Thesis

Performing new womanhood: gender, race, and identity in the early twentieth century

The New Woman of the early twentieth century is primarily presented in cultural memory as two stereotypes: the flapper and the suffragist. These images are problematic largely because they are typically exclusive to the white middle-class woman of the era and they ignore the complexity of the New Woman. The New Woman was someone who sought to define her life and meaning on her own terms. She was willing to defy societal expectations that sought to restrict her to the home in order to create both a professional and personal life that was comprised of her own choices. Specifically, this thesis will focus on three women in the entertainment industry: writer Anita Loos, and performers Josephine Baker and Anna May Wong. These three women from different races and classes demonstrate the ways the New Woman navigated obstacles of sex and race to create the life she wanted. In many ways, New Womanhood represented a compromise. Women had to navigate the traditional gender norms society placed on them; however, women of color particularly carried the double burden of gender and race. In the case of both Baker and Wong, success often meant embodying racial stereotypes in order to land roles on stage or in films. Both women left the United States in order to find
 vi
 surroundings less hostile to their race. All three women found relative success in the entertainment industry—though in the United States, Loos, as a white woman—would achieve the greatest success. The entertainment industry also provided unique opportunities for these women in regards to image construction. As writers and performers, each was essentially a specialist in image construction, and deliberately crafted a public persona to convey an image of liberation and modernity, ultimately, redefining the New Woman as a cosmopolitan, trans-racial, and cultural icon.

Thesis (M.A., History)--California State University, Sacramento, 2017.

The New Woman of the early twentieth century is primarily presented in cultural memory as two stereotypes: the flapper and the suffragist. These images are problematic largely because they are typically exclusive to the white middle-class woman of the era and they ignore the complexity of the New Woman. The New Woman was someone who sought to define her life and meaning on her own terms. She was willing to defy societal expectations that sought to restrict her to the home in order to create both a professional and personal life that was comprised of her own choices. Specifically, this thesis will focus on three women in the entertainment industry: writer Anita Loos, and performers Josephine Baker and Anna May Wong. These three women from different races and classes demonstrate the ways the New Woman navigated obstacles of sex and race to create the life she wanted. In many ways, New Womanhood represented a compromise. Women had to navigate the traditional gender norms society placed on them; however, women of color particularly carried the double burden of gender and race. In the case of both Baker and Wong, success often meant embodying racial stereotypes in order to land roles on stage or in films. Both women left the United States in order to find vi surroundings less hostile to their race. All three women found relative success in the entertainment industry—though in the United States, Loos, as a white woman—would achieve the greatest success. The entertainment industry also provided unique opportunities for these women in regards to image construction. As writers and performers, each was essentially a specialist in image construction, and deliberately crafted a public persona to convey an image of liberation and modernity, ultimately, redefining the New Woman as a cosmopolitan, trans-racial, and cultural icon.

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