The ‘Gibson Girl’, the new image of femininity that emerged from American magazines at the very end of the 19th century, embodied a new idea of beauty and womanhood and effectively ushered in the concept of the New Woman.
For the most part, the 19th century was hard on women in the Western World. The Industrial Revolution and the Victorian Era had driven a wedge between the world of men and women. While husband and wife might have worked side by side in the fields in true communion, as work shifted from the field to the factory and ‘going to work’ became an activity outside of the house that only men performed, women became progressively relegated to the house. Health problems pressed this point even further. With the Victorian ideal of women as the ‘weaker sex’ always in need of protection, women became even more housebound and segregated from men and their activity.
The Victorian True Women didn’t work, went out with her man or with friends only in specific circumstances, only took part in certain accepted activities, stayed away from the sun and the streets, and mainly took care of the house and her children. At least, this was what was expected from her.
But things slowly changed, and as the century drew to a close, a new woman emerged who was educated and wanted to find her own way in life. A woman that refused to be bound to the house. Who wanted to be mobile in all manners, from working to going to university, to be more athletic and be able to move about independently and easily, without being hindered by her own clothes.
Rising in direct opposition to the Victorian True Women, the New Woman was to dominate the very early decades of the 20th century.
Charles Gibson and his Girl
In the 1890s, many magazine illustrators started to depict this New Woman. Among them, Charles Dana Gibson most fully depicted the character of this new American Girl, to the point that by the turn of the century, the ideals of the New Women and the Gibson Girl almost matched.
Apparently, Gibson didn’t have a very high opinion of women. As even his 1903 book, The Weaker Sex: The Story of a Susceptible Bachelor, shows, he thought them to be mostly vampires and opportunists, always trying to wed into money. Yet, he had an eye for how women were gaining new space, and his quick pen sketches perfectly capture the nature of the New Woman.
The Gibson Girl was tall, slim and beautiful. She would wear the very modern ensemble separate. She would cycle unchaperoned around town and would be seen mostly outdoor, doing such activities as tennis. She was also a girl of leisure and the centre of dancing parties. But she would also pursue her passions and almost always get an education.
In short, she was a vastly different woman from her mother.
The Gibson Girl was a girl. She was always depicted as single, not a wife or a mother. This is where she was particularly potent as an image. She was mistress of her time and her ambitions, and as such, she was indeed a potential challenge to existing sexual hierarchies and gender roles.
What social power did the Gibson Girl have?
To this threat, Western society responded as it would do throughout the historical arc of the New Woman: by trying to take away the edge.
In the 1920s, society tried to bring down the flapper by proposing her as a fatuous woman only interested in having all kinds of fun, who would destroy her society for a whim. The Gibson Girl was never seen as a threat, but her society tried to bring her down by hinting that she didn’t have the characteristics to achieve what she aimed for. Basically, it was suggested that the New Woman wanted to be more educated and to get a carrier that fulfilled her aspirations, but this was only a romantic dream impossible to realise. She was always portrayed as cute, not as determined.
But even so, the Gibson Girl was a powerful image of new femininity. She embodied mobility, modernity and a new kind of freedom of expression.
Contrary to the later incarnation of the New Woman – like the suffragette or the flapper – the Gibson Girl never threatened the male social order. But she certainly opened the way to those later incarnations precisely because she never felt threatening.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
Dusty Old Things – America’s First Beauty Standard: the Gibson Girl
The Dreaming Book Blog – More Than Just a Gibson Girl: The New Woman
ATI – 25 Photos Of How The Gibson Girl Became America’s Preeminent Lifestyle Influencer Of The Early 1900s
Library of Congress – The Gibson Girl’s America