So, we’ve gotten to the entry where Mina has a “I’m not like the New Women” moment, let’s talk about what the concept of the New Women and why it is deeply ironic for Mina of all characters to be dismissive of them.
With the second wave of industrialization and the increase in the ability of women to access higher education in England starting in the 1870s, there was a corresponding social movement to change the way women were perceived.
New Women were educated women who had careers - usually from the increasingly large Victorian middle and upper middle class. They advocated for women to have greater autonomy over their lives and greater financial freedom. Basically the ability to live on their own and not have to rely on men and marriage. It was also wrapped up with the suffragette movement - though the New Woman was not necessarily a suffragette.
There was a lot of backlash in late Victorian society which claimed that independence was unwomanly and would lead to the emasculation of men and the neglect of the family. As tame as it may seem to us now, this sort of thing was supposed to look absurd because the men and women have switched gender roles:
So when there are jabs at New Women in sections of Dracula about how women will propose in the future, we are supposed to read it in the same sense as the Punch parodies. This is supposed to be an absurd notion that would upend gender norms. Of course as modern readers it doesn’t because we’ve moved past those gender roles.
But it is also striking in the text because Mina is the picture of the New Woman without the satirical varnish of something like Punch. She is from the middle to upper middle class. She is well educated and has a job at the beginning of the novel: She is a school teacher.
Socially she is exactly the kind of woman who has the position to be more independent. The idea that she is a New Woman also comes from her characterization. She is a very active character and has a remarkable amount of agency. She goes places and asks questions and starts to put together the mystery without necessarily relying on men.
And her relationship with Jonathan actually does invert gender roles. She is the person who is more active and Jonathan is more reliant on her. He may be the breadwinner (or will be now that he’s fully a solicitor and not just a clerk), but they don’t have a very typically gendered relationship for the period.
And on the note of the gay subtext in Mina’s relationship with Lucy - New Women were also the kind of people who entered into Boston Marriages.
And it seems that Stoker tries and fails to distance the character he wrote from the image of the New Woman. There are these weirdly out of character comments in Mina’s journal about New Women that read as either deeply ironic or as Stoker backpedaling on the character Mina actually is.
There are also sections later that point to Stoker having a very ambivalent relationship with feminism, but it will be worthwhile to discuss those when we get there.
But the crux of why Stoker seems to think he hasn’t written a New Woman is this: Mina is exceptionally nurturing. She cares for Lucy. She cares for other characters when they are physically or emotionally compromised later. Mina’s most stereotypically feminine feature is that she is a carer. She is not the image of a woman who emulates the emotional expression of a man.
Read from a modern perspective it comes across as a bit absurd, because being an independent woman and being nurturing are not mutually exclusive.