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The rebel, the lady and the 'anti': femininity, anti-feminism, and the Victorian woman writer

Heilmann, Ann; Sanders, Valerie


Ann Heilmann


Anti-feminist journalists and women writers had a crucial role in contributing to the feminist debate in Victorian Britain. As an organized political movement Victorian anti-feminism significantly post-dated the rise of anti-feminist literature in the mid-century, which was born in response to first-wave feminism; it was not until half a century later, in the 1890s and 1900s, that campaigns such as the 'Appeal against Women's Suffrage' (1891) and political organizations like the National Women's Anti-Suffrage League (1908) came into being. Anti-feminist journalism and fiction thus had more in common with its feminist counterpart than with any distinct political movement from which it might have arisen. This raises the question of how productive the binary category 'feminist/anti-feminist' is in ascribing ideological currency to Victorian women's writing. Certainly the boundaries between feminist and anti-feminist positions were more permeable and fluid than might be assumed in the twenty-first century. In Victorian women's fiction, the figure of the woman rebel was invoked by feminists as much as by writers like Eliza Lynn Linton, Margaret Oliphant, and Mary Ward who, while distancing themselves from the political demands of first-wave feminism, promoted a measure of female independence in both private and public life. Dedicated feminist writers and political activists like Sarah Grand and Elizabeth Robins, on the other hand, could at times embrace distinctly anti-feminist positions. What unites feminist and anti-feminist writing of the Victorian period is its central concern with questions of femininity, each side laying claim to 'authentic' as opposed to the other camp's 'artificial', flawed, corrupted or unsexed femininity. This marked emphasis on femininity signals deep-felt ambivalences in the writers' identities frequently rooted in conflicting personal and professional roles. Thus Arabella Kenealy, a physician as well as a writer, depicted medical women as sexual neuters, and yet invested them with enormous physical strength and moral authority. In this article we will investigate the concept and performance of femininity as the central battleground between 'feminist' and 'anti-feminist' positions in order to explore the question of categorization that arises for any anthologizer-or digitizer-of Victorian women writers' (anti-)feminism.


Heilmann, A., & Sanders, V. (2006). The rebel, the lady and the 'anti': femininity, anti-feminism, and the Victorian woman writer. Women's studies international forum, 29(3), 289-300.

Journal Article Type Article
Online Publication Date Jun 19, 2006
Publication Date 2006-05
Print ISSN 0277-5395
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 29
Issue 3
Pages 289-300
Keywords Development; Sociology and Political Science; Law; Education
Public URL
Publisher URL