"I stand, not for the new woman, but for the new womanhood." Frona Welse in Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows (1902)
On January 10, 1903, a reviewer for The Literary Digest's "Notable Books of the Day" observed that Jack London in his first novel, A Daughter of the Snows, had "created a new woman, something elemental, physically almost savage, but with touches of the eternal feminine that prevent her being a man in petticoats."(1) This statement resonated powerfully at the time. During the 1870s and 1880s female athleticism had been viewed critically by such influential medical authorities as Edward Clarke and George Beard.(2) With the increasing visibility of the New Women, in particular their vigorous pursuit of freedom of dress, of sport, and of love choice, Americans' ambivalence toward these women remained strong throughout the 1890s and into the new century, despite such favorable and popular magazine depictions as the Gibson Girl, which represented the New Woman as "Outdoors Girl," adventurous and athletic.
During these years athletics and women's rights, especially suffrage, became increasingly linked in the popular imagination. Martha Banta has summarized the period as one in which "the New Woman who wanted to vote and to play ball was discredited."(3) The athletic New Woman conjured up images of the masculinization and/or oversexualization of American women, processes which in the view of many men and some women, especially scientists and social critics, posed serious social, sexual, and racial dangers, attitudes supported by the 1890 census, which indicated that modern women were giving birth to fewer children.(4)
A fierce debate over the "naturalness," legitmacy and respectability of the New Woman, and over her social and sexual autonomy, raged throughout the turn-of-the-century and pre-World War I periods.(5) A major figure in this controversy was the New Woman as "Manly Woman," or "Mannish Lesbian," whose symptoms were throught to be her interest in sports and physical activity and in male clothing. The influential psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, for example, viewed sport and adventure as intrinsically male and thus a sure indication of the "Manly Woman": "The masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom, finds pleasure in the pursuit of manly sports, and in manifestations of courage and bravado."(6)
The sense of crisis surrounding this issue was heightened by the presence of such articulate and popular proponents of female sport as Dr. Alice B. Stockham, who simultaneously praised women's athletics for their health benefits and advocated birth control and abortion.(7) Meanwhile, sexologists like Havelock Ellis saw women's (especially college women's) new freedom of address, interest in careers, and other New Womanish attributes as symptomatic of tendencies toward sexual depravity and perversion. What Ellis called their "masculine straight-forwardness and sense of honor, and especially the attitude toward men, free from any suggestion ... of shyness" was seen as a sign of disease and degeneracy, which could lead to depopulation and "race suicide."(8)
Like many other novelists of the period, Jack London could not avoid the controversy over the New Woman. Some recent London scholarship holds that he responded by representing a single, androgynous sex. Such critics as Charles N. Watson and Sam S. Baskett have returned to some of London's major works in an attempt to show that they ultimately subvert rather than endorse "the attitudes of a sexually bifurcated society."(9) A number of London scholars, such as Baskett and Clarice Stasz, have given extensive attention to the homoeroticism and androgyny present in London's portraits of women. Stasz focuses on London's second wife, Charmian, as a model for his ideal of a boyish "Mate-Woman"; Baskett looks at London's interest in "the woman in me" and "the man in the woman" in less vigorous female characters like Maud Brewster of The Sea-Wolf (1904).(10) Another persistent critical view, exemplified by Kenneth Rexroth, Andrew Sinclair, and Kevin Starr, holds that London created a string of hypermasculine females. Sinclair, for instance, describes Frona Welse as a "hard-limbed youth with breasts tacked on as an afterthought."(11) These critics stress London's "single-sexedness"; instead of a single, androgynous sex, they argue, London created characters who, regardless of their apparent gender, are simply male.(12) What both critical approaches miss is that London is obsessed with sexual difference, with the doubling of sex, not its androgynous or simply masculine conflation, most clearly in his synthesis of athleticism and heterosexual femininity in the "new womanhood."
London rejects the label of "new woman" pointedly: "I am no woman's right's creature; and I stand, not for the new woman, but for the new womanhood," declares Frona Welse, the heroine of London's first novel.(13) Frona appears to fit Krafft-Ebing and Ellis's descriptions of the supposedly "mannish" New Women, interested in sports and adventure, who display frankness and a sense of honor. But the "new womanhood" is not the New Woman; London's "new womanhood" is based on sexual essence, sexual difference. London read Ellis, was well aware of the contemporary controversies over the "Manly" New Woman, and deliberately distances his athletic heroines from this threatening stereotype.(14) London's "new womanhood" protagonists embody an athleticism that is intrinsically feminine.
Throughout his career, from his first novel A Daughter of the Snows, through Burning Daylight (1910), to his last published novel, The Little Lady of the Big House (1916), London constructs a model of "new womanhood" consistent in its emphasis on a physical power and capability and an economic and intellectual independence that is nonetheless feminine and heterosexual. His heroines' beauty "is a kind of exhalation from physical fitness and spirited temper."(15) One of the ways he keeps his New Women feminine is by having his female adventurers and athletes perform their feats in female garb, unlike such earlier models of physically capable womanhood as Capitola Black and Calamity Jane.(16) Another of London's feminizing strategies is to restrain the sexual aggressiveness that would seem consistent with the frank physicality, economic independence, freethinking, and direct social manner of his paragons of new womanhood. He allows the major female characters of these novels, Frona, Dede Mason, and Paula Forrest, to subvert the sexual double standard in thought, in physical action, and in social interaction, but refuses to endorse "free love" for women by allowing them sexual action, which would associate them with the "Manly Woman" or "Mannish Lesbian" (a sign of whose tendencies was thought to be her sexual aggressiveness toward men).(17) London's Darwinian and Spencerian theories led him to the view that "free love" would lead to inadequate motherhood and sickly offspring; his own uncertain parentage and experience of inattentive mothering would have given him empirical support for such views.(18) To keep the human race fit and on its path to evolutionary perfection, women needed to be monogamous mothers. While permitting his athletic female characters to talk about free love, London restricts their sexual self-expression, thereby maintaining their sexual essence, their femininity.
Over the course of his career, however, while he consistently maintains his advocacy of physically powerful women whose athleticism is always heterosexually attractive, he finds the issue of their sexual freedom increasingly problematic and complex. InA Daughter of the Snows, Frona Welse, although she openly admires the beautiful male form, has no trouble restraining her sexual impulses; significantly, of the three characters under discussion here, she is the most explicitly and obsessively Spencerian. With Burning Daylight's Dede Mason, London becomes more explicitly feminist with his athletic heroine by elaborating the economic basis for gender equality, but while Dede has greater trouble restraining her desire, she still keeps chaste until her marriage. Little Lady's Paula Forrest, on the other hand, who is as physically competent and daring as Frona and Dede, and who is already married when the novel opens, becomes enmeshed in a love triangle that is only resolved in her suicide. In his final published novel, London began to sense the tragic implications of women supremely free in every way but in sex and passion.
A Daughter of the Snows, a long-neglected and frequently attacked work, provoked harsh reactions and expressions of disbelief from both male and female reviewers deeply invested in the Victorian domestic ideal of the "perfect woman." In 1903, Julian Hawthorne described Frona as "a monster--a thing contrary to nature" who does and says things that "are unpleasant and actually vulgar."(19) Contemporary readers were obsessed with the athleticism of London's heroine and tended to regard it as masculine. Such reactions echo the anti-New Woman views of medical authorities as well as those of the popular press, from Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley to the New York Truth, which frequently painted the New Woman as everything from a freak of nature to a "dear, divine, little shrew!"(20) Frona, however, is in many ways a refreshingly modern feminine figure who is not afraid to match wits or muscle with men, and expects to be taken as an equal by them.
One passage that seemed most to irk male critics invested in Victorian ideals of womanhood occurs shortly after Frona's return to Alaska from her Southland college, as she shows her former caretaker that her stay down South has not softened her:
"Feel my arm, you'll see." She doubled that member till the biceps knotted.
"'Tis muscle," he admitted, passing his hand admiringly over the swelling bunch....
"Oh, I can swing clubs, and box, and fence," she cried, successively striking the typical postures; "and swim, and make high dives, chin a bar twenty times, and ... walk on my hands" (Daughter, pp. 21--22).
In this era of fierce debate over the "Manly Woman," many readers would have used physical strength to separate male and female, masculine from feminine; strength stamped a person as essentially male, its lack, female. London, on the other hand, holds that both men and women can be strong--strength does not effect their sexual essence, which has been determined by biological evolution, and is ineradicably marked by the differences stamped on their forms by sexually dimorphic mammalian function. Frona is strong and shapely: "'A likely woman ye've grown into, tall, an' shapely, an' all that,'" Frona's old caretaker enthuses (p. 21).
Several years prior to the publication of Daughter of the Snows (written from 1900--1902, and set in 1898), the New York Truth published a poem on the New Woman, typical of popular attitudes toward the new "Outdoors Girl":
The fin de siecle maiden that I know is up to date. ...... She takes a pair of dumbbells, and she works them in the Gym; The Indian club she twirls about with an aggressive vim, ...... For she's very much in earnest as she fences, drills and spars; She knows her arm is bigger ... She strikes a sparring attitude, and gives herself a twist; Then says "Now look at me and see the muscles on my wrist."(21)
The similarities here are striking, yet London, unlike many writers in the popular press, is unequivocally in favor of women's athletics, and a champion of their potential for meeting and even surpassing men in strenuous …