Jack London's New Woman: A Little Lady with a Big Stick

Article excerpt

"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). …