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New Negro Woman (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022)

N (AtoZ Challenge 2022) Enter the New Woman - New Negro Woman

If the position of the Gibson Girl could be sometimes tricky, the position of African American New Women was outright complicated. African American women participated in the ‘movement’ of the New Woman, upholding a new image of black femininity that countered deep-set racial stereotypes while still dealing with them daily. New Negro Woman was normally actively involved in advancing the race. 

The 1920s was the time of the New Negro. Many African American entrepreneurs, politicians and especially artists (these last involved in the Harlem Renaissance) worked hard to give a new impression of what African Americans could do and were indeed doing in their community and sometimes outside of it. 

Their action made a difference for their community, at least as far as the Jazz Age lasted. 

Pinterest pin. The text reads, "Enter the New Woman - New Negro Woman". The picture shows a vintage photo of a young Victorian woman raising up a rose to her face.

In this new environment, women found themselves in a difficult position. 

Prevailing racial stereotypes linked the African American woman with sexual degeneration and availability and often depicted them as masculinised brutes who belittled even their own men. 

African American women had countered these stereotypes with a ‘policy of dissemblance’. They talked little and showed themselves as little as possible so that their words and images could not be used against them and especially against their men and activists. 

But the change that marked the rise of the New Woman posed new challenges. New Negro Women wanted to be freer. They wanted to work and manifest their own skills. They wanted to get an education and become businesswomen and artists. They wanted to live their sensuality more freely. In short, they too wanted to be New Women, which proved to be even more problematic than for their white counterparts.

Participating in the Gibson Girl ideal, especially through fashion and demeanour, became key in proposing a new image of African American women. By appearing as Gibson Girls, black women inserted themselves into that discourse and change and capitalised on the respectability of the Gibson Girl and all the meanings attached to her. However, they had to carefully handle anything that may suggest mobility and playful sensuality lest they fell into racial stereotyping.

New Negro Woman (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) For the New Negro Woman, the Gibson Girl concept was beth and opportunity and a challenge #USHistory Click To Tweet

How African American women mindfully used the New Woman ideal

This was the constant dilemma of the New Negro Woman throughout her entire historical arc.

If black women continued to adhere to the ‘policy of dissemblance’, they would renounce the opportunity for change and empowerment the New Woman offered. But if they openly participated in this new image of femininity, they could undermine what activists had achieved and were achieving. In fact, black women who did participate in the New Woman ideal fully – like, for example, many blueswomen – were harshly criticised by their own people. 

The New Woman offered a form of liberation to African American women, but it also posed a thorny problem.

Yet, many black women recognised the power of change this new idea offered. If they managed to participate in the revolution of the New Woman, black women could propose a new image of themselves, just like the Gibson Girl was doing. By adopting the Gibson Girl’s fashion while carefully balancing it with a ladylike attitude and refined image, black women could strongly contrast the racial stereotype of the brute, masculine black woman. 

Because of this active, continuous choice, the New Negro Woman was, in fact, far more politically and socially involved than New Women usually were. 


RESOURCES

Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021

Chapman, Erin D., Prove It on Me. New Negroes, Sex, and Popular Culture in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 2012

History Matters – Elise Johnson McDougald on “The Double Task: The Struggle of Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation”
Quiet Persistance – New Negro Woman


12 Comments

  • Kristin
    Posted April 16, 2022 at 01:31

    From my investigations into my grandmother’s friends who were in the Edelweiss Club, they were educated. All went through high school, some took the teachers course of two more years and some went through college with some earning advanced degrees eventually. Most did not work after they were married. Those who didn’t marry continued to work until retirement. If they married later in life, they continued to work. One day I will have to go back and write them all up!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 16, 2022 at 09:45

      Thanks so much, Kristin. I love to see research coming to life through the stories of real people.
      I knew that women who worked, stopped once they got married, but I never heard that, if they married later in life, instead they woudl continute working. It kind of make sense, but I never consider that.
      And you know I’m waiting for your Edelwise series, don’t you? 😉

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 17, 2022 at 06:05

    The New York State Museum in Albany has a section on the Harlem Renaissance in their New York City history wing, and a number of prominent African-American women are featured in that exhibit. I wish more schools taught about these amazing women, and not just as an aside during Black History Month.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 17, 2022 at 10:56

      You know? I’ve always loved history. It was my favourite subject at school. And yet, I learned a lot more as an adult, when I started parsue my interests and less threaded path in history studies.
      I don’t know. The more I think about it, the more I’m disappointed with school. So many missed opportunities…

  • Sharon Himsl
    Posted April 17, 2022 at 19:19

    i think the racial stereotype of the ‘brute, masculine black woman’ still rears its ugly head. The media often portrays an unfit, overweight black woman with a loud voice who is obviously poor and marginalized. This is not a comment about being overweight (goodness, I have had my moments), but I like your first image of the trim young teen starting out in life, because it portrays a young woman with dreams and goals no different (or perhaps better) than her white neighbors. But I also can see in a racist world where she would hide these feelings and step forward cautiously. I admire the bravery of those who did!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 18, 2022 at 18:02

      We’re living in very troubled time. And honetly, sometimes I wonder how the past sounds so much like our present.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 19, 2022 at 17:03

    Sounds like they’ve always had to walk a tightrope to be acknowledged for who they are and not as what they’ve been stereotyped as.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 20, 2022 at 22:33

      True. African American women stook in a very tricky position. But also in a position of great power when they manage to muster it.

  • Anne E.G. Nydam
    Posted April 19, 2022 at 20:23

    It’s nice to see the many facets of women, not all just one face. Thanks!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 20, 2022 at 22:37

      going diggin for pictures is one of the best parts of writing these posts. I love looking at vintage photos.

  • Kalpana
    Posted April 22, 2022 at 12:58

    This was indeed a thorny problem for the New Negro Woman.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 27, 2022 at 21:13

      They were in a very difficult position. And many of them didn’t go the easy way.

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