Gender Discourse and 1890s Periodicals



In every field of Contemporary writing, in newspapers and magazines, in short fiction and the novel… the Woman Question and the New Woman, and questions of gender more generally were among the impinging subjects of the day.


Reading my way through various fin-de-siècle magazines this term, I found myself confronted again and again with the woman question, posed continually within the pages of 1890s magazines. What struck me were not the instances in which the question was posed directly, but instead, the subtle but pervasive intrusion of the question in every facet of the 1890s periodical. From the representation of women in text, image, and advertisements, to the publication of work by female writers and artists, fin-de-siècle magazines were deeply enmeshed in a public discourse surrounding shifting gender norms.

This illustration, from the poster for the first volume of The Yellow Book is a more traditional representation of the female figure, one which does not challenge gender roles, presenting the female figure instead as distinctly feminine and docile.

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As cultural spaces intrinsically involved in the conceptualization of a national identity, these publications are reflective of their time periods and the discourses that were taking place within larger society. In light of this, I was really intrigued by the complexity of the woman question within these magazines.In particular, I’m interested in the negotiation between the transgression of, and capitulation to, traditional gender norms in both text and image. Beardsley’s illustrations in The Yellow Book strike me as a wonderful example of this negotiation. While some of his illustrations represent a subversion of gender expectations, like the woman in the prospectus for the first volume of The Yellow Book, browsing a bookstall alone in the city at night, others adhere more closely to traditional female representation.The female figure in the poster for the first volume of The Yellow Book is demure looking, and exemplifies the illustration of women’s bodies as objects subject to the male gaze, which Laurel Brake touches on in “Gender and Sex Politics and the New Journalism”.

The co-existence of these images in The Yellow Book represents, I believe, the contested space wherein gender discourse took place, not just within The Yellow Book, but also within fin-de-siècle periodicals at large. If the woman question is asked again and again in the pages of 1890s magazines, it is never answered, but this ambiguity is an answer in and of itself, one in which the complexity and dynamism of the period shines through.

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This illustration, from the prospectus for the first volume of The Yellow Book, is much more transgressive in its representation of the female figure. In this illustration, the woman shops alone at night in the city, all of which would have been emblematic of the “new woman” to readers of the magazine.


Kathryn Stagg