Jane V. Rago

Date of Graduation


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In 1886 the Contagious Diseases Acts were repealed after a long sixteen year fight, led by social reformers and what would later come to be known as the first wave of feminism. Western feminism was born and bred in large part out of the debates sparked by the Contagious Diseases Acts, debates that opened up into the appeal for women to be granted full citizenship through the right to vote, to own property after marriage, and the right to education and employment outside the home. The crux of this argument was grounded in a critique of mid-Victorian ideology of separate spheres, fundamental sex difference and the attendant double standard this engendered. While mid-century feminism espoused an Enlightenment model of citizenship based on equality and rights, late-century feminists turned to the eugenic paradigm of a biological citizenship, locating their fight for equality in the flesh and blood of evolutionary theory. Eugenics, incepted through the rising importance of Darwinian materialism and evolutionary theory, totalized identity into a biologistic schema of race, class, and gender that was narrated in nationalistic terminology. In the latter half of the nineteenth-century, Darwinian theory further enabled the rhetoric of degeneration that threatened all bodies within society, and eugenic New Woman offered a narrative of regeneration based on a perceived maternalistic biological destiny. Many critics have overlooked the symbiotic relationship between New Women and eugenics, often claiming that the New Woman offered a site of subversion or a reverse discourse to the dominant discourse of fundamental sex difference. I contend that eugenic New Women did not necessarily offer a site of resistance to this dominant discourse, but that they helped to author the discourse itself. This dissertation examines some key New Women concepts and goals, such as rational reproduction, the dissolution of the public and private spheres, and the agitation for political rights within the context of eugenic thought. Using Michel Foucault's concept of "bio-power" and Jean-Joseph Goux's concept of the "symbolic schism" in western discourse, I argue that New Woman writing was of paramount importance in the narratives that shaped imperial England's understanding of gender roles, of race, of class, and of itself as a nation. While New Woman writing was vast, often highly contradictory, and diverse the corpus of these writings questioned societally prescribed norms for women that revolved around marriage and motherhood, concepts that remain highly fraught today.