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"Women's Rights"

Page history last edited by Dr. Kaston Tange 10 years, 5 months ago


* * * This Is A Work In Progress * * *










               Notes on the Text






                Commentary on the Text


The February 14, 1874 edition of Punch contains a cartoon entitled “Women’s Rights” and depicts two women of differing generations labeled ‘Ancient Lady’ and ‘Modern Ditto’. The older woman offers the younger woman, whom she addresses as Miss Sharp, a ride. The young woman declines because she wants to walk and smoke. This cartoon is controversial for several reasons, first, the reference to Miss Sharp identifies the younger woman as Rebecca (Becky) Sharp from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair; second, women walking unaccompanied was considered improper; and third, smoking was perceived as an inappropriate habit for women.


Victorian readers would have been intimately acquainted with the name ‘Miss Sharp’, for Becky Sharp was one of the main characters of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, first published in serial form during the years of 1847-48. Becky Sharp was a character depicted as a cunning social climber, a beautiful young woman who embodied some of the most feared qualities of the New Woman—seductiveness, a decidedly non-maternal quality, and a pronounced desire for higher economic status. Lisa Jadwin comments that at the time Thackeray was writing Vanity Fair, it was a “time of revolutionary unrest in Europe and feminist agitation in England” and that “despite a decade of hard-won political and intellectual gains, British women found themselves increasingly defined as avatars of silence, submission, and domestic servitude” (Jadwin 667). Thackeray presents a strong, flawed female protagonist in Becky Sharp who was at absolute opposition with the saintly qualities of the Cult of True Womanhood or the Angel in the House—the modest, chaste, domestic woman.  Becky Sharp is a threatening figure to men seeking a model wife and therefore, the young woman in the cartoon is labeled as a siren-like, dangerous woman.


The second critique made about the young woman is that of being unaccompanied during her walk. Judith R. Walkowitz states that “[c]onduct books and magazines frequently admonished their female readers not to window-shop or in any other way exhibit ‘longing behavior’ on the street.  While deploring the conduct of male pests, magazines such as the Girls on Paper nonetheless insisted that it was generally a girl’s fault if she was ‘spoken to’” (Walkowitz 7).  Several examples of the danger to women of walking alone can be seen in Jane Austen’s Emma; Jane Fairfax, a single woman of a lesser social standing, is scolded by Mrs. Elton for her solo excursions, also, the character Harriet falls behind in a walk with others and is accosted by a band of gypsies. This is a comment on the social expectations of Victorian women as dictated by conduct manuals, which proscribe these kinds of behaviors and, further, place the burden of blame on a woman if she is injured in some way.


Throughout the majority of the 19th century, smoking was considered a masculine behavior and therefore the prospect of the young woman smoking would have been seen as scandalous deportment.  Women who did smoke were portrayed as masculine, aberrant, and loose.  Dolores Mitchell states that “[…]cigars, cigarettes, and pipes often served as attributes of masculine power in 19th century art. Rarely depicted women smokers were usually ‘outsiders’ […] ‘new women’ for whom cigarettes symbolized deviance” (Mitchell 3). The young woman’s desire to smoke, particularly in public, shows that although there had been steps taken in feminist agendas, the behaviors of the New Woman in the Victorian era were still sneered at and looked down upon.   


Although we refer to the New Woman as an image of the stereotypical feminist of the 19th century, this term had not come into use at the time of the cartoon. Representations of the New Woman in Punch, a magazine conceived of and published by men, are discussed by Susan C. Shapiro, who writes in her article of the “recurrent satirical mockery of the New Woman, her masculinization not merely of appearance, but of character as well” (Shapiro 512). Using the media as a means of propaganda to mock feminist women, this Punch cartoon, derisively titled “Women’s Rights”, depicts the character of the young woman as masculine, loose, and economically striving through the means of the woman’s title (Becky Sharp), her desire to smoke and her desire to walk unaccompanied. 








                Works Cited



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Works Cited


Jadwin, Lisa.  “The Seductiveness of Female Duplicity in Vanity Fair.”  Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900  32.4  (1992):  663-687.  JSTOR.  Western WA U Lib., Bellingham, WA.  12 Feb 2008.  http://www.jstor.org


Mitchell, Dolores.  “The ‘New Woman’ as Prometheus: Women Artists Depict Women Smoking.”  Woman’s Art Journal  12.1  (1991):  3-9.  JSTOR.  Western WA U Lib., Bellingham, WA.  11 Feb 2008.  http://www.jstor.org


Shapiro, Susan C.  “The Mannish New Woman: Punch and Its Precursors.”  The Review of English Studies  42.168  (1991):  510-522.  JSTOR.  Western WA U Lib., Bellingham, WA.  13 Feb 2008.  http://www.jstor.org


Walkowitz, Judith R.  “Going Public: Shopping, Street Harassment, and Streetwalking in Late Victorian London.”  Representations  62  (1998):  1-30.  JSTOR.  Western WA U Lib., Bellingham, WA.  11 Feb 2008.  http://www.jstor.org


Works Consulted


Armstrong, Nancy.  Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel.  Oxford, Oxford UP.  1987.


Auerbach, Nina.  “The Rise of the Fallen Woman.”  Nineteenth Century Fiction  35.1  (1980):  29-52.  JSTOR.  Western WA U Lib., Bellingham, WA.  13 Feb 2008.  http://www.jstor.org


Austen, Jane.  Emma.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.


“Forming the Lady: Comportment and Dress for Young Women.”  The Girl  Ed. Erna Hallerstein, Leslie Hume, Karen Offen.  Stanford: Stanford UP, 1981.  96.


Thackeray, William Makepeace.  Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero.  New York: Penguin Books, 2004.





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                Project Group Members


Member Name



 Christina Everett Western Washington University English 310
 Amanda Enlow  Western Washington University English 310
 Kayla Emerson Western Washington University English 310






     Project Completed: Winter 2008



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