Gibson Girls and Flappers: What is this "New Woman"?

Gibson Girls and Flappers: What is this "New Woman"?
Edith Wilson: Sports and Popular Culture

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Three to four class periods


In many ways, Edith Wilson was a good example of a "new woman"--one who was independent, knew her own mind, had confidence in herself, and was able to take on considerable challenges.  These characteristics were, however, also the basis of a good deal of criticism, because the idea of independent women was relatively new at the time.  The Victorian era, when "proper" women were thought to be subservient to men, was just ending, and the "new" era was just beginning.


Students who participate in this lesson will learn something about changes in the ideal of womanhood that took place at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.  They will also gain experience in synthsizing information, posing hypotheses, and coming to at least tentative conclusions.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet Access to print materials that cover the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.


1.  Divide students into five groups, each of which will explore one section of the website "The New Woman," below:

  • Opposition to the "new woman"
  • Image and Lifestyle
  • Sexuality
  • The African American New Woman
  • Work, education, and reform

2.  Students in these groups should divide up the research so that each student is researching one aspect of their section.

3.  When their research is finished, engage students in a discussion of the nature and characteristics of the "new woman" and ask them to compare these to characteristics of women today.

4.  A second level of research, also using websites listed below, consists in studying the "images" of the new woman, particularly the Gibson Girl and the flapper, and answering the following questions:

  • What changes in women's ideas and lifestyle were represented by the Gibson Girl and the flapper?
  • Who was Charles Dana Gibson?
  • Who coined the term, "flapper"?
  • If the changes that were occurring were occurring mostly among the "younger generation," what kinds of changes are occurring in the "younger generation" now?

5.  Students can write papers or prepare PowerPoint presentations or posters to illustrate their research and enable them to share it with the class.


Extending the Lesson:

This lesson could be extended by continuing to trace changes in the "ideal" woman in America through the rest of the 20th century.

Sources & Resources:



This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.