Great Moments

The New Woman — 1886–1896

Maud Ballington Booth, daughter–in–law of Salvation Army founder, William Booth, gives an address at socialite Alva Belmont’s Newport, Rhode Island estate, 1913.

Excerpted from Red–Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of The Salvation Army

A standing–room–only crowd packed the auditorium at The Salvation Army’s National Headquarters. Listeners filled every seat in the orchestra and balconies as latecomers lined the walls and aisles to hear Maud Booth’s address on “The New Woman.” 

By 1895, New Yorkers were quite familiar with the New Woman. Her demands for education, economic independence, suffrage, and sexual freedom had been debated in the popular press for almost a decade. On both sides of the Atlantic, supporters praised her bid for autonomy while critics denounced her rejection of marriage, family, and religion—the bulwarks of Victorian society. 

That The Salvation Army would have something to say on the subject no doubt struck many New Yorkers as odd, since some considered Army women compromised by their public ministry and their “sensational” methods. Thus, drawn by the currency of the issue and the dubious reputation of the organization, men and women who ordinarily would never attend an Army meeting were seated in the 14th Street auditorium on a late summer Sunday evening.

Maud Booth, who shared command of the American Army with her husband, Ballington, was familiar to the general public. The daughter of a genteel English family, she had charmed New York’s business, civic, and social leaders with her beauty, refinement, and properly plummy tones. She also appealed to young women seeking meaningful vocations yet unwilling or unable to identify with the New Woman. 

On this particular evening, Booth had assigned herself a difficult task. In her appearance before the curious crowd she needed to project several different images. As Christian slum worker and Salvationist commander, dignified matron and assertive woman, critic of the media’s New Woman and advocate for the Army’s “born–again” woman, Booth’s performance manifested the Army’s vision of a sacralized society in which polarities were transcended. Further embodying the New Testament faith that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, Maud Booth’s ministry inverted social conventions by instructing single male officers on housekeeping and transforming Hallelujah lassies into women warriors.

Among Booth’s preferred modes of presenting her message was the Chautauqua–style lecture popular in this period. Chautauqua, a retreat in upstate New York, provided Protestant laity with a comfortable compromise between religion and commercial entertainment. For The Salvation Army, seeking to widen its outreach to the middle and upper classes, the Chautauqua format had undeniable appeal, offering an opportunity to speak in a cultural vernacular that mitigated the sensational use of the streets. For Booth, in particular, the use of a familiar medium helped palliate her transgressive message. When the audience, assembled for a religious critique of the New Woman, gazed up at Commander Booth, they saw seated alongside her an all–female platform of officers, band members, cadets, and soldiers. 

“This is a woman’s meeting,” Booth told her listeners. “The women are going to do everything here tonight.” She then described a model of womanhood that, while implicitly affirming many of the New Woman’s aims, explicitly condemned what the media caricatured as the “mannish” female. Calling her ideal the “advanced woman,” Booth enthusiastically supported women’s right to education, athletic exercise, and work. But, most important, this new creature must be a “womanly woman” rooted in the love of home, family, and religion. 

In her diatribe against the New Woman, Booth suggested turning her “huge sleeves” into dresses for the poor and tossing her cigarettes, gum, and “realistic” literature into a bonfire. Equally dismissive of the New Woman’s attitude to men, she reasoned that the best cure for those who spoke of “tread[ing men] underfoot” would be to turn them over to “a strong–willed, self–assertive husband.” In conclusion, Booth explained that the truly new woman must be “born–again” since “if any woman be born in Jesus Christ, she is a new creature.” Such women, blessed with “a new heart” as well as “new power” would have a “new influence upon the world.”

The Ballington Booths’ tenure, from 1887 to 1896, marked the Army’s initial acceptance by mainstream American society. During this period Salvationists became involved in the issues of the day, especially poverty relief and the changing role of women. Evolving from a strictly evangelical movement to an organization increasingly involved with social welfare work, the Army reached out to slum dwellers, the homeless, and “fallen women.” While expanding Salvationist outreach to the poor, the Booths also built up an auxiliary organization for men and women who supported the Army’s work but did not wish to be members. As the Booths spread the Army’s message and bolstered its financial support, they employed various strategies, from parlor meetings to Chautauqua lectures, to improve the upper classes’ perception of the movement. 

Woven into the Army’s efforts to extend its mission was its role in the debate about women’s place in society. One gauge of public opinion on the Army was the secular media’s depiction of Salvationist women. In the early 1800s typical descriptions cast the lassies as coarse, uneducated, and morally lax. With the arrival of Maud Booth and the emergence of other upper–class female officers, a new model of Salvationist womanhood began taking shape. Booth played a singular part in constructing and defining that model for both the Army and the society at large. Whether called the advanced woman, the truly new woman, or the woman warrior, this person combined Victorian womanliness with a sense of mission that empowered her to act boldly in the public sphere.

by Diane Winston

Previous post

The Gift of Equality

Next post

Finding Life Support