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  • Individualism from the New Woman to the Genome:Autonomy and Independence
  • Regenia Gagnier

Although it is always dangerous to write history while it is being lived, the current consensus is that in the last quarter of the twentieth century modern Western societies entered a third stage of technocracy. The first was the industrial revolution; the second was the mass transmission of cinema, television, and radio; and the most recent is called the Information Age. The first is associated with beautiful bourgeois individuals with deep subjectivities enabled, as we shall see, by a women's literature of intimate relationship. The second produced the sublime hopes of democracy, the masses, socialism, and fascism, in which the "rigors" of fascism opposed the threats of femininity and the masses. The third is in the process of producing biotechnological individuals, in which the eugenicists' dream of parthenogenesis attempts to erase the role of women. Inevitably, this is a study of national as well as gender stereotypes, of the ways that Britain, the United States, and Europe have modelled ideal types with competing national inflections. Yet if recombinance —the effect of customizing or personalizing —can be seen as postmodernity's contribution to such models, the components of ideal models of individualism in art, literature, and philosophy provide an index of possibilities.1

A number of these possibilities were in contestation from the fin de siècle to the Second World War. In political economy progressive individualism was manifest in the division of labor and competition on the market; in evolutionary biology, in the origins of species; in physiology, in racial differentiation; in literature and the arts in psychological realism, and so forth. Herbert Spencer's influential idea that all Progress was progress toward individualism implied at the [End Page 103] broadest cultural levels fears of anomie, isolation, and egoism.2 Matthew Arnold had argued for a strong State to counteract the excesses of competitive individualism, only to deplore the diminishment of the individual when it lost its deep psychological "character" that seemed to be particularly threatened by market developments in the Americas. The political theory of Individualism, promoted by Spencer's followers, countered both the fears of mass society and those of a homogeneous paternalistic State by proposing the evolution of individual "character," a character that would regulate itself for the social good and would thereby not need State control. Other, specifically national, inflections of "character" —"national character" —will be discussed below.

I. Autonomy and Independence

In all of these conceptions of individualism gender was a central factor. We begin with the so-called New Woman of the 1890s.3 Women were both active shapers of individualist ideology and the object of theories of instinct. In her famous treatise on marriage as a social institution (1897), Mona Caird first followed Spencer in seeing monogamy as a condition of Progress, but went on to consider the lack of individuation in inseparable couples not just "irritating" but "an index of united degeneration" (Caird 1998: 1-239). In the debates that Caird's essay generated, popular science writer Grant Allen argued for progressive individualism through sexual selection:

It is a mark of disease to have too frequent and too universal sexual impulses. It is a mark of health and of high development to have them relatively seldom, relatively strong, and powerfully [End Page 104] specialised upon particular individuals. The higher types are the most selective . . . . That advance in discriminativeness is a leading feature in evolutionary progress.

(Allen 1998: 344)

Caird's and Allen's respective emphases on individual distinctiveness may be analyzed by way of the distinction between autonomy and independence. Feminist theory of the last 25 years has held that for both nation-states and individuals the pursuit of independence tends to eliminate all values but self-affirmation and thus gives rise to irreducible differences that in turn, in both nation-states and individuals, increase the likelihood of conflict. Autonomy, on the other hand, is relational, and compatible with submission to a common need or even common law. New Women were certainly individuals with diverse interests and goals; yet if there is anything common to the many women included under that name it would be their assertion not...


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