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Mrs. Warren's Profession

by George Bernard Shaw

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In Mrs. Warren's Profession, how is Vivie the New Woman, in terms of her appearance as well as her ideas?

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The New Woman was a term used by writer Henry James and others from the late nineteenth century onward to describe a type of female who was the antithesis of the Victorian angel of the home. The New Woman took advantage of new opportunities opening up for women in the second half of the nineteenth century to pursue higher education and careers, and therefore has an alternative to marriage and childbearing. The New Woman was an object of both curiosity and anxiety, with many fearing she would undermine the traditional patriarchal family. New Women were also associated with support of woman's suffrage, athleticism, radical political ideas, and they were often portrayed in the popular media as masculine or asexual.

We can easily see how Vivie fits the mold of the New Woman in Shaw's 1902 play. Even her name, which sounds like the words 'vivid' and 'vibrant,' conjures healthy, assertive images that are the opposite of a pale, shrinking violet. Vivie has been educated at Cambridge and has a degree in math, a traditionally male field. She rides a bicycle and has piles of "serious-looking" books to read. She lives independently, turns down two marriage offers, embraces paid work (the stereotypical Victorian lady eschewed the work world in favor of charitable and volunteer opportunities) and even smokes. Like a typical New Woman, she breaks all the molds and shows she is the equal of men.

As for appearance, Vivie is described as "prompt" and "self-possessed," and as wearing a "plain business-like dress, but not dowdy." She is practical in her attire, including the chain ("chatelaine") she has attached to her belt from which a pen and a paper knife hang.

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When Vivie first appears in the play, she is described as "an attractive specimen of the sensible, able, highly-educated young middle-class English woman. Age 22. Prompt, strong, confident, self-possessed." She shakes hands as a man might, and she wears "business-like" dress with a chatelaine, or belt with useful objects suspended from it. She does not wear impractical clothes but wears clothes conducive to doing business and getting work done. Like the New Woman of Shaw's time, she is practical and able to take care of herself. She comports herself with the confidence that people formerly might have only associated with men.

In addition, Vivie is not at all sentimental and has rid herself of most of the traditional feminine ideas, such as the importance of acting falsely modest with men. In Act I, she refers to chivalry as "a frightful waste of time." She decides to dump her beau, Frank, without much regret, and she tells her mother, "Poor Frank! I shall have to get rid of him; but I shall feel sorry for him, though he’s not worth it." This is clearly a reversal of traditional gender roles, as she feels sorry for Frank but not at all sad or sentimental about ending her relationship with him. She has little time for romance in her busy, practical life. 

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Woman, Vivie is fiercely independent. She studied math at Cambridge and plans to work in an actuarial office while reading law. She detests leisure and says, " I like working and getting paid for it. When I’m tired of working, I like a comfortable chair, a cigar, a little whisky, and a novel with a good detective story in it." These are traditional male pursuits, and Vivie embraces them. She likes spending her time working rather than getting married and having children, as women were traditionally expected to do. In the end, she decides not to get married, to sever her ties to her mother (as her mother continues to own brothels), and to work for a living without taking a vacation. She lives the type of independent life that was new for women at the time and that was more typical of a man. 

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