The New Woman and the Bachelor Girl

The New Woman, 1880-1915

by Evangeline Holland,, March 17, 2009

The Edwardian era appeared rife with social movements, but none caused as much furor as the “New Woman.” From Paris to London to New York to San Francisco, this phenomenon resulted in bitter denunciations, criticism and recriminations which thundered from pulpits to the Houses of Parliament.

The New Woman was a reaction against the long-held notions of femininity and the proper social sphere for women. This reaction was born, ironically, from the very reforms which were to enfranchise men. With schooling compulsory in the 1870s and 1880s, both boys and girls were given at least a basic education, which enabled them to find employment beyond the expectations of their parents’ generation. As a result of the agricultural depression of the 1880s, young men and women, raised on tenant farms, or whose parents were employed by factories, found life insecure and uninspiring. Raised on the abundance of newspapers, periodicals and journals that proliferated in the late Victorian era, the lure of city life was difficult to resist. And so, for the first time, young women left their home for work, not in the traditional pursuit of domestic service, but as a professional.

New technologies spread rapidly across the globe in the second half of the 19th century: the telephone, the telegraph, the elevator, the typewriter, the sewing machine, the cash register, etcetera. With these new technologies came jobs, and these jobs needed bodies to man them. Obviously, men were hired over women, but gradually, women began to make significant inroads in professional employment. From the working girl of the period–perhaps a saleswoman, a secretary, telephone exchange operator–came the New Woman (or Gibson Girl, as she was characterized in the United States) who was personified by the shirtwaist, tall stiff collar, necktie, and heavy serge skirts she adopted as uniform. Perhaps she would ride her bicycle, which would require the scandalous bloomers!

These “New Women” were not content with their existence as “superfluous” women that characterized the mainstream press’s “woman problem”–that is, what to do with the increasing number of women who would never marry? This caused confusion over the gender role of women and led to a “tremendous debate over whether woman’s natural role was simply to procreate, or whether women should exercise the same range of choices men had.” These questions and contradictions found a place in the fiction of the period, which was quickly called “New Woman literature.” Playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen and Arthur Wing Pinero wrote popular plays that put modern topics such as venereal disease, prostitution, and the role of marriage in the public eye, while authors like Annie Sophie Cory (Victoria Cross), Sarah Grand, Mona Caird, George Egerton, Ella D’Arcy and Ella Hepworth Dixon put a voice to the trials and tribulations of the New Woman.

Another segment of the New Woman was the “Bachelor Girl.” An advice book published during the era characterized the girl-bachelor as a “comfortable creature” and a “clever nest-builder.” More prevalent in American than Europe due to the vaster opportunities for women, the girl-bachelor was most often found in large American cities, sharing a flat or living in a boarding house with other working girls, and working in department stories, millinery shops, couturiers, as a secretary, a clerk,  telephone exchange operator, waitress, hat-check girl, and a host of other supporting positions. Far from being old maids, the bachelor girl broke with traditional intersex relations, her financial and social independence putting her outside of the sphere of hearth and home.

Ultimately, the New Woman, the girl-bachelor, challenged and threatened, in the end shattering notions of proper gender roles for women. In reaction to this threat, there poured upon the heads of these women numerous satires in fiction, plays, cartoons and newspaper editorials of the “emancipated woman.” These scornful pieces of media claimed the New Woman had “unsexed” herself and lost the respect of men. They asked in response to “what does she want” with “what does she not want?” She, according to an editorial in the New York Times, “dresses like a man, as far as possible, thereby making herself hideous…the next step will be to wear her hair short and adopt a mustache.” She also wants, “to work by man’s side and on his level and still be treated with the chivalry due her in her own kingdom–home and society–and any abatement of this treatment produces a storm of indignation and wrath quite beyond the sex she is endeavoring to emulate.” And that’s not the worst of the opinions. The retaliation against the New Woman spilled onto the suffrage debate, creating more problems within the movement as not only man pit himself against woman, but woman versus woman as well. Despite this conflict, the New Woman was here to stay, and paved the road for the women of the post-war society.

The Bachelor Girl

by Evangeline Holland,, November 27, 2009

TypistThe concept of the bachelor girl (or girl bachelor, woman bachelor, in common vernacular of the day) was an extension of the New Woman, both of which equally frightened traditionalists and gender divisions at the turn-of-the-century. As seen in a previous post, the girl-bachelor was seen as “a ‘comfortable creature’ and a ‘clever nest-builder.’” Where the New Woman was usually of the upper middle-class, college-educated and in the workforce to assert their independence, the bachelor girl was strictly a middle- and lower-middle class phenomenon. They may have a college education (more likely training in a trade, such as typing or minor bookkeeping), but many were just your average shopgirl, telephone exchange operator, hat-check girl, and so on. The Bachelor Girl needed to work, but her precarious financial status did not preclude her from equal independence.

The first concern of the working bachelor girl was housing. Due to the stigmas placed on unmarried women, it was difficult for a single girl to find agreeable housing that was both amenable to her unmarried state and would protect her from unwanted advances. The issue was most acute in New York city, where women were barred from taking hotel rooms and most boarding houses were for “Gentlemen Only.” When a bachelor girl did find a suitable candidate, their morals, family background, religious practices, and romantic relationships were intensely scrutinized by the landlord.

Woman in roomA 1903 article in The American Monthly Review of Reviews:

“One of the model tenements erected in New York several years ago was set aside for self-supporting women. Forty out of forty-five apartments in this building, of one, two, or three rooms each, with an average rental of ninety-three cents per room per week, are occupied by unattached women, most of whom are breadwinners with moderate salaries, including nurses, teachers, clerks, dressmakers, and literary workers.”

In 1906, there was one hotel which catered to bachelor girls, but the hurdles a girl had to jump through to obtain housing led most working women to band together with two or three others of their similar dilemma and rent a flat. These could be had rather cheaply, but small, and bachelor girls needed to be inventive to survive the sharing of a tiny flat with two other girls. Out of this necessity the chafing dish became extremely popular with single women and men. The chafing dish, a copper or steel brazier, could cook practically any dish with little fuss and in a simple manner. Dozens of cookbooks devoted sections to chafing-dish recipes, and even more cookbooks were created specifically for the chafing dish. In this contraption, eggs and bacon could be made for breakfast, grilled sandwiches for luncheon, and braised kidneys and rice for supper. Other options for eating were the numerous tea shops studding the city, or the Childs Restaurants, which catered to office workers in downtown Manhattan, and by the 1910s, Horn & Hardart’s automats began to appear in the northeast’s major cities.

The Oakley FlatsHousing, however, was of little issue in England, as the average bachelor girl remained at home or took lodgings in the apartment houses built for females, of which there were four large ones in London: Oakley Flats in Chelsea, the Chenies Street Chambers, the York Street Chambers, and Sloane Gardens House. These apartments were moderate and elegant, possessing gardens in abundance, and ranging from highly private, where there were no common rooms, to wide-open, with many common rooms and areas for meeting and the posting of London-based activities. The tenants of these apartments had full independence: a latch-key of their own, the ability to come and go when pleased, to invite male and female friends to tea, and host parties.

Bachelor girls on either side of the Atlantic were nonetheless plagued by the “Marriage Question.” Many critics of growing female independence worried that as club-life disinclined men to marry, apartment life disinclined women to marry, which would lead to a decline in the birth rate, and disintegrate family life and the social structure! The real fear over the bachelor girl was the state of her morals: a woman alone could engage in illicit relations with men and thus enjoy experiences formerly reserved for married women.

The bachelor girl also earned an education. Into the bookstalls came a number of titles to help single women find employment and housing, to learn how to deal with male co-workers and employers, how to feed, clothe and furnish herself and their living space, and more importantly, how to earn and budget their money–an important advancement at a time where women were expected to depend on their male relations or their husbands for money, and were frequently unable to open bank accounts; and when permitted, newspaper articles poked fun at the outliers as being the norm (such as women forgetting to sign their checks, or overdrawing their accounts, or apparently increasing forgery by sending their servants to withdraw and deposit money for them).

Though the issues of marriage, love, and gender roles do remain, the bachelor girl, and the New Woman with her, despite the forces against them, were a fount of resilience. Their lot may not have been glamorous or immediately rewarding, but their trials and tribulations, as well as their triumphs, paved the way for women of today.

This entry was posted in breadwinning, history, matrimony, victoriana. Bookmark the permalink.

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