So, What Does a Feminist Look Like?
Volume 7, Cycle 2
There’s a recent feminist slogan that, no matter how staunch my feminist allegiance, always troubles me. You’ve no doubt seen it in one form or another: the ubiquitous “This is what a feminist looks like” emblazoned on posters, memes, and fashion apparel such as t-shirts, onesies, and, heaven help us, even aprons (figs. 1–4)!
I believe I understand the laudable intention underlying this message: to demonstrate visually that feminists come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, classes, genders, and orientations, and to help reclaim and destigmatize the term feminist after decades of conservative backlash. Nevertheless, I cannot escape the many unsettling questions the slogan raises for me:
Why the emphasis on image and appearance? What does it matter what a feminist looks like? Isn’t it a person’s actions that makes them a feminist? Wouldn't a better slogan communicate what a feminist believes in and stands for, the changes a feminist demands and is prepared to agitate for? And why the stress on the singular feminist? What about feminists as a collective?
The First Feminists
For good or ill, feminism’s emphasis on image and appearance, on “spectacle” as Guy Debord might say, is not merely a current phenomenon. The intention of this article is to reimagine our understanding of modern feminism’s reliance on visuality as a strategic tool by exploring its historical antecedents.
It was not until the first decades of the twentieth century that the French term feministe was adopted by English-speaking countries. Before then, particularly from the 1890s through the 1910s, a woman who rejected Victorian definitions of womanhood, who sought vocational opportunities beyond marriage and maternity, and who insisted on access to the same social, economic, and political freedoms afforded to men was called a New Woman. The “New” in “New Woman” differentiated these modern examples of the female sex from previous generations of mid-nineteenth century “True Women,” who, as Barbara Welter explains, embodied the four cardinal virtues of purity, piety, domesticity, and submissiveness.
Increasingly, scholars of modernism are turning their attention toward the New Woman of the fin de siècle. This scholarly attention began with literary critics such as Ann Ardis who argued that “as New Woman novelists reject the reality principle governing the tradition of literary realism” they “anticipate the reappraisal of realism” which is central to modernism. More recent literary criticism, by scholars such as Chris Roulston and Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, identifies modernist writers and novelists who “revived New Woman ideologies” as they “revived the iconic representative of protofeminism, the Victorian New Woman, as an example to be emulated by modernist feminists.” Despite growing interest in the New Woman’s visual representation in photography and film, the New Woman’s iconicity in print culture, in the words of cultural historian Liz Conor, “often remains unexamined and un-historicized”—even though it was most often through the pages of the illustrated press that images of the rebellious New Woman were disseminated to the public.
If, as Conor argues, visual technologies and representations were central to the constitution of gendered identity in an ocularcentric modern world, then it’s worth exploring the relationship between feminism and spectacle as it was enacted in both feminist and antifeminist media at the turn of the century and into the twenty-first. So, what does a feminist look like? I turn to cartoons and graphic illustrations published in New York-based publications such as Puck, a satirical humor magazine founded in 1871, through to RESIST!, a radical twenty-first-century comics newspaper to answer this question.
Visualizing the New Woman
A startling hand-drawn newspaper illustration in an 1895 issue of the New York World presents the New Woman “as she looks in a composite made from the photographs of twelve of the most advanced women of the day” (fig. 5). The central portrait is created by combining the facial features of twelve notable women, including the suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sarah Grand. The unnamed author of the accompanying article acknowledges that “a great deal has been said about the new woman,” but claims that “nobody, until today, has had the opportunity of looking her in the face.” Asserting that “the most utter novice in composite matters . . . will detect at once the intellectual features . . . of Mrs. Stanton” as they are “mingled with the resolution and enterprise of that forcefully Western citizen Mrs. [Mary Elizabeth] Lease,” the writer praises both the photographer and the artist because “the peculiar traits of all the originals have been preserved.” The essay concludes that “the composite new woman has a strong face . . . an intellectual face”—which is also possibly a “stern” and “unyielding” face—before assuring the reader that the portrait is “printed only to show what an intellectual-looking person the new woman is.”
The New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer from 1883 to 1911, appears at first glance to take a progressive and pro-feminist (or at least pro-protofeminist) stance. However, while the newspaper claims that the women selected for compositing represent “the world[’s] . . . most advanced ideas for the present progressive movement of womankind,” it’s abundantly clear that representation has been limited to white women of the US and the UK. Not one prominent or progressive New Woman of color—such as the journalist, suffragist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, the educator and suffragist Sarah J. Tompkins Garnet, or the novelist and suffragist Frances Harper—has been included for optical integration. That every one of “the most advanced women of the day” is white implies a correlation between female whiteness and social, cultural, and even “biological” progress.
This insidious correlation becomes more apparent when we understand that the New York World chose to adopt the method of composite portraiture developed by the eugenicist Francis Galton (the same method examined by Alix Beeston in her revelatory essay and book In and Out of Sight: Modernist Writing and the Photographic Unseen, an exploration of the figure she calls the woman-in-series). Galton aimed to create an “ideal face,” “the portrait of a type” rather than of an individual, by “extracting the typical characteristics” from “drawings or photographs of several persons alike in most respects” and then “superimpos[ing] optically the various drawings” and “accept[ing] the aggregate result.” The reference to both drawings and photographs as equally valid source material is intriguing and particularly instructive here. An early method that Galton used with “some success,” suggested to him by Herbert Spencer, involved reducing a number of “drawings . . . to the same scale,” tracing them onto “separate pieces of transparent paper,” securing them “one upon another,” and then holding them “between the eye and the light” until they appeared as “a single resultant figure.”
It’s highly likely that this is precisely, or perhaps more accurately imprecisely, how the New York World’s hand-drawn “type” or “ideal” was created. The World’s composite illustration of the New Woman can, at best, be described as a muddy, blurry, shadowy “apparition,” to borrow Beeston’s term, that selects the square jaw of only a few of the women, accentuates the serious, unsmiling expression of most, and sets these “typical characteristics” under dark, cavernous, unseeing eyes. This in spite of the fact that, as a contemporary reviewer of Galton’s maintained, “Mr. Galton laid great stress on the eyes as one of the most important features” (Galton, “Composite Portraits,” 143). Despite this inexpert execution, by applying the eugenicist’s composite method, the New York World appeals to a pseudoscientific version of evolutionary biology. The New Woman is visualized as a new “type” of woman with distinct, identifiable traits, almost as a new biological species that has evolved (or perhaps mutated!) through natural selection.
A 1913 cover of Life magazine titled “Evolution” (fig. 6) illustrates an even more direct connection between the New Woman and Darwinian pseudoscience. It features a portrait of a “Gibson Girl,” the artist Charles Dana Gibson’s pen-and-ink vision of the white feminine ideal in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wearing suffragette white while posing with a chimpanzee sitting on her shoulder.
Soon after trialling Spencer’s hand-drawn illustrative method, Galton developed his “own idea” of “throw[ing] faint images of the several portraits, in succession, upon the same sensitised photographic plate” (132). This “photographic process,” he said, “enables us to obtain with mechanical precision a generalised picture; one that represents no man in particular, but portrays an imaginary figure possessing the average features of any given group of men” (132–33). Galton perhaps unwittingly admits the role of the imagination, and, therefore, that even his photographic composite method is more art than science, when he states that this more “mechanically precise” method creates “an imaginary figure,” and also when he acknowledges that “a composite portrait represents the picture that would rise before the mind’s eye of a man who had the gift of pictorial imagination in an exalted degree” (134).
Although Galton insists that “the uses of composite portraits are many” (140), the only examples he provides in a paper presented to the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain in 1879 are of “villainous” criminals convicted of violent crimes including murder, manslaughter, and robbery accompanied by violence (134–35). Galton explains that he “selected these for [his] first trials” because he “happened to possess a large collection of photographs of criminals, through the kindness of . . . the Director-General of Prisons, for the purpose of investigating [and] elicit[ing] the principal criminal types” (135). Further, he asserts that the composites “represent not the criminal, but the man who is liable to fall into crime” (134).
Would audiences familiar with Galton assume the World’s composite portrait is looking to track “deviance” and “degeneration” in the New Woman? Perhaps it’s this possible association in the public mind between composite figures and “criminal” types that underlies the New York World’s insistence that its composite New Woman is “printed only to show what an intellectual-looking person” she is. In this sense, the composite is offered as evidence of (white) female regeneration and racial progress. However, the World’s celebration of the “facial indications” of the innate intellectual capabilities of the New Woman might not read as benign in all quarters. In Sir Edmund DuCane’s response to Galton’s paper, he maintains that “a very large number of criminals are rather superior in intelligence. . . . In fact, it is often misplaced and unbalanced cleverness that leads to the attempt to commit crime, and this characteristic might very probably be found in the features of criminals of this class” (Galton, “Composite Portraits,” 143).
DuCane also articulates a quite logical, yet nefarious application of Galton’s early results. He notes that the “mixed photographs” could be used to “repress crime” by “track[ing] it out to its source [to] see if we cannot check it there instead of waiting till it has developed and then striking at it” (142–43). Despite the New York World’s insistence to the contrary, one must wonder whether this impulse to composite the New Woman may have been motivated by a fear-based desire to visually and pre-emptively identify in order to “repress” potential sources of “criminally” dangerous feminist attacks on the social, cultural, and political status quo.
Cultural and literary critics on both sides of the Atlantic such as Margaret Deland, H. M. Stutfield, W. T. Stead, and Grand—the latter being one of the New Women whose portrait was incorporated into the New York World composite figure—also attempted to create a singular conception of the New Woman, a composite image if you will, from the multiple images available. Tellingly, however, these different critics’ unitary conceptions often conflicted wildly with one another. Yet they tried valiantly to compose one New Woman out of many, to create singularity out of diversity, in an effort to understand, and hence to control, a new and rapidly growing demographic, both linguistically and typologically. Even the term “New Woman,” as coined by French antifeminist writer Ouida in 1894, is defiantly singular.
Whereas the World’s composite picture aims to synthesize twelve New Women into one New Woman, many of the full-color cartoons published in the New York City humor magazines of the period do precisely the opposite. They delight in depicting the New Woman as a new species of which there are multiple variants, seemingly believing Galton that a composite portrait has “much . . . varied suggestiveness” and “possess[es] that in which a single photograph is deficient” (Galton, “Composite Portraits,” 140–41).
The title of an 1895 Puck cartoon (fig. 7) informs us that “there will be several varieties of her.” Whereas the central image presents a square-jawed yet small-waisted woman in male-styled clothing, the six surrounding illustrations depict her others: the “new” Servant Girl, the “new” Washerwoman, and the “new” Nurse-Girl, each astride a bicycle, even though, as Eva Chen points out, the prohibitive cost of bicycles meant that they were only a “conspicuous display” option for affluent middle-class women. But there is a limit imposed on the “variety” of New Women that are permitted visual representation in the pages of this popular publication. Again, despite a seeming preference for multiplicity over a singularity of vision, each variation of the New Woman in this cartoon without exception is represented as white.
Within these limits, the cartoonist Frederick Opper seems to indicate that the only new (or stable) thing about the New Woman is that she rides a bicycle and wears bloomers—in other words, only her appearance and mode of transportation has changed. The majority of the six women depicted are working women, but none represent the progressive, college-educated professionals, or working-class “women adrift” who were streaming into the modern city’s offices, factories, department stores, and government bureaucracies as the nineteenth century became the twentieth. Rather, they are women employed in domestic service, an “invisible” form of work available to working-class women of all races since at least the early 1800s.
The tone of the cartoon is gently satiric. With hands in her pockets, the New Woman stands bravely and confidently, especially as compared to the True Woman in the portrait behind her, who stands on a chair afraid of a tiny mouse. The six “varieties of her” do at least depict the New Woman outside the domestic sphere, speeding around public spaces on her bicycle. Yet the cartoon also reveals an underlying social anxiety about this emerging, evolving, new type of woman. By depicting her as a series of silly, harmless versions of familiar types of domestic help, it works hard to trivialize the New Woman and to downplay the real-world social and political causes and consequences of her emergence—or, in Ardis’s words, to “neutralise, or at the very least delegitimise her radicalism” (New Women, 19).
The largely lighthearted ribbing of the New Woman in the illustrated press of the 1890s was provoked by a generalized social anxiety that would, over the next twenty years, become more focused, more phobic, and more panicked, as expressed through blisteringly caustic satirical imagery. A 1901 Puck cartoon (fig. 8), for example, presents vastly different “varieties” of the New Woman. Titled “A Suggestion to the Buffalo Exposition: Let Us Have a Chamber of Female Horrors,” in the image Uncle Sam and John Bull lead an all-male group of world leaders past an exhibit of well-known women reformers and suffragists standing on what could be viewed as either pedestals or soap boxes. These “several varieties” of New Women include “Mrs. Faith Healer,” “Woman Evangelist,” “Dr. Mary Walker,” “Susan B. Anthony,” “Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” and “Carrie Nation of Kansas,” pictured holding a large axe.
These New Women are a freak show of sorts, monstrous specimens of new womanhood displayed at a World’s Fair: an all-female version of Madame Tussaud’s 1845 Chamber of Horrors, an exhibition of gruesome three-dimensional wax likenesses of notoriously violent criminals, revolutionaries, and murderers. The illustration thus suggests, like the World’s Galton-inspired composite portrait, a link between criminal pathology and the New Woman.
Despite significant advances in print technologies that allowed for the cheaper and more “mechanically precise” reproduction of photography, visual representations of the New Woman continued as predominantly illustrative rather than photographic even into the second decade of the twentieth century. As mostly male creators attempted to define the New Woman in visual and spectacular terms, “imaginary figures,” to repurpose Galton, continued to rise “before the mind’s eye of [men] who had the gift of pictorial imagination in an exalted degree” (“Composite Portraits,” 134). Increasingly, the New Woman was seen by the men of the illustrated press as a sinister, menacing, treacherous force, imperiling the patriarchal status quo. In a Puck cartoon published in 1913 (fig. 9), anxieties about the New Woman’s actual and potential social and political impact erupt on the page in an expression of visceral horror. “The Feminine of Jekyll and Hyde,” by Joseph Keppler Jr., the son of Puck’s founder, depicts a woman holding a yellow “Woman Suffrage” flag who morphs at the center page’s fold into “Militant Lawlessness,” a hideous, snake-haired Medusa. Her eyes are green and crazed; her mouth is open, howling like a beast. She runs toward the viewer, carrying a lit bomb in one hand and a smoking torch in the other—the latter, for good measure, emitting the word “Arson.”
This is an even more monstrous, dehumanized depiction of the New Woman. The humor magazine has “progressed” from comically expressing a latent, generalized anxiety about the New Woman through its trivializing depiction of the 1890s bicycle craze to explicitly illustrating the criminally dangerous duplicity of the woman suffragist. Although the US suffrage movement never endorsed violence as a tactic, the artist clearly fears that the American suffragists will follow in the footsteps of their more militant English sisters who added violent tactics to their arsenal of activist strategies in the interval between the publication of the first Puck cartoon and the third.
These three Puck cartoons, “The ‘New Woman’ and her Bicycle,” “Chamber of Female Horrors,” and “Feminine Jekyll and Hyde,” published in 1895, 1901, and 1913 respectively, depict the New Woman not as a singular phenomenon, but as a dangerous new entity containing multitudes. This new entity, frighteningly variable, and uncontrollable in itself, seemingly reproduces itself as rapidly as the industrialization and urbanization of the era from which the New Woman emerged. In the pages of this male-owned and -operated popular periodical, she is—or they are—to be feared and controlled, her mutation and multiplication contained within the limits of the printed page through either satiric trivialization or scathing vilification. When the multifaceted New Woman is presented in highly stylized cartoons or graphic art rather than in so-called realistic photographs, it may be argued that the sense of her social reality is diminished and thus the social anxiety she provokes is reduced. Yet the undeniable, if underlying, message is that the New Woman, in her replication and multiplicity, is not to be trusted, her chameleon-like nature must be surveilled, because even a demure, womanly appearance may hide monstrous motivations.
Subsequent feminist waves have afforded women of all races and ethnicities opportunities to represent themselves visually in print, asserting, in Conor’s words, a “visual autonomy” that is “so important to women’s political and domestic emancipation” (New Woman, 605). A recent example of this is the political protest newspaper RESIST! First published in January 2017, RESIST!, like Puck, is a New York City-based publication that prints full-color cartoons, comics, and graphic art. Produced by Françoise Mouly, art editor of the New Yorker, and her daughter, the writer Nadja Spiegelman, the mission of RESIST! is to ensure that “Women’s Voices Will be Heard!” Mouly, who says she has spent her life “making a case for comics and images to be taken seriously,” explains that she wanted to create something “grassroots, rough,” and “raw,” a platform where women could speak “without fear of being censored or judged for what they’re saying.” The editors sought to publish “strong poster-like images” and “idea-pictures that provide emotional and analytical commentary.”
58,000 free copies of the inaugural issue were distributed by teams of volunteers at the first Women’s March on Washington in 2017 and its numerous sister marches throughout the US. It featured 143 works created mostly “by women artists, LGBTQ artists and artists of color,” some never before published. The full-color newspaper includes work donated by celebrated cartoonists such as Roz Chast, Alison Bechdel, and Lynda Barry, but Spiegelman notes that 80–85 percent of the published art came through an open call promoted on the publication’s website that resulted in a “staggering” diversity of work, with over a thousand submissions received from artists of varying ages, genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Those who “heeded the call and grabbed their pens,” included “doctors and dentists and auto mechanics” and even a 13-year-old girl. The editors insisted on including as many styles and viewpoints as possible so as to represent, in Spiegelman’s words, “the full range and diversity of the collective [female] voice.”
Like early visual representations of the New Woman in Puck magazine, RESIST! also depicts modern womanhood in its dangerous multiplicity (figs. 10–13). The editors state in the magazine’s second issue, “In these pages, you will find hundreds of different depictions of women, and in their totality they begin to capture all the nuanced shades of who we are.” They are “proud of the range,” especially when they consider the previous “limited ways” that comics depicted women either as “the Jessica Rabbit pin-up or the little old lady with a bun and glasses.” These contemporary female artists, now representing themselves through the visual media of cartoon and graphic art, see the dangerous power of women’s diversity in entirely different terms. Creating “picture[s] that . . . rise before the mind’s eye” of women who have “the gift of pictorial imagination,” they imagine the ability of women to organize, “the immense strength and potential of women who stand together, speak up, and fight back.” The first issue’s front cover, illustrated by New Yorker artist Gayle Kabaker, displays a banner proclaiming “A Woman’s Place is in the Revolution,” waving above a sea of faces representing the racial diversity of American women (fig. 10). Each of these depictions see multiplicity as a positive force and a political asset.
In RESIST!, women’s anger and rage replaces the anxiety, fear, and panic of the men who drew for Puck. The criminal, dangerous “New Woman” is superseded by the twenty-first century’s “Nasty Woman” (fig. 14). Reclaiming the monstrous open-mouthed howl of Puck’s “lawless” New Woman suffragist, many of the images of individual women express a white-hot fury through a repeated motif of an open-mouthed scream expressing anguish, outrage or rebellion (figs. 15–18). Quinn Nelson, the thirteen-year-old contributor, believes RESIST! reveals that women have “very real and raw emotions” about the existing political situation. Her artwork depicts a young girl enraged, expressing a primal scream which signals her intention to fight (fig. 15). Contributing comic artist My Ngoc To expresses a similar intention for her work. She writes of how she
had stayed silent, and that silence was deadly. So now . . . I cope by creating dangerously. As a Vietnamese-American woman, making art allows me to represent myself and my demographic with more accuracy. The works I make are intended to tear down . . . racism, misogyny, white supremacy, and patriarchy. . . . It’s my way of screaming, only the sound remains permanent and unavoidable, informing audiences that I, too, am American.
My Ngoc To and the other feminist artists featured in RESIST! “create dangerously” by “making a spectacle” of their own subjectivities. They embrace print culture as a space where modern women can be visible both as images and as the producers of those images, thus exercising autonomy over the construction of their own feminist identities. Rather than attempting to visually contain the “criminal” rebellion of the New Woman, these feminist artists attempt to contain “racism, misogyny, white supremacy, and patriarchy” within the limits of the printed page. Contributing artist Ana Juan believes “an illustration is a weapon I can use as a sword and as a shield, to attack and to defend” (RESIST! 2, 34), thus agreeing with a bold, all-caps banner headline in the inaugural issue of RESIST! that “THE REVOLUTION WILL BE ILLUSTRATED!” (31).
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, when women’s demands for equality and emancipation were not heard, or often not even allowed to be voiced, women found ways to make them seen. When women suffragists’ spoken pleas were ignored, they embraced visual methods such as pageants and processions to communicate their demands in ways that arrested attention. RESIST! continues this late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century tradition, employing the striking visual medium of comic art as an act of political defiance. As Spiegelman explains, “pictures have a way of searing themselves into your brain and cutting through the hypocrisy.” Unlike the commodified t-shirts and aprons that circulate as part of the global market of mainstream feminism, RESIST! does not merely seek to display “what a feminist looks like.” Rather, these spectacular images render ideas and demands visibly so as to collectively give voice to what feminists believe in, stand for, and are prepared to fight for.
I would like to thank Sarah Gleeson-White, Matthew Sussman, and the Nineteenth Century Studies Group at the University of Sydney for their insightful feedback on earlier versions of this article.
 Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 13–16.
 Charlotte J. Rich, Transcending the New Woman: Multiethnic Narratives in the Progressive Era (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009), 1–2.
 Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood 1800-1860,” in Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976), 21–41.
 Ann L. Ardis, New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 3.
 Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, “‘A Little Afraid of the Women of Today’: The Victorian New Woman and the Rhetoric of British Modernism,” Rhetoric Review 21, no. 3 (2002): 229–46, 230, 236. See also Monika Faltejskova, “Engendering Modernism: Degeneration, the New Woman Fiction and Modernist Origins,” in Djuna Barnes, T. S. Eliot and the Gender Dynamics of Modernism: Tracing Nightwood (London: Routledge, 2010), 29–54.
 Liz Conor, review of The New Woman International: Representations in Photography and Film from the 1870s through the 1960s, ed. Elizabeth Otto and Vanessa Rocco, Modernism/modernity 20, no. 3 (2013): 604–06, 604–5.
 Liz Conor, The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 2, 6.
 “Here is the New Woman,” The New York World (18 August 1895): 25.
 Francis Galton, “Composite Portraits, Made by Combining Those of Many Different Persons into a Single Resultant Figure,” Journal of the Anthropological Institute 8 (1879): 132–44, 132–33.
 See H. M. Stutfield, “The Psychology of Feminism,” Blackwood’s 161 (1897): 104–17; and W. T. Stead, “The Novel of the Modern Woman,” The Review of Reviews 10 (1894): 64–74.
 Eva Chen, “Its Prohibitive Cost: The Bicycle, the New Woman and Conspicuous Display,” Journal of Language, Literature and Culture 64, no. 1 (2017): 1–17, 16.
 See Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, Silke Neunsinger, and Dirk Hoerder, “Domestic Workers of the World: Histories of Domestic Work as Global Labor History,” in Towards a Global History of Domestic and Caregiving Workers (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 1–24.
 “Madame Tussaud’s Exhibition,” Theatrical Journal 6, no. 277 (1845): 111.
 See Donna M. Kowal, “One Cause, Two Paths: Militant vs. Adjustive Strategies in the British and American Women’s Suffrage Movements,” Communication Quarterly 48, no. 3 (2000): 240–55.
 RESIST! 2 (2017): 2.
 Sarah J. Moore, “Making a Spectacle of Suffrage: The National Woman Suffrage Pageant, 1913,” Journal of American Culture 20, no. 1 (1997): 89–103.