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  • Special Section:Women of the Press in the 1890s
  • Introduction by Alyson Hunt, Guest Editor

A woman may now and then work efficiently in what all true women know is man’s department, and now and then she stands equal to any man of uniform position and education. But it is really only “now and then.” She cannot do it regularly, year in and year out, any more than a man can equal woman in all things connected with building up and keeping a home.

(Daily Mail 7)

These sentiments, espoused by the regular Daily Mail columnist known only as Lady Charlotte in 1896 as part of her “Woman’s Realm” feature, epitomize the flagrant contradictions afforded to professional women towards the close of the nineteenth century. Her comments reinforce the dominant patriarchy by affirming women’s educational subservience to men and suggesting that women lack the ability and resilience to work in the same domains as men. Moreover, Lady Charlotte’s tentative edge towards women’s autonomy is somewhat undermined by the subject matter of her articles, with such titles as “What Makes Women Successful” (apparently tact when dealing with their husbands), “The Ideal Wife,” and “Are Clever Women Liked?” Yet Lady Charlotte’s endorsement of women’s place within the domestic sphere is assuredly undermined by her own writing career and the regularity with which her articles appeared in the newspaper—a frequency which certainly exceeded “now and then.” Although her articles hark back to much earlier ideas of woman’s place, there is an unmistakable air of change on the horizon in the very possibility that woman can stand equal to man, as Lady Charlotte does to some extent in offering her columns, frivolous though they may be, alongside those of male contributors. [End Page 130]

As Margaret Stetz has pointed out (citing Gaye Tuchman and Nine E. Fortin), women “who entered the literary profession in the late-Victorian period ‘were occupying an embattled field’” (276), one from which men had drawn lucrative profits for centuries and which many would be unwilling to forego in the interests of female emancipation. Stetz develops this notion further in her suggestion that men did not wholly refuse the admission of women to publishing and literary spheres, and indeed made commercial use of their attempts, using the figure of the New Woman to reach new markets “and also to make implicit cultural statements about their own relationship to the modern age” (276). By featuring a forward-thinking woman “who was ‘startling’ only in her call for ‘independence,’ not in her manners, appearance, tastes, or notions of how to redistribute power between the sexes” (275), periodicals and newspapers could cash in on the flavor of the decade without making contentious political or social statements. As Stetz asserts, middle and upper-class women were certainly keen to hear of women’s endeavors, even if they were not themselves involved in the encroachment on man’s departments. Class, then, played as great a role in the representation and interpretation of women of the press in the 1890s as did gender, alongside a whole host of contributing cultural, social, and economic factors.

This special section of Victorians Journal was born out of the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers’ annual conference in July 2016, which centered on women’s writing of the 1880s and 1890s. Among the better-known, or perhaps better recovered, array of novelists, poets, and short story writers emerged a plethora of almost completely unknown writers who used newspapers and periodicals as their preferred media. Many of the writers discussed at the conference and featured in this collection began their working careers writing society pieces, and gossip columns or fashion advice for family periodicals, like those written by Lady Charlotte. Although not all of the writers featured here desired to be writers first and foremost, all of them touched upon subjects that extended beyond the traditionally frivolous “womanly” themes deemed socially acceptable even for upper-class female writers like Lady Charlotte. However, for the purposes of this introduction, Lady Charlotte’s identity and antecedents are immaterial. She exemplifies the ambiguous social and professional positions occupied by women of the press in the...