Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Perfect Woman

"The Crush," by Charles Dana Gibson.
Perfection in humans is inarguably subjective, but as I've written a post on the perfect man of the 1890s, it has been pointed out to me that I ought to write one about the perfect woman.

I want to write about a female bodybuilder because Eugene Sandow, the bodybuilder, was the perfect man in the 1890s, and I support gender equality, and there were female bodybuilders - even before Sandow began promoting bodybuilding for health and beauty. One of these was America's first famous strong woman, Josie Wohlford, or 'Minerva,' as she was called. Minerva held the Guinness Book World Record for the greatest weight lifted by a woman (18 men on a platform totalling over 3,000 lbs). I want to write about Katie Brumbach the same way, but the female bodybuilders of the 1890s didn't represent an ideal the way that Sandow did.

Katie Sandwina
In the Sandow ideal, form followed function. On the stage, Brumbach performed feats of strength as Katie Sandwina the feminine giantess, but feats of physical strength were not the feminine ideal in the 1890s, an era that would give rise to the Gibson girl in the United States and Lily Langtry in the UK.
[The Gibson girl's] image was unlike those of American woman that had appeared in the nineteenth century. Physically, she looked different. She was tall, with an incredibly tiny waist. She wore her hair swept up into a softly twisted bun called a chignon, revealing her long swanlike neck. What distinguished her more than any physical characteristics, however, was her attitude. [...] The lift of the Gibson girl's chin and her half closed eyes [...] suggested that she was more aloof than nurturing. Some thought her sophisticated. Others thought her haughty or conceited. She didn't stay at home, either. The images placed her on a golf course or on the beach. The media quickly labeled her "the typical American girl."
Gibson girl, 1899.
An invention of the 1890s, the Gibson girl's popularity continued to grow in the early twentieth century. Possessing similar attributes, Langtry was "introduced" in the 1877 and grew in popularity through to the 1890s.

Lily Langtry
An American in London, Langtry was literally introduced at one of Lady Sebright's evenings at home in May 1877. Her social performance there attracted comment, as well as invitations to other events with other important social figures. She had married well enough that she didn't need to work, but her great social success and personal interest in London Society led to an acting career and affairs with noblemen, including the Prince of Wales. Langtry's story encapsulates feminine ideals of the era in that her looks, and her ability to enchant were her keys to success.

Still, it wouldn't do to call Langtry the perfect woman, the way that Sandow was called the perfect man. She did after all, attract gossip by cheating on her husband. The perfect woman of the 1890s was an impossible ideal, one that I think is captured beautifully as George W.E. Russell recalls his friend, Mrs Lowther.
She possessed what men arrogantly call a "masculine understanding," trained into accuracy and thoroughness by the systematic studies of her girlhood. She could direct, organize, and control on the largest scale and in the smallest details. She was competent to deal with the toughest and most intricate problems of business, money, and, if need were, law. She could discuss, on equal terms and at a moment's notice, policies with Premiers, and Fiscal Reform with Chancellors of the Exchequer; Laws of Evidence with Judges, and Education Bills with Bishops. Yet she "bore this load of learning lightly as a flower," and could turn in an instant from the most strenuous themes to the graces and amenities, even the trivialities, of social life. Her enjoyment of that life was keen, and, in whatever phase she found herself, her talents and accomplishments were ready for the occasion.
She was, as most people know, a genuine artist; being very quick to catch an effective point, bold and rapid in execution, accurate in draughtsmanship, and endowed with that rare gift in English art - a true sense for colour. No one but an artist could have arranged the interior decoration of Lowther Lodge, where colour and form are so harmoniously combined. As to music, one who is well qualified to judge says, "She was very musical, and played the piano quite beautifully. She used to have lessons from Chopin, and up to the end remembered by heart pieces she had learnt with him, and played them very often when we were alone." Her waltzing was renowned for lightness and grace; and her familiarity with all minor accomplishments, such as painting on china, wood-carving, and embroidery, was remarkable. Nothing came amiss to her, and no one, I should think, ever spent so few idle moments in a long life.
In literature her taste was for the old than for the new, and she had a hearty contempt for that smattering of ephemeral criticism and culture which is so often used to conceal fundamental ignorance of the books really worth knowing.
Two women reading on a verandah at Ingham, ca. 1894-1903
(Harriett Petifore Brims, JOL, SLQ, Neg 132733)
Her conversational gifts were altogether exceptional. She was always perfectly natural, always in touch with those to whom she was talking, taking their points and interested in their interests. She was keenly alive to anything in her guests' conversation which struck her as important or curious or amusing, and was always ready with the apt reply which showed that she had been attending and not merely hearing. Her own copious and varied knowledge of life and society and art flowed in an easy and continuous stream, which never needed either pumping or damming. She could hit off a ludicrous situation - perhaps sometimes an absurd character - with a touch of genuine humour; and, if her moral sense was shocked or her convictions were outraged, she could express disapprobation with an emphasis all the more impressive because it was not violent.
Perhaps the only subject which did not interest Mrs Lowther, among all those which are discussed in modern society, was Health. Doctors and diseases, diets and systems, bored her to extremity; and this was natural enough, inasmuch as she had never had occasion, in her own case or in that of her family, to make herself acquainted with the dismal lore of the sick-room. She was one of the strongest women in the world; astonishingly active, and ignorant of the meaning of fatigue. In the discharge of her various duties as wife, mother, hostess, member of society, mistress of a large establishment [...] she laboured incessantly, and with no apparent loss of energy, till the last weeks of a protracted life. Energy was indeed her most striking characteristic; and by energy I mean that indefinable gift, rather spiritual than physical, which makes a man or woman live intensely in every nerve and fibre, and throw the whole being into the tasks and interests of the moment. - Sketches and Snapshots by George W.E. Russell
An interesting woman indeed, I don't use Russell's account to suggest that Mrs Lowther was the perfect woman, only that 1890s feminine perfection was the happy stuff of the eulogizing imagination. Whatever resemblance she bore with the real Mrs Lowther, the character Russell sketches for us in that passage shared characteristics with the New Woman, in that she was educated, independent, and capable. Like the Gibson girl, she might be put into practically any situation and would know how to behave. Like Langtry, she seemed capable of enchanting the people around her, so that you want to make her a friend. She would probably be a good friend to have because she listens so well. And like Minerva and Katie Sandwina, she was strong; healthy strong, but (unlike them) not lifting 3,000 pounds on her shoulders strong.

"The New Woman and her bicycle - there will be several varieties of HER!"
Women's weight lifting and bodybuilding still struggle for acceptance, the way that many women's sports are still not taken as seriously as men's. The perfect woman of the 1890s, therefore, poured her inexhaustible energy into more feminine pursuits, while ever-pressing the boundaries of what was traditionally masculine and what was traditionally feminine.

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