The New Woman is independent and self-oriented, concerned with benefitting her own life in the present, according to Elsa Hermann. Unlike the past, the New Woman fought for independence and provided for herself. Previously, women were concerned with taking care of their families and planning for the future for spouse and children. A woman’s purpose was satisfied when “she has settled the son in his work and gotten the daughter married” (34). She was constantly concerned with the wellbeing of her husband and kids, and lacked the social means and economic independence to make major decisions on her own.
In contrast, the New Woman “is oriented exclusively toward the
present” (34). She has economic independence and strives for equality between women and men. Interestingly, Hermann characterizes the New Woman as unfeminine based on how a person judges femininity. If external forces and behaviors are the driving force for gender declaration, then the New Woman is quite different. However, Hermann corrects the reader and informs them that a woman is a woman because “she manifests characteristics that the man finds desirable” (35).
For all of Hermann’s discussion on economic independence and personal power over decisions and family, she still defines “female” in relation to men, making the term and therefore the definition of female dependent on males. A woman is only female or feminine when she exhibits characteristics which appeal to men, according to Hermann. Although I agree that external characteristics do not necessarily define femininity, I object to how she makes the idea of woman dependent on man. Further, it weakens her discussion on the empowerment of the New Woman, because although the New Woman may be independent on the surface, the essence of her existence and self-expression is still defined in the context of man.
The idea of the New Woman is a social construct of its time, but it is based on realistic changes in society. While not all of the characteristics and behaviors discussed by Hermann may be exhibited by every New Woman of the era, many women demonstrated some of the characteristics, as was possible based on their social status and circumstances. Economic independence may not have been feasible for every woman, but some may have fought to allow their daughters to have economic independence, or pushed for more power within the family dynamic. In this regard, the New Woman described by Hermann that embodies all of the characteristics expected of a modern lady is somewhat of an ideal, something for women to strive for but not necessarily the norm for most women. Crucial to this idea of a New Woman though was independence and empowerment, although the idea was still built around women’s role interacting with men. Hermann defines the ideal New Woman in her excerpt, but cannot help but mention men in comparison and definition of woman.