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date: 20 August 2017

New Women in Early 20th-Century America

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a new image of womanhood emerged on the American cultural scene, shaping public views and understandings of the changing role of women in society. Identified by contemporaries as a Gibson Girl, a suffragist, a Progressive reformer, a bohemian feminist, a college girl, a bicyclist, a flapper, a working-class militant, or a Hollywood vamp, all of these images came to epitomize the New Woman, an umbrella term that marked a modern understanding of femininity. Referring both to real, flesh-and-blood women, and to an abstract idea or a visual archetype, the New Woman represented a generation of women who came of age between 1890 and 1920 and challenged gender norms and structures by demanding a public voice and personal fulfillment through work, education, and political engagement, while also connoting a distinctly modern appearance that contrasted the Victorian ideal. As a cultural phenomenon, the New Woman became associated with the rise of feminism and the campaign for women’s suffrage, as well as with the rise of consumerism, mass-culture, and freer expressions of sexuality that defined the first decades of the 20th century. Emphasizing youth, mobility, freedom, and modernity, the New Woman image varied across categories of age, class, race, ethnicity, and geographical regions, offering a spectrum of behaviors and images with which different women could identify. At times controversial, the New Woman image nevertheless provided women with possibilities to negotiate new social roles and to promote ideas of equality and freedom that later entered the cultural mainstream.