Dynamic and Shimmering: Popular Culture, Public Women, and the Emergence of the New Wienerin

Friday, January 6, 2017: 4:10 PM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Katya Motyl, University of Chicago
In a 1913 issue of a Viennese woman’s magazine, Häuslicher Ratgeber für Österreichs Frauen, the headline provocatively asked, “Are women’s hands becoming bigger?” According to the article, with women increasingly participating in sports and manual work, their hands no longer seemed as delicate as they once were, instead becoming “strong” and “masculine.” The article tapped into a popular anxiety from the period, namely, that as bourgeois women became more emancipated, their bodies would change accordingly. A strong hand was physical evidence of a new kind of woman.

This paper looks to the emergence of Vienna’s New Woman—die neue Wienerin—to suggest that bourgeois women’s bodies were, in fact, changing at this time. Although many historians have written about the New Woman, I take a different approach by, first, looking beyond the figure’s discursive construction to her embodied performance in everyday life, and second, locating the figure’s origins in working-class pre-war Vienna, and its reasons for proliferation, on the silver screen.

The paper begins by drawing on personal letters and diaries from the Sammlung Frauennachlässe Archiv in Vienna, as well as newspapers, magazines, and etiquette books, to reconstruct what normative bourgeois femininity looked and felt like. Next, it argues that the New Wienerin’s embodied femininity was a radical departure from its normative articulation, insofar as the former performed a physically expansive femininity that had only, until WWI, been articulated by sex workers on the street and performers on the stage. Finally, the paper considers the 1925 film, “Ein Walzertraum,” to suggest that women’s consumption of silent film and participation in celebrity culture encouraged the physical emulation of the New Wienerin.

By drawing on social and cultural history, feminist phenomenology, and film theory, the paper examines the bodily and affective dimensions of these dynamic modern women.

<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation