Lena Wånggren, Gender, Technology and the New Woman

Lena Wånggren, Gender, Technology and the New Woman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2017) xi + 218 pp. £75 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-474-416269

Wånggren’s book opens with a quote that perfectly embodies its focus.  In Olive Schreiner’s short story ‘Three Dreams in a Desert’ (1890), the narrator comes across the figure of a woman weighed down with chains, only to see those chains cut from her by ‘Mechanical Invention’ (1).  As Wånggren explains, ‘Schreiner’s dream suggests a clear connection between the revision of gender roles and the new technologies of the time’ (2).  In particular, it points to the way in which the late-nineteenth emergence of the ‘New Woman’ (‘cultural archetype of early feminism’) is intimately linked to the opportunities created by new developments in the fields of communication, transportation, and medical science (2).  But as Wånggren also stresses, changes in the fields of periodicals, press, and publication also created the space within which the New Woman archetype could be contested and debated, in turn helping to reshape ‘norms and politics’ (3).  This constructive convergence of ‘freedom machines’ underpinned a ‘women’s decade’ (3) that we would now recognise as a first wave of British feminism.  As Wånggren adds, the ‘chapters in this book not only consider the technologies but also the spaces connected with the New Woman: the typewriter signifies a female entry into the office space, the bicycle allows for both geographical and to an extent social mobility […] and medical tools and the clinical tools and the clinical hospital institution enabled women to enter the medical professional sphere’ (4), both as nurses and doctors.

After a brief introduction (1-11), Wånggren examines ‘The New Woman in Technological Modernity’ (Chapter One, 12-33).  In this chapter, Wånggren explores the ‘literary and historical context’ of the New Woman figure, whilst also offering a critique of both ‘gynocritical readings of literature [and] determinist theories of technology’ (13).  In particular, Wånggren stresses that technology is ‘neither neutral nor autonomous’ (29); whether it acts in ways that liberate or oppress, however, it does not exclude the ‘possibility of an acting subject’ (28).  Having set out the book’s methodological premises, Wånggren then turns to ‘Typewriters and Typists: Secretarial Agency at the Fin de Siècle’ (Chapter Two, 34-61).  Here, Wånggren focuses on Grant Allen’s The Type-Writer Girl (1897) and Tom Gallon’s The Girl Behind the Keys (1903), two less well-known novels that in very different ways point to the possibilities that the typewriter opened up within the previously male domain of the office space.  Those possibilities were not necessarily positive.  As Allen’s novel underlines, women were expected both ‘to “mechanise” and “feminise” the office’ (51), an expectation from which Allen’s heroine recoils, for a while at least pursuing life in an anarchist commune (54).  Yet that life itself signals the kind of freedoms that might follow from a glimpse of economic independence.  In Gallon’s novel, by contrast, the heroine realises that she is working for a criminal syndicate, but then hides behind her lowly office status (‘being “purely mechanical”’) to foil its criminal plots (58); she too finds a way to assert her own agency, and in so doing, ‘challenge contemporary descriptions of women as unthinking machines’ (60).

In Chapter Three, ‘The “Freedom Machine”: The New Woman and the Bicycle’ (62-100), Wånggren discusses H G Wells’s The Wheels of Chance (1896), and another novel by Grant Allen, Miss Cayley’s Adventures (1899), both written at ‘the height of the bicycle craze’ (65).  Wånggren uses the novels to complicate the idea that the bicycle – so often regarded as ‘the specific emblem of the New Woman’ (63) – was ‘an inherently democratic or emancipatory technology’ (65).  The success of popular fiction like this was itself a factor in giving the bicycle its wider, gendered significance (98-99).  In Chapter Four (101-131), the first of two chapters that concentrate on ‘Medical New Women’, Wånggren examines the emergence of modern nursing, and, in particular, ‘the figure of the New Style nurse’ (101).  Drawing on a variety of sources, including nursing journals, Wånggren discusses the way in which ‘the New Style nurse’, whilst ‘potentially transgressive’ (102), was nonetheless restricted by the feminisation of nursing (117) and bounded by gendered limits on ‘nursing knowledge’ (111).  This tension emerges in fin de siècle depictions of the new nurses (111-115), and in particular, Grant Allen’s Hilda Wade (1900), where Allen’s New Woman heroine is intent on using her own medical knowledge to expose – as a murderer, no less – ‘the most esteemed medical man in London’ (116; 124-5).  By asserting her agency, Allen’s heroine challenges the conventional reading of the nurse as the (male) ‘doctor’s tool’ (130); in Chapter Five (132-163), Wånggren examines the still more remarkable emergence of pioneering women doctors, and their (largely positive) literary figuration in Margaret Todd’s Mona Maclean, Medical Student (1892) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Doctors of Hoyland’ (1894).  As Wånggren explains, these works rescue the figure of the woman doctor from an ‘unsexed’ stereotype, even though they must ‘still adhere to late nineteenth-century notions of femininity’ (163).

In a final, fascinating chapter, ‘Technologies of Detection’ (164-195), Wånggren explores the way in which New Women also became a feature in detective fiction; indeed, several of the characters discussed in earlier chapters ‘solve mysteries at some point’ (164).  Neatly, the chapter brings together many of Wånggren’s concerns.  In novels such as Mathias McDonnell Bodkin’s Dora Myrl, the Lady Detective (1900), for example, the heroine is a bicycling Girton graduate, doctor, and sometime ‘telegraph [and] telephone girl’ who now solves crimes ‘with the help of modern technologies’ (165).  Figures such as these anticipate much later developments, when women were finally allowed to enter the British police; as Wånggren notes in a brief ‘Conclusion’ (196-197), ‘literary texts’ (as themselves forms of technology) ‘work as social and cultural agents’, influencing as well as reflecting ‘changing gender relations’ (196).  As she nevertheless insists, technologies are not ‘inherently progressive’; their ‘emancipatory potential lies in how they come to be used and constructed in literature and culture’ (197), a point that this fine book amply demonstrates.

Adrian Tait, Independent Scholar