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.
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.
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