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Creation and Criticism

ISSN: 2455-9687  

(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal

Devoted to English Language and Literature)

Vol. 08, Joint Issue 28 & 29: Jan-April 2023

Research Paper

Woman to New Woman: An Idiom of Transformation from Oppression to Progression

Reshu Shukla

ORCID: 0009-0000-6792-5364



This paper extensively focuses on the journey of women from traditional to modern, from passively accepting social stereotypes to actively rejecting them, from mute followers to creators of their own fates, and finally from a piece of property to a dignified person in a society that denies the value of equal existence.  Literature, as widely considered, is the best tool for truly understanding the foundations of any society or culture. Literature unquestionably reflects the past, present, and future with tremendous synchronisation. This conveys not just the desperations of the past, the hardships, and the difficulties of the present, but also the hopes, and dreams, of the future. Therefore, here an attempt is made to evaluate this amazing transitive voyage and comprehend the various colours of femininity shown in literature while highlighting the outstanding works of Indian and English women authors.  In addition, this research paper will explore the significant role that contemporary women play in society and how they serve as inspiration and role models for coming generations, particularly for women.


Keywords: New Woman, Indian Womanhood, Concept of Femineity, Marginalised Identity, Conventions, Myths, Stereotypes, Patriarchal Subjugation, Gender Parity, Evolution, Transformation, Individuality, Existence.



“I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.” (We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)


The above statement shows the resounding rejection of patriarchal subjugation. In the guise of tradition, culture, and long-standing conventions, a woman makes a daring refusal to accept the male sovereign who governs her life, which depicts the face of the contemporary Indian woman. She is now prepared to take control of her life and let go of her taboo tenderness. This "New Woman" vehemently disagrees with the notion that women should take on a submissive role. Instead, they blatantly accept their powerful influence on society and their varied roles as respectable people.


Women have, certainly, been yearning for their true essence to be acknowledged for decades. There have been many ups and downs in women's struggle for their place as dignified individuals since the beginning of the twentieth century. Social belief systems, standards, inspiration sources, modes of expression, general conventions, and levels of involvement in numerous aspects of life can all be seen changing throughout. In societies where gender inequality is pervasive in all facets of life, the transition is even more noticeable. The distribution of responsibilities, possibilities for equal opportunity, and legitimate claims as independent beings are all impacted by this divide. This spirit is well reflected in the famous lines of the Victorian poet Tennyson:

Men for the field and women for the hearth

Man for the sword and for the needle she

Man with the head and women with the heart

Men to command and women to obey (A. L. Tennyson, 5, ll. 437-39)


Since the beginning of time, a woman has been exploited and the target of male hypocrisy in this pseudo-moral system of a male-dominated society, but she has never been able to tell anyone about it or speak about it in public. As reflected in the above lines, women have been socially and economically dependent on their male counterparts.


Traditional Concept of Womanhood


In Indian culture, the idea of womanhood is mirrored by mythical characters from religious books. Sita and Savitri, the mythical figures from the Hindu Scriptures and the symbols of Indian womanhood, represent the qualities of the ideal Indian woman, who is expected to embody the virtues of devotion, dedication, and sacrifice as inherent aspects of her character to support her role as a wife and mother. The society has consistently prioritised a woman's essential existence as an ideal wife. High moral standards have been established in this context, emulating these mythical figures. Surprisingly, these mythical figures painting the picture of Indian femininity use a single accent colour that denotes a woman's absolute submission to a male-dominated society in practically every capacity. She patiently performs each part while hiding her never-ending anguish behind the boundaries. These supremely considered values and characteristics ruled Indian culture and society for a long time. The projection of womanhood has transformed significantly over time, particularly during the Vedic, Post-Vedic, British, and Contemporary periods. Women enjoyed important positions throughout the early Vedic period.  A.L. Basham writes about the Indian women of the Vedic period, that women were no less than men in any field of life, as the “Brihdaranyaka Upnishad” tells of an extraordinarily talented woman Gargi Vacaknavi who spiritedly participated in the discussion of the sage Yajnavalkya. Maitreyi, Apala, and Vidyottama, are the most brilliant names of the Vedic Period. Without exception or bias, men and women were endowed with equal rights. Women had the same rights to study the Vedas and enchant the Mantras as men did. They would also talk about the greatest spiritual truths that exist. They had the right to choose their husbands through the "Swyamvar" procedure.


Compared to the Vedic age, the status of women worsened throughout the post-Vedic era. Female foeticide, sati pratha, child marriage, and other social ills that were introduced during that period made women’s status precarious. The women were reliant on the male family members for the social acceptance of their identities. They lost their sense of self and were servile as a result of financial dependence. Their position had begun to deteriorate from that of the divine image to that of an object of pleasure. After the Vedic period, she continued to play an ignorant part in the family which allowed her to stay inside the front door to take care of the house as her commonly held responsibility.


However, surveying the historical evolution of women's place and position in Indian society, considerable changes can be noticed. Consequently, the shifting viewpoints and evolving social narratives have fueled the process of advancement greatly. Today, women claim to be treated equally in almost all sectors and have made names for themselves as strong, independent, and accomplished entities. They are now highly aware of their strength and dignity as well as their genuine embodiment of the values of Sita and Savitri. These myths continue to serve as a primal source of inspiration for every Indian woman who sees herself as a creator of good and a destroyer of evil, even now, in all their sublime simplicity. As an embodied manifestation of a celestial force, women, have unending courage and potential to vehemently contribute to the growth of human civilization multifariously. Considerably women have always been assigned to secondary roles to marginalise their status in the family and society.


The Idiom of ‘New Woman’


The term "New Woman" has become synonymous with the concept of femininity. This well-known phrase first appeared in an 1894 article titled "The New Aspect of the Woman Question" written by Irish author Sarah Grand and published in the North American Review.  Further, Henry James, a British-American novelist, popularised the term "New Woman" in his works through the characters of Daisy Miller (in his novella Daisy Miller) and Isabella Archer (in Portrait of a Woman). He emphasized this “New Woman” concept with an image of a woman independently voicing her free will in a society that limits her role and position in every way.


Here we also need to study two significant terms closely associated with this “new woman” idea. The phrases "liberated women" and "feminists" have always been used to describe women as spirited folks. “Feminism” undoubtedly provides the framework for the idea of a "New Woman". It may be said that new woman's roots can be found in the structured feminist movement of the 19th century that focuses on women's issues. Feminism, a term used globally and associated with a revolutionary philosophy, is closely related to the idea of the “New Woman”.  The expression gained popularity at the start of the 20th century when women started to fight for their liberation from all forms of tyranny, including physical, moral, financial, and psychic oppression. The influence of Marxist ideology, which compelled feminists to adopt new ways of thinking, is responsible for the political evolution of feminism. Ironically, it continues from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Having been conscious of her individuality, the “New Woman” nowadays seeks to express her rights to ensure a justified place. These Women firmly deny being treated as an ‘object’, and rather ardently affirm their ‘subjective’ presence in the patriarchic world. The modern woman does not adhere to the notion of absolute submission, rather she is proactively determined for self-expression, individuality, and identity. Chaman Nahal writes:

I define feminism as a mode of existence in which the woman is free of the dependence syndrome. There is a dependence; syndrome; whether it is the husband or the father or the community or whether it is a religious group, or ethnic group when women free themselves of the dependence syndrome and lead a normal life, my idea of feminism materializes. (Chaman Nahal, 234)


Projection of ‘New Woman’ in Literature


Women's lives worldwide have changed significantly since the turn of the 20th century.  In the West, the feminist movement first began to take shape as a result of women's demand for equality; they began speaking out freely about their claims to be equal to men. It is especially important in societies where misogyny and the exploitation of women have a long history. In a patriarchal culture, feminism attempts to liberate women from male dominance. It promotes humanism and draws attention to how men and women interact in covert, exploitative ways. Along with other concerns that directly affect women, the movement fights for gender equality, male dominance, oppressive culture, domestic violence, sexual assault, reproductive rights, property rights, equal pay, equal opportunity at work, and the independence and empowerment of women. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of Women's Rights Virginia Woolf 's A Room of One's Own, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing, and Toni Morrison's Beloved are popularly known literary works that helped establish the word "feminism" and paved the way for the much-discussed "New Woman" concept. Indian tradition refers to a woman as the "New Woman" when she challenges the tyranny of silence.  According to Ruth Bordin, "the term new woman always referred to women who exercised, controlled their own lives, whether they be personal, social, or economic" (The Evolution of a New Woman, 2.) We might therefore conclude that the feminist movement is attributed to drawing attention to the issues related to women's existential crisis and identity requirements. It aims to give men and women the same legal rights and protections. Additionally, it may be an economic, cultural, or political movement. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the concept as “a woman especially of the late 19th century actively resisting traditional controls and seeking to fill a complete role in the world”. Irrespective of the increasing opportunities in a world dominated by men, these emancipated women are determined to fight for equality. About the origin of the concept of the ‘New Woman’, Oxford Bibliography says:

There has been an argument over when the New Woman was officially born, but the consensus is that it was 1894 when the social purity feminist and New Woman Sarah Grand and author Quida wrote about her in the North American Review. The New Woman was imbued with the contradictions of the fin de siècle, at once too sexual and not sexual enough, desiring a single emancipated lifestyle yet advocating eugenic procreation. Although New Woman did not necessarily agree upon every aspect, in their writings and through their representation in novels, they did address several contentious issues, including the marriage question, maternity, and education for women. The new woman was a construct in both fiction and periodical press, attached to journalistic catchphrases such as the “Revolting Daughters”, the “Shrieking Sisterhood”, and the “Wild Woman”. She was linked to the degeneration of Victorian society and, simultaneously, a regenerative force for women who had spent their lives following patriarchal rule (web source: Oxford bibliographies).


Certainly, this new definition seems to be shaking the very foundation of the patriarchic setup which was based on women’s passive submission to the dominion of men. It was initially rejected and critiqued to the core. The name that comes to mind immediately in this regard is Max Simon Nordau, a well-known social critic and co-founder of the Zionist Organisation. The beginning part of his work Degeneration (1892) was therefore named "The Dusk of Nation." It depicted the “New Woman” as a humorous figure in “Punch” Magazine for being an overeducated, resentful spinster who was always stuck on the shelf. At first, society treated the whole concept as a stigma on the divine conception of womanhood. It was perceived against the traditional values in the beginning by society. Because it threatened the conventional responsibilities of marriage and motherhood, the majority of women fiercely resisted female liberation. However, these new idols were accepted for entering the world persuasively and gradually, becoming both desirable and sane. Consequently, this ‘free-spirited’ and ‘strong-willed’ woman can be seen appearing in literature most often. Ella Hepworth Dixon’s first classic novel The Story of a Modern Woman, published in 1894, received worldwide recognition as a product of this new genre. Later writings by Thomas Hardy (particularly Jude Obscure), George Gissing (notably Esther Waters), Sarah Grand, etc. demonstrated the presence of such women. We see that these thoroughly aware and firmly determined women reflect “Sense and Sensibility” as their most glaring personality traits. They can be seen bringing remarkable changes in the social outlook beyond the social, cultural, psychological, and geographical boundaries. As a result of various social, political, and economic factors, women took on new positions in cultural, social, political, administrative, and economic lives. They can be seen rejecting age-old restrictions laid on them in the name of the weaker sex, breaking the boundaries set to limit their participation outside the home. Since they have the power of education, they can argue logically and dauntlessly deny compromising their identity at any cost; therefore, their moral standards and beliefs echo broader than those of "traditional women," who were historically weak, broken, subjugated, and obedient. They are capable of handling all their issues single-handedly using their intellectual sensitivity. Today’s women convincingly engage in social, political, and economic activities along with fighting all the disputes related to them with their spouses. They are mindful of their rights and obligations in addition to those of others. As Toni Morrison remarks in her work Beloved: “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” (Toni Morrison, Beloved, 95)


Subsequently, this courageous and expressive spirit of women can be seen dominating Indian literature too. One of the best examples comes from a popularly known poem by Indian author Kamla Das from her debut collection Summer in Calcutta (1965). It carries her widely known confessional poetry entitled An Introduction. The poem is known for a woman's bold revelation of self: 

Then … I wore a shirt and my

Brother’s trousers cut my hair short, and ignored

My womanliness… It is time to

Choose a name, a role. Don’t play pretending games.

Don’t play at schizophrenia or be a

Nympho. Don’t cry embarrassingly loud when

Jilted in love … I met a man, loved him. Call

Him not by any name, he is every man

Who wants. a woman, just as I am every

Woman who seeks love. In him... the hungry haste

Of rivers, in me. (An Introduction, 7)


These lines carry bold and beautiful depictions of annoyance, distortion, candour, and aggressiveness, and firm rejection of a young woman who is unafraid to speak out about the hurts she has experienced in a patriarchal setup. The poem ushers in a new literary movement in Indian English writing. These trends setting literary assertions became frequent in the work of famous Indian authors. Both male and female authors have made an effort to carry out women’s multidimensional persona painting the canvas of femineity with vibrant colours. For example, female heroes of Rabindranath Tagore such as Chitra, Sumitra, Nandini, Srimati, Lokeshvari, Ila, Aparna, and Prakriti, enrolled in different roles seem to be breaking with a long-standing practice about what it means to be a woman. as Chitra, Red Oleanders, The King and The Queen, Sacrifice, Chandalika, Natir Puja, etc. All these womenfolk bravely assert themselves to keep their individuality and struggle for their justified presence and social status. Characters like Savitri and Rosie in R.K. Narayan's The Dark Room and The Guide, Gauri in Mulk Raj Anand's Gauri, Madeleine in Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope, Cynthia in Balachandra Rajan's The Dark Dancer; all of these women deny accepting submissive identity gifted by the patriarchy to restrict the free will of women. The portrayal of the "New Woman" predominates in the writings of celebrated Indian women writers. Mahasweta Devi, Amrita Pritam, Kamla Das, Kamla Markandaya, Shashi Deshpande, Sudha Murti, Bharti Mukherji, Nayantara Sahgal, Shobha De, Anita Desai, Manju Kapur, Anita Nair, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Kiran Desai have depicted in their writings women’s unfettered potential proclaiming their active involvement in all worldly roles. These women stand up for the fact that neither their physical nor intellectual abilities are lacking. They firmly grasp the reins of power in their own hands when it comes to reminding their male partner of the duties that they have neglected while being overwhelmed by male ego and power. Modern women have a different idea contrary to the old notion of what being a woman meant popularly:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. (Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre, 167)


These lines, regardless of time or place, perfectly describe how women are seen across the globe. Even with the significant changes, the situation is still critical in certain ways. There are a few things to be considered as- 

  • How does society view women’s initial role and position in the family and society?
  • Their struggles and obstacles in establishing the rightful involvement as dignified individuals.
  • The dual parameters adopted by society to acknowledge and honour women’s accomplishments.
  • Their ongoing battle to make her presence noticed and voice heard.
  • Their remarkable transformation from objects to subjects.
  • And finally, the way women are portrayed in literature.

Literature, undoubtedly, has the power to either uphold or refute gender conventions and stereotypes, and it significantly impacts how society views and treats women. The capacity to challenge patriarchal norms and attitudes that limit women's access to opportunities is one of the key depictions of many literary portrayals. Literature may help in dispelling gender stereotypes and fostering a more open society where women are free to follow their aspirations by presenting strong, competent, and dynamic selves. Certainly, literature can increase awareness of women's difficulties in Indian society and their everyday challenges to overcome these hardships. Literature may assist in developing empathy and understanding for the experiences of women from all backgrounds and highlight topics like gender-based violence, discrimination, and uneven access to education and work. The way Indian women are portrayed in literature may also help to empower women and motivate them to assume leadership roles in their communities. Literature may encourage women to become more involved in promoting their rights and working towards a more fair and equitable society by presenting women as change-makers and leaders.




To sum up, this new idea of womanhood can be seen as "Shakti," the eternal power that rules the entire phenomenon, occasionally taking on the form of "Durga" and other times manifesting as "Laxmi." When playing the part of "Laxmi," she cheerfully endures any suffering in order to bring happiness to others and devotedly attends to the requirements of the family and society. However, this goddess of quiet suffering transforms into "Durga" whenever it is necessary to express a woman's full potential. Women who are aware of their strength and proud womanliness exude incredible strength and bravery. They are seen acknowledging their inner strength, and this highly provoked journey ends with their forceful declaration of equal rights and position. They raise their voice against the unjust and exercise all possible efforts to live a dignified life on their terms. This is, of course, a great change in any society and it’s high time, we should consider the value of co-existence that contributes to the building of the nation and societies.  In the present scenario understanding the concept of gender parity is an essential foundation for a developed society because every voice is important to be heard and every dream is valuable to be fulfilled, after all, both genders make it a beautiful place to live in. It is especially pertinent in societies like ours that are ruled by deep patriarchal foundations celebrating female oppression as a crucial part of traditions. To sum up, a woman, the sublime creation of God, is not a thing to be used; rather she is capable enough to maintain her blessed individuality.


Works Cited:


Basham, A.L. The Wonder that Was India,Delhi: Rupa, 1984.


Bordin, Ruth Birgitta Anderson. Alice Freeman Palmer: The Evolution of a New WomanThe University of Michigan Press, 1993.


Das, Kamala. An Introduction, The Old Playhouse, and other poems, Delhi: Orient Longmans, 1973.


Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.


Nahal, Chaman. “Feminism in English Fiction: Forms and Variations”, Feminism and Recent Fiction in English. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991.


Web Sources:


Bronte, Charlotte and Jane Eyre:


Oxford Bibliography: Accessed on 19 Dec 2023


Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “The Princess”. The Project Gutenberg E-Book of The Princess, by

Alfred Lord Tennyson. Retrieved on January 1, 2023.


About the Author:


Dr Reshu Shukla is presently working as an Assistant Professor of English at S.B.D.P.G. College Dhampur, Bijnor (affiliated to M.JP. University, Bareilly). Dr Shukla has four books to her credit: Women in the Works of Rabindranath Tagore, 75 Years of Women’s Literary Contribution and Achievements: A Socio-Cultural Perspective, Feminine Ink and Woman to New Woman. Her lectures on Business Communication and Soft Skills are available on YouTube- She can be contacted through her email address-


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