The Gilded Age and the Beginning of the New Woman

New York's Latest Fad: The Michaux Cycle Club (Harper's Weekly, 19 Jan. 1895)

One of the biggest changes in late 19th century America and one which would have the most significant impact on women’s lives was the growth of cities.  Urban life created new problems as well as new opportunities for both men and women.  Women had already been trying to find ways to expand their lives.  With urbanization, at the very least the female sphere began to include evenings out with their husbands.  For some women, it also included bicycling.  But in both cases, as she becomes more visible in the social world, her behavior is more likely to be scrutinized for transgressions.  As a result, she has to find some mean between displaying class and status and demonstrating etiquette and propriety.  As one newspaper columnist worried, women who were riding bicycles and wearing more relaxed costumes which might even show their ankles were barely a step removed from becoming prostitutes.  He may have been worrying a little too much about the relationship between prostitution and bicycling, but given that women's roles and activities were changing along with fashions, he may not have been wrong to be worried--he just had the wrong fear.

Ideologies of the Gilded Age:

Although the implications of these ideologies are not the same, they tend to come together in a search for an antidote to the effects of modernism.  For many people, a return to the "primitive" (with primitive referring to society before the effects of modernism) was the antidote, and women who still looked like "true women" was seen as one expression of this primitivism.  The natural spontaneity of children was seen as another antidote.  The idea of the feminine as a means of reversing the negative conditions of modernism reinforced the belief in separate spheres for men and women and the belief that women were the angels of the domestic paradise they created for men.  It is interesting that in the three works below, illustrating the woman as ornament and the woman as an object of meditation, her clothing has changed.  Surely, if her fashions have changed, then her life must have changed as well.  In other words, holding on to an image of the early 19th century "true woman" as a cure for the problems of modernism may not work for one very important reason: the Gilded Age is the beginning of the New Woman.
"Household Decoration" (Charles Dana Gibson, from book of his latest drawings and cartoons, publ. in 1916) J. S. Sargent: Mrs. Fiske Warren and Daughter, 1903 Whistler: Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862

The New Woman

The phrase "New Woman" refers to middle and upper-middle class women in the last quarter of the 19th century.  These women were moving from home into the public sphere, and experiencing greater opportunities for education and public involvement, either through work or through campaigns for social changes such as the fight for suffrage, campaigns for better living conditions and child care, and issues related to reproductive rights.  A class of working women emerged as well, but as we've already seen, working women and immigrants are unlikely to appear in art and do not really do so until after the turn of the century, when we will find them in movies, paintings, and literature.
"Advice to Caddies: You will save time by keeping your eyes on the ball, not the player." (from Charles Dana Gibson, The Gibson Book, 1907)

The "new woman" was captured in the cartoons of Charles Dana Gibson so often that his name began to stand for the new woman (despite the fact that in other drawings, such as the two women adorning the fireplace, he depicted the opposite point of view).  In a 1901 magazine article, Gibson's new woman, or the Gibson Girl, engaged in an imaginary dialogue with a "steel-engraved" woman, the term given to the visual depiction of womanhood associated with Godey’s Lady’s Book.  The latter, in the article, talks of how she was prepared for the home environment while the Gibson girl is unprepared, unfit, for it; the Gibson girl talks of being involved in the new utilitarian age, leaving "footprints in the sand of time."   If the Gibson girl was not really an active reformer, she was, however, an example of some of the influence of the dress reform movements of the 19th century.

Gibson Girl, ca. 1890s Currier and Ives: the Bloomer costume, 1851 Godey's: February fashions, ca. 1859

The bloomers did not last long because they attracted too much attention.  Other versions of the split skirt (the Turkish Trousers, for example) were equally unsuccessful.  Corsets were becoming less popular and if they didn't disappear entirely, they were becoming less restrictive.  Even the Gibson Girl looks as though she was wearing a corset, despite the fact that she was playing gold.  But the Gibson Girl was not traditional, even at the end of the century.  This was still a time when the female sphere ruled women’s lives, even if they had begun to believe that they had the ability to imagine a life beyond this sphere, as many of them already had.  As Susan B. Anthony wrote in 1855,
“When society is rightly organized, the wife and mother will have time, wish, and will to grow intellectually, and will know that the limits of her sphere, the extent of her duties, are prescribed only by the measure of her ability.”

J. S. Sargent: Mr. and Mrs. Fields, 1882 J. S. Sargent: Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes, 1897

Mrs. Stokes looks like a real life version (in a painting) of the Gibson Girl.  Although the story behind the painting--that Sargent caught Mrs. Stokes leaving the tennis court and decided to paint her how she looked at that time, after which he had to fit Mr. Stokes into the painting--belies the notion that Sargent or Mrs. Stokes was interesting in creating a radical statement about women's rights, the painting does offer a very different image of the relationship between husband and wife.  That difference is only too apparent in the comparison between Sargent's earlier painting of the Fields and the later painting of the Phelps Stokes.

Edmund C. Tarbell: The Breakfast Room, 1903 J. M. Whistler: Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room, 1860

Women who tried to follow through on Anthony’s prescription for women to expand their sphere by expanding their minds may have encountered some mixed messages (and not only from their clothing).  Whistler provides an intriguingly early depiction of this as the little girl in the painting sits absorbed in a large book.  The woman seen reflected in the mirror, Whistler’s half-sister, was married to a surgeon and as shown in the painting, led a much more restricted life than the visitor who is dressed in a black riding costume. In France, where his sister lived, the costume was also associated with the role of courtesan.  Although we have no way of knowing whether the visiting woman was in fact a courtesan, the child in the painting, Annie, seems oblivious to both women.  Faced with two possible choices in life, she ignores both of them and reads.  Annie is probably reading a book of fairy tales–there is some indication of a picture on the cover.  But it was still fairly unusual to show a woman (or little girl) in a painting who was reading a book, as opposed to just holding one.

In Tarbell's painting (made in the same year as the Sargent portrait of Mrs. Fiske Warren), we see both the male sphere and the female sphere, but although they appear to coexist in the same space, they avoid interaction with one another.  The woman is reading something (and ignoring her husband), while the man, whom we can barely see, is stabbing an orange.  If he had been the one reading the newspaper, the message would have been clear: the husband was no longer as entranced by his wife as when they first married.  As we look more closely, we notice a lot of paintings in the room, a fact which might lead us to wonder if this room is an artist’s studio.  But whose?  Is she the artist?  By 1903, it's quite possible, although this is an unlikely way to depict an artist.  The suggestion made in the 12:00 class, that the woman is a model and taking a break, very nicely explains her disheveled appearance.  And perhaps the man, the presumed artist in this interpretation, is gesturing with the orange as he imagines some part of the composition he has yet to paint.  But it is still difficult to account for the fact that the man takes up so little of the painting.  That alone makes it unusual.
If we assume that the woman at the table is the mistress of the household, then we are faced with the problem that she is not really dressed for the day, and on top of that, she’s reading.  Although it was readily acknowledged by the turn of the century that women were as interested in pleasure as men were in business, this interest of theirs was not seen as something to praise.  Tarbell’s woman at the table is idle–obviously a member of the upper, leisure class, seemingly dissatisfied with her marriage, and apparently trying to follow through on Susan Anthony’s prescription for women to expand their sphere by expanding their minds.  Tarbell's painting may be passing judgment on this goal as well as on the female propensity for leisure.

While paintings of women before the middle of the 19th century were unlikely to show women reading–they might be caressing a book but rarely did they make eye contact with it–after the mid-century the female reader became increasingly commonplace, in real life as well as in paintings.  Not all men approved of this development (women reading), and if they did, they often assumed that reading was another form of vanity.  But to be completely fair, we should note that paintings of women reading, especially the newspaper, remained less, rather than more, frequent in American art.  So perhaps the fact that she's reading, even if it's just about herself, is a sign of progress in art works.

The Announcement of Her Engagement (Gibson's Latest Cartoons and Drawings, book publ. in 1916)