Satirizing the “New Woman” in Victorian England

By Andie Petrillo

For many, the words “Victorian woman” conjure images of gargantuan hoop skirts, frothy dresses, and heroines such as Jane Eyre. This meek and subjugated woman is not the only type: as the Victorian era progressed in England, gender roles and norms began to shift allowing for an emergence of a “New Woman” in the 1880s and 1890s. This more mobile and liberated woman came under intense scrutiny from magazines and periodicals such as Punch. The editorial cartoons mocked this more masculine woman by use of satirical jabs, such as exaggerating the sizes of women, mocking the wearing of bloomers or cycling suits, or depicting the New Woman as a garish and cruel harpy.

I will focus here on the characteristics of the early Victorian gender norms for women and how the New Woman’s Punch depictions differ from these norms. This includes different modes of dress, views on a woman’s place, and the fear of encroaching on the man’s sphere. In order to compare the “Angel in the House” ideal and the “Shrieking Sisterhood” New Woman, I will examine both texts from the era and images of women on both sides of the divide. This more complex and straightforward New Woman shows a shifting attitude towards a woman’s place in the later Victorian era and is indeed the figurehead for the first-wave feminism of the time.

Coventry Patmore’s “The Angel in the House” is perhaps the best example of the early Victorian ideal. Victor Shea and William Whitla state that Patmore’s woman is “the submissive and devoted wife, charming, consoling, graceful, self-sacrificing, and self-deprecating, running her home flawlessly, raising her children appropriately, and supporting her husband unquestioningly” (565). This is especially true of Part III “Honoria: The Accompaniments,” by Coventry Patmore. Patmore’s beloved is so beautiful that “Her beauty haunts him all the night; / It melts his heart, it makes him weep / For wonder, worship, and delight” (110-112).

Patmore continues in stanza two to enumerate and extol the virtues of his beloved. She cares for the speaker and is “so perfect, true, and pure,” and “She’s far too lovely to be wrong” (Patmore 126-129). After describing what the woman is, in Book II Part XI Patmore reveals what she should be: she must be “Nothing but sweet and womanly!” first and foremost (195). Her virtues and personality must please him as well. Finally, Patmore writes that she often resorts to being “thoughtless, talkative, and vain” (203).

Perhaps the most interesting view of women from Patmore is in Book II Part X. Patmore subheads this portion as “The Foreign Land.” In fact, he compares women to a foreign land which men will never understand. The “customs, politics, and tongue,” and “fashions odd, and prospects fair” are an enigmatic puzzle to the speaker (Patmore 180, 182). This is the ideal Victorian woman: meek, beautiful, pleasing to her husband, and dismissed to her own sphere.

Patmore is not the only Victorian to write about the place of women in society. Sarah Stickney Ellis’s The Daughters of England and The Women of England brim with advice for the “proper” Victorian lady. In The Daughters of England, Ellis begins by noting that women must first be content with inferiority to men. Women are inferior both mentally and physically, argues Ellis. Yet, a woman’s “strength is in her influence” which are enhanced by “peculiar faculties—with a quickness of perception, facility of adaptation, and acuteness of feeling,” which fit a woman for their part in life (Ellis 57-58).

Ellis continues by noting the duties and responsibilities women have. Women have a duty not only to family, but also to their social circle, community, and even their nation. As a Christian, the woman must decide “not to live for herself so much as for others” and to live “for eternity rather than for time” (Ellis 58). Perhaps the largest responsibility for a Victorian woman is the rearing of children. Ellis’s The Mothers of England offers advice on the “proper” way to raise both boys and girls.

According to Ellis in Chapter 11, girls have a “quickness of susceptibility, and a consequent versatility of character, which may be either a defect or otherwise, according to the early training to which they are subjected” (71). Beyond this, a woman must not become distracted because a woman “has no business to be so far absorbed in any purely intellectual pursuit, as not to know when water is boiling over on the fire” (Ellis 71). Ellis again emphasizes the strengths women have of a versatile character and ease of adapting to circumstances. However, a woman cannot indulge in these traits or they will “dwindle into absolute nothingness; just as the lights and shadows of a picture broken up and divided into minute portions destroy the effect of the whole” (Ellis 71).

In order to successfully raise a daughter, a mother must strengthen their character and to give them a foundation onto which their feelings may “branch out and develop themselves in endless variety, without depriving the root of its necessary firmness and strength” (Ellis 71). Finally, Ellis recommends sufficient exercise for young girls. Exercise is the only way to counteract a tendency towards musing and listlessness. “Musing, quiet,” and “listless” girls may seem more “gentle and ladylike,” but “seldom grow up to be so useful and valuable a character” (Ellis 71).

Finally, Ellis addresses a woman’s place in The Women of England, Chapter 2: “The Influence of the Women of England.” Ellis argues that women do have influence and said influence is beneficial to society. Ellis remarks, “a superficial observer might…class many of those exemplary women, who pass to and fro upon the earth with noiseless step, whose names are never heard, and who, even in society, if they attempt to speak, have scarcely the ability to command an attentive audience” (69). Yet these weak women have strong moral power.

To possess this power, women don’t necessarily need to be highly intelligent. They need only “possess so clear a sense of the right and wrong of individual actions as to be of essential service in aiding the judgments of their husbands, brothers, or sons, in those intricate affairs in which it is sometimes difficult to dissever worldly wisdom from religious duty” (Ellis 69).

The New Woman hears the cries of those oppressed and in despair. Their newfound voices cannot be stifled by stuffing cotton in their ears and forcing them to stay in their sphere.

Men according to Ellis are so concerned with worldly issues that they ignore conscience. Their one and only focus is on attaining wealth. Their sphere of influence is the outside world in the marketplace, the exchange, or politics. It is the wife’s duty then to take the confused and shaken man into her realm of influence and show him the truth again. For Ellis, the woman is the “humble monitress…guarding the fireside comforts…clothed in moral beauty” that sends the man home “a wiser and better man” (69). The woman’s sphere then is the home awaiting the return of her husband.

Several depictions during this period demonstrate the “typical” Victorian woman. In an 1871 Punch engraving titled “Sauce for the Gander,” drawn by John Tenniel, the woman kneels before her husband in wifely deference. She tells her husband, “I say, Joe, dear, if you can’t enjoy your supper now you have lost your grumble about nine hours—grumble for me, as I’ve done fourteen, and ain’t finished yet.” Her gruff husband frowns as he eats his dinner clearly unhappy with his wife. The wife is trying to do her duty by scrubbing the floor and by doing chores for fourteen hours. Yet, this is not enough to placate her husband.

In an 1185 George du Maurier cartoon titled “Experentia Docet?” there are two wives discussing their husbands in an elegant parlor, the proper sphere for women. The wife married for only two years says, “Oh yes! I’m sure he’s not so fond of me as at first. He’s away so much, neglects me dreadfully, and he’s so cross when he comes home. What SHALL I do?” The second woman, a widow, quips, “Feed the brute!” This reflects the expectations of the “Angel in the House.” If she neglects her duty to properly cook for or feed her husband, her husband has no reason to stay home or pay attention to his wife.

The third image described here is a woodcut created by known artist Thomas Allom to accompany Ellis’s Women of England. Here we see the confused man pondering over a newspaper while the woman watches over him. She gently reassures him with a touch as he gazes absentmindedly in the distance. Ever the dutiful wife, she stands near the hearth her “sphere of influence.” Her hand is raised as if she is in the midst of sermonizing over the importance of morals. Allom perfectly captures the ideas in Ellis’s writing.

Before explaining who the “New Woman” was and how that inspired the Punch cartoonists, it is important to provide some background and history of Punch itself. Punch began in 1841 and was a weekly magazine that “specialized in humor and satire” (“Political and Social Satire in Punch” 1). The magazine took its name from the Punch puppet from the popular Punch and Judy. The political cartoons focused on topics such as politics, social trends, international events, and political figures (“Political and Social Satire in Punch 1). Amongst the social trends most featured were the shifting roles and behaviors of women. Punch depicted cartoons that “featured women wearing pants, bathing at the beach, and engaging in physical activities like riding bicycles” and “juxtaposed a young woman with a man or woman from an older generation, who were alternately surprised or made uncomfortable by these new behaviors” (“Political and Social Satire in Punch” 1).

This New Woman also appeared in Victorian literature in several instances. Sarah Grand’s “The New Aspect of the Woman Question” perfectly captures the ideas of the first-wave feminists of the later Victorian era. Grand calls the Victorian men the “Bawling Brothers” who have tried to stop women from improving their situations. These brothers have viewed the women as “ape-ing” man and desiring to change places while “he stood on the hearth-rug in his lord-and-master-monarch-of-all-I-survey attitude, well inflated with his own conceit” (Grand 76). The counterpart to these brothers is what Grand calls the “Shrieking Sisterhood” of women “awaking form their long apathy” proclaiming “what was wrong with Home-is-the-Woman’s-Sphere” mentality (77).

According to Grand, “it is the woman’s place and pride and pleasure to teach the child, and man morally” (77). The “woman holds out a strong hand to the child-man, and insists, but with infinite tenderness and pity, upon helping him up” (Grand 77). The New Woman hears the cries of those oppressed and in despair. Their newfound voices cannot be stifled by stuffing cotton in their ears and forcing them to stay in their sphere.

Grand concludes her article with a stern warning to men. She explains that it is no longer a woman’s aim to please them (Grand 77). Grand then abstracts to the question of “womanliness” itself:

True womanliness is not in danger, and the sacred duties of wife and mother will be all the more honorably performed when women have a reasonable hope of becoming wives and mothers of men. But there is the difficulty. The trouble is not because women are mannish, but because men grow ever more effeminate. Manliness is at a premium now because there is so little of it, and we are accused of aping men in order to conceal the side from which the contrast should evidently be drawn. (77)

Grand is not the only Victorian woman to write about women’s issues plaguing this New Woman. Frances Power Cobbe’s “What Shall We Do with Our Old Maids?” also touches on the fates of unmarried women. Cobbe notes that there is an increase of celibate or unmarried women who now earn their own living. She proposes that there are two ways to view this staggering trend: accept this new trend and “educate women and modify trade” or stop this trend, make celibacy as unattractive as possible, and promote marriage (Cobbe 1).

Cobbe’s article focuses on a very important issue facing women that she feels has been forgotten: the institution of marriage itself. She accedes that marriage is “the happiest and best condition for mankind,” but which marriage is best: “a marriage for wealth, for position, for rank, for support”? (Cobbe 1). These marriages lead to misery. Cobbe’s ideal marriage is one founded on what she calls “free choice, esteem, and affection—in one word, on love” (1). If such a marriage cannot be obtained, then let there be no marriage at all.

Writers such as Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramee) and Eliza Lynn Linton focused more on how the New Woman appeared to society. Linton’s “Girl of the Period” “is a creature who dyes her hair and paints her face…whose sole idea of life is plenty of fun and luxury; and whose dress is the object of such thought and intellect as she possesses” (65). Her only goal in life is to outdo her rivals in extravagance of her dress. She sacrifices cleanliness for the sake of a long train to her dress.

Punch’s satire of the New Woman stretched into the visual realm as well. Their editorial cartoons mocked everything from the New Woman’s increased mobility to their fashions and accomplishments.

“The Woman of the Period” also cares not for the morals of yesteryear; she “dresses to please herself, she does not care if she displeases every one else” (Linton 66). Nothing is too wild or exaggerated for her taste. For example, “if a sensible fashion lifts the gown out of the mud, she raises hers midway to her knee. If the absurd structure of wire and buckram, once called a bonnet, is modified that shall protect the wearer’s face…she cuts hers down to four straws and a rosebud, or a tag of lace and a bunch of glass beads” (Linton 66). This type of dressing ultimately leads to using slang, talking boldly, and becoming a “fast woman.” She will forsake her duties and responsibilities for the pursuit of money. Linton ends by calling these women a poor copy of a bad original who is oblivious to the fact that men do not respect her. The men flirt with her but do not marry her because she is not the “kind of thing they want” and “she is acting against nature and her own interests when she disregards their advice and offends their taste” (Linton 66).

Ouida’s “The New Woman” is a direct response to Grand’s “The New Aspect of the Woman Question.” She begins by noting that the Working Man and the New Woman both seek to have themselves raised higher in society than they deserve. Ouida does not approve of Grand’s usage of the cow-woman and the scum-woman to represent the types of women understood by men. She writes, “…the New Woman who, we are told, ‘has been sitting apart in silent contemplation all these years,’ might in all these years have studied better models of literary composition” (Ouida 83). To Ouida, even the simplest perception or concept has not occurred to the New Woman.

Ouida also points out an apparent paradox in Grand’s logic. She states that Grand wrote that “the New Woman will not surrender her present privileges…but if she retain these privileges she can only do so by an appeal to his chivalry, i.e., by a confession that she is weaker than he” (Ouida 83). In effect, she wants to receive concessions for being weak yet demanding power due to force alone. This attempt to play both sides as it were will lead to the woman becoming “odious to men” and “kicked back roughly by him into the seclusion of a harem” (Ouida 83).

The New Woman to Ouida will not earn equality to man as long as she

wears dead birds as millinery and dead seals as coats; so long as she goes to races, steeplechases, coursing and pigeon matches; so long as she ‘walks with guns’…makes no attempt to interest herself in her servants…so long as she is utterly incapable of keeping her sons out of the shambles of modern sport, and lifting her daughters above the pestilent miasma of modern society. (83-84)

The final literary example of the New Woman comes from Punch in the form of a Shakespearean parody: “The Seven Ages of Woman.” According to the speaker, the women will play several more masculine parts. The first is an infant “grinding” and “sapping in its mother’s arms.” Next, she is the high-school girl “creeping like cripple / Short-sightedly to school.” After this, she is the “free lover” quoting Ibsen or ballads made against marriage. Then she is a “spouter” “full of long words and windy…seeking that bubble She-enfranchisement.” Next, she becomes the County Councillor “her meagre bosom shrunk and harshly lined” playing the part of a member of Parliament. The sixth age is the “withered sour She-pantaloon” with “her once sweet woman’s voice, / Verjuiced to Virgin-vinegarishness” which “grates harshly at its sound.” Finally, the woman ends in “sheer unwomanliness, mere sex-negation—sans love, sans charm, sans grace, sans everything.” (Marks 12)

While Ouida and Linton offered stern criticism of the New Woman, Marks pokes fun at the New Woman. The hyperbolic harpy in Punch perfectly encapsulates how the New Woman was viewed by men and critics of the era. “The Seven Ages of Woman” mocks the woman “aping” a man with wry wit. The spinster “She-pantaloon” rejects the typical path towards marriage and instead chooses the path towards intellectual growth and spinsterhood. Her “vinegary” voice is raised as a part of Grand’s “Shrieking Sisterhood.”

Punch’s satire of the New Woman stretched into the visual realm as well. Their editorial cartoons mocked everything from the New Woman’s increased mobility to their fashions and accomplishments. Punch and the American Life magazine demonstrate various New Women engaging in interactions with other women. Each cartoon reflects how fearful men viewed the New Woman. First depicted is “In A Twentieth Century Club” taken from Life magazine. These club-going women are mostly engaging in typically masculine behavior. Note that they are wearing pantaloons/bloomers and hats. Some are enjoying a drink while others are smoking from their pipes. Some even have adapted a relaxed or reclining posture in their seats not unlike the gentleman in the 1881 engraving.

Three “normally” dressed women are engaged in serving food to the women patrons. In the background almost out of sight is the sole male figure. He appears to be engaged in performing a ballet in tights and a leotard for the viewing pleasure of the club women. Here indeed is Grand’s more effeminate man ogled at by the “sour She-pantaloons” from the “Seven Ages of Woman.”

Bernard Partridge also drew a depiction of the New Woman in Punch. This one appeared in Punch in 1895, the same year as “In a Twentieth Century Club.” Underneath the sketch of a woman in “typical” dress and in a bicycling costume is a short inscription. The woman on the right asks the woman on the left, “My dear Jessie, what on earth is that bicycle suit for?” Jessie replies, “Why, to wear, of course.” Gertrude tells her that she doesn’t own a bicycle. Jessie quips that she does own a sewing machine, though.

Jessie here is the figurehead for many New Women. She wants to embrace the freedom of wearing pantaloons and riding a bicycle. Gertrude is of course a representation of the traditional Victorian morals and ideals questioning why women need a bicycling suit. Partridge here trivializes the bicycling craze by portraying Jessie as an impulsive woman who constructs a bicycling suit on a whim. She cares more about keeping up with the trends than creating a “useful” article of clothing.

Gertrude, on the other hand adheres to Victorian norms in dress. She wears her corset and skirt with pride. Her defiant stance with both hands on her hips is powerful and domineering. She looks almost down upon Jessie’s outfit with a sneer. She mocks Jessie’s motives for creating a bicycling suit and her desire to wear it.

The first two cartoons represent the lighthearted fun-poking at the New Woman’s desires while George du Maurier’s “Passionate Female Literary Types: The New School” shows a different view. The cartoon is more sinister in its mocking and jabs deeper at the New Woman. Here is a conversation between a newly married woman and a woman author of the era. Mrs. Blyth, the married woman, asks the unmarried Miss Quilpson, why she never married. Miss Quilpson, author of “Caliban Dethroned” retorts, “What? I marry! I be A Man’s Plaything! No, thank you!”

Here again is the contrast between the “proper” Victorian woman and the New Woman. Miss Blyth has done her duty and has married. Her beautiful, young face looks up inquisitively at Miss Quilpson. She is attired as a lady should be with her bonnet, cape, and billowing skirts. Her posture shows her meek deference towards a more masculine figure.
Miss Quilpson stands upright glaring down at Blyth. Her suitcoat is ill-fitting and form-hiding. Her large body fills the entirety of the right side of the cartoon. She also has the busting bosom that Linton refers to in “The Woman of the Period.” Her cropped hair and spectacles give her a masculine look. She is clearly “aping” a man in dress and attitude.

This cartoon is the harshest in criticizing the New Woman as it portrays Quipson as an ugly spinster. Her literary accomplishments are diminished to “Caliban Dethroned, &c, &c.” She represents ages three, six, and seven of Punch’s “Seven Ages of Woman.” She has “spouted” her thoughts into her books. Her cry of “I be a man’s plaything! No thank you!” is the very heart of the “sour She-pantaloon with a voice that grates.” Finally, she represents the “sheer unwomanliness, mere sex-negation—sans love, sans charm, sans grace, sans everything” (Marks 12) of the seventh age.

The New Woman presented a threat to previously held Victorian norms towards its treatment of women. This included their dress, sexuality, and responsibilities. Authors and artists responded to this new threat to men’s spaces in the popular press. This included articles in magazines and cartoons gracing the pages of Punch. The visual representations of the types of Victorian women perfectly encapsulate the sentiments of the writing of the era. The Punch cartoons presented a new figurehead for the early feminist movement of the late Victorian era.

Works Cited

De la Ramee, Ouida Marie Louise. “‘The New Woman.’” Victorian Literature: An Anthology, edited by Victor Shea and Willam Whitla, Wiley Blackwell, 2015, pp. 82–84.

Ellis, Sarah Stickney. “The Daughters of England.” Victorian Literature: An Anthology, by Victor Shea and William Whitla, Wiley Blackwell, 2015, pp. 57–59.

Ellis, Sarah Stickney. “The Mothers of England.” Victorian Literature: An Anthology, by Victor Shea and William Whitla, Wiley Blackwell, 2015, pp. 70–71.

Grand, Sarah. “‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question.’” Victorian Literature: An Anthology, by Victor Shea and William Whitla, Wiley Blackwell, 2015, pp. 76–77.

Linton, Eliza Lynn. “‘The Girl of the Period.’” Victorian Literature: An Anthology, edited by Victor Shea and William Whitla, Wiley Blackwell, 2015, pp. 65–66.

Marks, Patricia. Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers the New Woman in the Popular Press. The University Press of Kentucky, 2015.

Patmore, Coventry. “From The Angel in the House.” Victorian Literature: An Anthology, by Victor Shea and William Whitla, Wiley Blackwell, 2015, pp. 565–571.

“Political and Social Satire in Punch.” Songs of Slave Resistance | Oviatt Library, 2018,

“Punch Magazine Cartoon Archive.” Politics-Royal-Commission-Poems-Punch-Magazine-1955.08.24.207.TXT.tif, 2018,

“What Shall We Do with Our Old Maids?” Essays on the Pursuits of Women: Also, a Paper on Female Education, by Frances Power Cobbe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 58–101. Cambridge Library Collection – British and Irish History, 19th Century.

Andie Petrillo is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English Program