the term ‘lesbian’ to describe women sexually attracted to women—one of the first uses of the term ever—in his medical treatise Psychopathia Sexualis in 1892. Or that it was in 1893 when Sarah Grand coined the term ‘new woman’ in a media debate with the novelist Ouida. After all, this was the moment when a popular (rather than medical) discourse of the New Woman became synonymous with rebellious, masculine women who preferred the company of other women. Regardless of where the precise starting point was, the fin de siècle saw a growing discourse of the New Woman that represented a threat to man’s position as the only gender that could be professionally employed, earn a living and support dependent family members.

So widespread was the discourse of the New Woman that we can find examples in every level of writing—from high literary texts to the very popular and now obscure. Vivie Warren from George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession is perhaps the most famous. Vivie takes honours in the mathematics exam at Cambridge and refuses any sort of ordinary life in favor of doing actuarial calculations in her friend Honoria Fraser’s chambers in Chancery Lane. Other examples include Olive Chancellor in Henry James’ The Bostonians or Rhoda Nunn in George Gissing’s The Odd Women. Rhoda Nunn, like Vivie Warren, eschews male companionship and marriage for independence and running a business, one that prepares other women to support themselves. Women who wrote about the New Woman included novelists Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner and Mona Caird. The New Woman was a regular figure in the popular press and she was satirized by Punch. The New Woman was also a type in reality: a feminist campaigner who had newly become a threat to patriarchy as the work of first wave feminism started to come to fruition in the fin de siècle.

What also happened in the fin de siècle period was that a medical discourse of women’s sexuality began to change and this came to be reflected in the popular culture of the period, especially novels. Prior to the fin de siècle, discourses of female same-sex desire could also be found in both medical and popular texts. However, in order to locate them in medical texts, we must look to the many treatises on sexual health that were circulating in this period. These were usually written with the purpose of curing masturbation, which was considered a harmful addiction in this period. The more famous and widespread examples include Henry Smith’s The Private Medical Friend, Tissot’s A New Guide to Health and Long Life or the book that has been considered a Victorian birth control manual, Elements of Social Science by George Drysdale.

These sexual health manuals focused primarily on men and male sexuality. The reason for this was that masturbation was seen to be more of a problem for men. Male masturbation had both physical and social consequences. Masturbators were plagued with a loss of energy, a wasted look and increasingly antisocial habits. For female masturbators, which were always assumed to be much fewer in number, the consequences were almost entirely social and only a threat in the most extreme circumstances. Female masturbators would not only become timid and antisocial, they may well become prostitutes or be driven to adultery. Women who masturbated were suffering from a pathologically intense form of sexual desire. Masturbators often learned ‘the habit’ as it was usually referred to these popular medical works, from other women in all female settings, such as boarding schools. Most could be cured. Some women supposedly became disinterested in sex with their husbands, preferring masturbation instead. However, there is little anxiety that women may honestly prefer women to men in these texts. The worry is more that female masturbators will will have sex with large numbers of partners, male and female alike.

These medical discourses can be seen in the literature of the early to mid-nineteenth century in the sense that female same-sex relationships were transgressive but not deeply threatening. In Coleridge’s Christabel, a strange woman called Geraldine comes to visit and entices Cristabel into bed with her. In Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, the heroine is seduced by Carmilla until the relationship is discovered and the vampire slain. In both narratives, women transgress with other women, but there is no real threat to the practical, everyday heterosexual order. There is no possibility that Christabel and Geraldine or Carmilla and Laura will forge a life together separate from men. Another example of female same-sex desire can be found in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White where the characters Marian and Laura frequently express their intimacy with kisses, touches and sleeping together. At the end of The Woman in White, Laura marries the hero Walter and they live with Marian in an oddly triangular relationship. Nonetheless, Laura and Walter have a child together and with the women needing to rely on Walter financially, their intimate relationship is no real threat to patriarchy.

By the fin de siècle, medical discourses of female same-sex desire changed considerably and were no longer confined to discussions of masturbation. In Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, four types of lesbianism are documented, ranging from mild and curable to intense and incurable. Crucially, the trajectory of mild to intense is determined by the extent to which the woman looks and behaves like a man. The woman who falls into the most extreme category ‘possesses of the feminine qualities only the genital organs’. Lesbianism is directly linked with the adoption of traditionally male behaviours and ‘may nearly always be suspected in females wearing their hair short, or who dress in the fashion of men, or pursue the sports and pastimes of their male acquaintances’. Havelock Ellis, whose Sexual Inversion was published in 1897, argued that the women’s movement ‘must be regarded on the whole as a wholesome and inevitable movement’ but that ‘It has involved an increase in feminine criminality and feminine insanity. . . In connection with these we are scarcely surprised to find an increase in homosexuality’. Interestingly, these medical texts about sexuality focus more on social behaviour than sexual practice.

Throughout New Woman novels, the struggle between those who want to preserve the social order and those who want to transform can be seen over and over. One of the clearest examples of this, where these very struggle is at the very heart of the plot, is Henry James’ The Bostonians. Olive Chancellor, the New Woman figure of the novel, is hard and deliberate. She believes in things so strongly that she intimidates nearly everyone she interacts with. Basil Ransom, her cousin and nemesis, detests the idea of any sort of reform, especially that of the women’s movement. He refers to Olive as ‘morbid’. Their ideological struggle is played out through their rivalry for the love of Verena Tarrant, the daughter of an itinerant performer who discovers and exploits his daughter’s unique talent for public speaking about the wrongs of woman when she is in a sort of trance. Early in the novel, Olive is not a sympathetic character. She is financially independent and comes to support Verena, who lives with her for a time. However, once the tables turn and Basil becomes engaged to Verena, our sympathies are guided to Olive. Patriarchy wins over the woman who wants to support her lover, but it is at a very large cost, having bereft both Olive and Verena of their relationship. James has long been assumed to have had homosexual leanings himself, which might explain his apparent sympathy with female same sex desire.

New Woman novels written by women were much less likely to include manly women and their love interests. This didn’t mean that female same-sex desire did not exist in these novels. Rather female New Woman writers were more likely to look to the past when writing of romantic relationships between women. Such relationships can be seen in Mona Caird’s The Daughters of Danaus or Isabella Ford’s On the Threshold. Like Wilkie Collins’s depiction of a romantic friendship between women, New Woman novelists wanted to highlight the sense of sisterhood, collaboration and mutual support that could be achieved between women, whether this was a sexual relationship or not. In fact, it is arguably easier to identify New Women in reality who had intense, quite possibly sexual, relationships with other women. Regardless of Olive Schreiner’s support of heterosexual relationships in Woman and Labour, was known to have had very close, arguably romantic friendships with her fellow New Woman writers Eleanor Marx and Amy Levy. Perhaps most famously (or notoriously), Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper lived and wrote poetry together under the pseudonym Michael Field.

Writers and activists of the late nineteenth century women’s movement did indeed have to be careful how they made their arguments. Increasing power of decision for women when it came to marriage, divorce or sexual partners could easily be dismissed by detractors as a slippery slope that would lead to moral depravity rather than a more equitable social order. The increasing recognition and representation of the newly termed ‘lesbians’ associated with the women’s movement came primarily from a reaction against it. Because the new discourse of female same sex desire was largely negative, New Woman writers did not often take it up. It was too difficult to twist it into something closer to the positive representations of women’s romantic friendship that they wanted to promote. Thus the dominant discourse of female same-sex desire in the fin de siècle was that of the dangerous lesbian. I would argue that it would not be until the publication of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando that a representation of a lesbian in literature offered a groundbreaking, clearly positive alternative to the manly New Woman.


Author photo by Martyn Smith, used with permission.

Feature photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston, Self-Portrait (as “New Woman”), 1896