The “New Woman”

by Mrs. T. P. Holman

(GOSPEL ADVOCATE, 9 July 1896, 438)

Is there a New Woman; and if so, What Causes Led to Her Creation?

For almost a year past it has been borne in upon me, as our Quaker friends would say, to tell the Advocate readers what I think of the new woman; but the days of a busy life have passed so rapidly, and have been so full of other duties, that only now have I seemed to find the time.

The comic papers are full of the monstrosity called the "new woman;" the newspaper paragraphers find her at present their chief "stock in trade;" ministers and religious papers and conservative people generally build figures of straw, which they label the "new woman," and deride them and cuff them and vehemently warn all good women to beware of them; and altogether so much stuff of this sort meets our eyes, when we find a few moments' time to read the papers, that the average woman becomes bewildered and frightened, and would fain fly from the monstrosity, only she can't tell where to find it; for no one ever meets it in real life. Many a time, when a particularly disagreeable specimen of some newspaper writer's too vivid imagination is impaled and held up to view, I have tossed the paper impatiently aside, ready to say, with one of Dickens' characters in reference to the immortal Sairy Gamp's mythical friend, Mis' Harris: “There hain't no sich person.”

But, after all, one is compelled to admit that the woman of to-day differs in many respects from the woman of the past centuries, and even from the woman of one hundred or of fifty years ago; and while the comic papers and newspaper paragraphers have failed to discover her—or, if they have done so, they have distorted her features beyond all recognition—yet there is a "new woman," in one sense of the word; and she is not only coming, but is come.

In the first place, in the proper consideration of this question, it will be necessary to consider something of what woman was in the remote and immediate past before we can know in what respect the nineteenth century woman differs from her sufficiently to be called the "new woman." It will be well to consider also why or from what cause the change was brought about. Then we will try to find out what the new woman is and what she will do for the world.

The position of woman in the past ages has been a very low one. As far back as A.D. 578 the priesthood, by a decree of the Council of Auxerre, forbade women (on account of their innate impurity) to receive the Eucharist (communion bread) in their naked hands; and by the same council they were forbidden to sing in the churches on account of “their inherent wickedness.”

“Six years afterwards, A.D. 585, a solemn ecclesiastical council was held at Macon for the purpose of determining whether or not woman had a soul. The subject was long and hotly discussed, but the council adjourned and left the matter in doubt.” At that time the world was sinking into an era of such profound mental and moral darkness that it is characterized by historians as the "dark ages," a darkness so profound that “neither science nor literature flourished, and history itself died.” Emerging from this age, history begins again, in the twelfth century, but tells of little but of the field of combat and the realm of brute force, when men were fighting continuously, and when women, from the exigencies of the time, were necessarily confined to the cloister or the equally secluded castle, “defended and imprisoned behind bar and battlement, moat and drawbridge.” In those days books were few, and only reproduced by the slow and laborious process of copying with the pen. Few people outside of the priesthood could either read or write. People had little beyond the barest necessaries of life. If women knew little outside of a very narrow round of household duties, men knew little but the sword and spear and battle-ax. This condition obtained largely up into the sixteenth century. The printing press, invented about the middle of the fifteenth century, making books of more easy access, opened up the mysteries of learning to the common people; and they soon began to avail themselves of the advantage thus opened up to them. But then, as now, men were unwilling to see their women change in any respect; and while themselves eagerly grasping for the advantages afforded them in the new learning that so broadened their own outlook in every respect, they yet stretched out their hands to bar the entrance of women into the fields of learning. The first public step taken along this line, so far as I know, was when the question was brought up in the Chamber of Deputies, in France (I am uncertain as to the date), as to whether or not women should be allowed to learn the alphabet; and after a long and hard-fought debate, the question was brought to a vote, and it was decided that she should not.

Notwithstanding that august decree, a few women not only learned the alphabet, but also to read and to write. But for many, many long years few souls were brave enough to venture beyond that, and for those few no special provisions were made to enable them to gather even these few crumbs from the table of knowledge. “The years dragged their slow length along into centuries; and the means for man's education rose from the high school into college, university, school of medicine, law, and theology; but nobody dreamed of educating the other half of the human family, and woe betide the misguided mortal who should voice such an unheard-of audacity!”

In the annals of education we read of a young girl who used to sit on the steps of a Boston schoolhouse for boys to catch such scraps of education as might escape through the chinks of the closed doors when the boys were reciting. After a while, so the story goes, “she plucked up courage and knocked for entrance at the awe-inspiring door; and she must have been a persistent young person, for she knocked one hundred and forty-five years before the rusty hinges creaked, and by slow and painful degrees the door swung open.” Her first petition, which was not granted, was that girls be admitted to the public school buildings to be taught reading and writing for three hours a day during vacation, and at such times as the boys did not need the buildings. “The Boston public schools were founded in 1644 for boys only. In 1789 girls were first admitted to the reading and writing schools for a part of the year; in 1818 primary schools for both sexes were opened; in 1828 girls were admitted to all grades below the high school; in 1855 the Girls' High Normal School was established, and in 1868 the Girls' Latin High School was opened.” That was the history of the public schools of that State. The first private seminary in this country was a Quaker school at Bethlehem, Pa., established in 1749. In 1819 Mrs. Emma Willard, one of the foremost educators of her day, petitioned her State Legislature for an endowment for a female seminary, disclaiming all thought, however, of “college-bred females,” for whom she seemed to have an abhorrence. I think that the first college in this country to admit women was Oberlin, established in 1833. Then comes very early in the list the Mary Sharp, of Winchester, established about 1850. Others still followed in rapid succession, until, as the Commissioner of Education tells us, “while in 1855 there were not a half dozen of the higher schools open to women, to-day there are not half a dozen worthy of the name whose doors are closed to them.”

But the path of the woman who made the fight for the higher education of woman was not one of roses by any means. Step by step she had to fight for every inch of ground that she won. The term “new woman” had not then been coined; but the "educated female" was as bitterly derided and ridiculed and caricatured as is the “new woman” to-day. Objections of every sort were urged against her higher education. She was, they said, mentally incapacitated to receive an education. Besides, her body was so frail that she was physically unable to endure the strain and labor necessary to acquire an education. Yet, they said, admitting that she was mentally and physically able to acquire a higher education, “such acquirements would impair feminine grace, dull feminine sensibilities, and destroy domestic tastes, thereby unfitting women for the conjugal and maternal relations in which Heaven had appointed that they should find their chief happiness.” These people, defending what they called the “natural womanhood,” as against the educated womanhood, went on to argue that “the tenderness, affection, and chivalrous regard with which women had inspired men had been the chief agencies in softening man's rough nature, and that educated women would fail to inspire men with these sentiments.”

We can afford to laugh now at these predictions or assertions of women's mental incapacity when we think of Phillipa Fawcett and her four hundred marks above the “mercifully nameless” senior wrangler of the time-honored University of Cambridge; of Helen Reed, who won the Sargent prize at Harvard University; or of Mademoiselle Belasco, who took first honors in the celebrated Paris Law School. We can smile at that long-ago talk of her physical frailty when we consider the superior physical health of the woman of to-day, with all her education, over that of her sisters of a generation ago; and where is the educated man of to-day who would seek among those who may have preserved their “natural womanhood” by not cultivating their minds for a wife? Echo answers: “Where?” The educated man wants an educated wife now and always, and no other will he have; and he doesn't believe that education has impaired her feminine grace or lovable qualities in the slightest degree.

When we look over the pages of history, we find that neither the men nor the women of one generation are just the same as the men or women of the preceding generation. In this very nature of things, considering the progress of the ages from century to century, it is impossible that it should be otherwise. “New occasions bring new duties.” New thoughts, new occupations, new surroundings, new aspirations, new duties that make the new civilization, as certainly make the new man or the new woman as one age gives way to another, or as the barbarism of the past age gives way to the civilization of the present.

Perhaps in no period of the world's history have both men and women made such rapid strides along all lines of progress as in the past generation. Discoveries and advances everywhere along the lines of physical and scientific research and every possible field of human endeavor, the introduction of machinery of every kind, with steam and electricity for motive power to help accelerate the speed of this fast-moving generation, all combine to move both men and women farther from the generation just preceding them than was ever before known in the history of the world. Nobody seems surprised or hurt that the men of this generation are not just the same in their thoughts, feelings, and aspirations as their slow-moving fathers of a generation ago; but a large part of the world seems to be immeasurably astonished and grieved because, in all the vim and go of the present generation, with its quick rush of mental life and large physical activities, so entirely unknown to our grandmothers, they are not just the same women that their grandmothers were in every respect. In the nature of things, I ask: How could they be? Is it not unreasonable to expect that they should be?

The woman of to-day, even if she had been forced to remain uneducated, would not have been just the same as the women of the past; for her surroundings would have forced upon her so different a life that she could not have remained the same. But, with the higher education with which most women are now endowed, with their broader mental grasp, and the larger possibilities this opens up in their lives, undreamed of in the lives of their grandmothers, it is as impossible for them to be just the same women that their grandmothers were as it is that their husbands or brothers should themselves go back to the days when their grandfathers went to mill on horseback, with half a bushel of meal in one end of the sack and a stone to balance it in the other, and be just the same quiet, steady, slowgoing, yet maybe thoroughly good men that their grandfathers were.

So we see, after all, that there is a new woman; that her surroundings had much to do in making her so, her higher education more. It only remains to tell what she is and what she is not and what is her use in the world; and if my friends will have the patience to follow me, I will endeavor to tell that in another article.


Fayetteville, Tenn.

It gives a body the blues to read Sister Holman's article on man. Man was such a monster to hold the woman down in ignorance and darkness through the long, weary centuries, when she was so earnestly seeking an opportunity to learn. She seems to think men are innate enemies and oppressors of womankind. Her account of those centuries of effort on the part of man to suppress the aspirations of woman for education is as gross a caricature of facts as is the description of the “new woman” which she so strongly deprecates. That terrible struggle is all in our sister's imagination. The men were as anxious to have the women educated as the women were to be educated. There was no conflict between the sexes, one struggling for education, the other to keep her from it. Women ridiculed the educated female as much as men did.

One would suppose from her account that it was a rare thing for a woman to know how to read and write in the last century. The truth is, educational advantages were few to all, and none sought a higher education, save those intending to follow the learned professions; /439?/ and as only men followed these, schools for higher education were provided only for men. Outside of those who proposed to follow the professions the girls and boys fared alike as to education. Sister Holman's grandmother, raised in the last century, if I do not mistake her maternity, was a well educated woman, as well educated as her grandfather. My grandmothers, raised back in the middle of the last century, were as well educated as were my grandfathers, although one of these was a schoolteacher. And many women back in the preceding century were well educated. But in the struggle to clear up their lands, build homes, and gain a living they could not have the facilities for education that now exist.

But I do not see the justice or good of representing that there was a bitter conflict between the men and women on the question of woman's education or any other question. The two sexes have never had contests. The contests now over the rights of woman is not between the men and the women. A larger proportion of men than women desire the women to vote and become public speakers. Paul says: “So ought men to love their own wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.” That is the better spirit to cultivate.


(e-text: JoAnne Toews)

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