We talked about the Angel of the House or the perfect woman two weeks ago and this week we’re going to talk about the other side of that extreme. We’re going to talk about the Fallen Woman or the slut/whore. Our lives, of course, are binaries. We have to have contradictions so we know what is acceptable and what is not. The Fallen Woman is the not acceptable version in the nineteenth century and, too a degree, today. I also think she is a lot more fun, but that could just be me.
So we have the perfect woman who is demure, submissive, puts husband and family above all else and is pure. The other side of it is the woman who is assertive (ew), independent (Oh hell no), and is sexually aware (oops). She’s known as the Fallen Woman. She is seen as being diseased and dirty. She is definitely not the person you wanted to be in Victorian England. Once you fell from grace, or whatever you want to call it, you were kicked out of your house and disowned, shunned from society, and the only way you could make a living is by either becoming some rich man’s mistress or to work in a brothel. Those were literally your only options and neither of them were great options. If you became some man’s mistress you did get a modicum of protection, but you weren’t allowed to re-enter society, you lived by his whims and if he treated you poorly you couldn’t complain about it, and if he decided he didn’t want you around anymore then you were kicked back out onto the street. As for the brothel aspect, STIs and disease were a huge problem for working girls, you got a room and a place to live as long as you made money and serviced men and these men could treat you however they wanted to. Plus you were scorned by society. I think modern day slut shaming had nothing on what happened to these women in nineteenth century England.
What did a woman do to become a fallen woman?
- She was seen escorted about town in an unacceptable way with a man who was not part of her family or without a chaperone. For example, going to his house without a male family member or a chaperone.
- There was no carriage rides in a closed off carriage with her and just a man – unless this man was family or she couldn’t go without a chaperone. She was allowed to be escorted unaccompanied in an open carriage though, but it had to be to a public place and they had to go directly to this public space and go directly back to her residence after the outing. Plus there also had to be some sort of courtship established prior to this incident and permission from her family needed to be granted for the outing.
- She was also not allowed to be alone in the same room as a man who is not a family member or without a chaperone unless there was permission granted by her family for that to happen. Usually he is going t propose in this case – ideally.
- If she danced too closely to her male partner she could be labelled a fallen women. People would assume you were having sex.
- She had sex. Any sort of sex. She could have been raped and it would have been her fault and she would have fallen and been considered damaged goods. You cannot be unfaithful. There is no cheating until a male heir or two have been produced. Even then she was not allowed to be unfaithful.
- She killed someone.
Basically if you were seen doing anything suspicious with a man outside of your family you got labelled as fallen. Once you were labelled as a fallen woman that was it for you. You could never have it reversed. If you were proven to be fallen or caught in a compromising position this affected your family even. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice the character of Lydia runs away with Mr. Wickham and she does this without permission from her chaperones and she goes alone. Everyone, probably rightfully so, assumes she has lost her virginity to Mr. Wickham. She falls and if she did not get married to him her entire family would have been affected by it. A woman’s moral worth, and hence her family’s, was tied to her virginity. When Lydia falls she has to marry Mr. Wickham to save her sisters. If she didn’t then her sister’s morality and suitability would come into question and they would probably never be able to marry anyone – ever. They wouldn’t be considered appropriate. Women during this time did not inherit (again there are exceptions for the nobility) so they had to marry in order to have a home. Lydia not marrying would have forced her sisters into the street after their father passed away unless Mr. Collins, their cousin, took pity on them and kept them on after their father’s death. This would have been highly unlikely as Mr Collins would have also had his own family to support.
In the last chapter of Pride and Prejudice, Austen gives the reader an update on what happens to all of the characters in the book. When discussing Lydia’s outcome we learn that she was basically cut off from the family. She disgraced them and put them in a precarious position. We also learn that Kitty was kept away from Lydia so Lydia couldn’t influence her in a negative way. This shows that the fallen woman is not a good place to be for women and it shows us how they’re treated. They weren’t treated with sympathy by their families or society.
Mostly being a fallen woman involves you being sexually aware outside of your martial bed. However, you can get labelled as fallen for doing something against your husband and home. Usually this means you killed your kids (committed infanticide) or you killed your husband. There are a lot more things a woman can do in this context that could get you labelled, but I want to focus on the big one. Committing murder is just a no-no period, but doing it as a woman and against your family, which you’re supposed to hold above all else – including yourself – is a huge deal at this time. This doesn’t mean it didn’t happen though. There is a play called Arden of Faversham by author unknown and it is about a woman who not only commits adultery, but murders her husband. Her punishment for her crime was to burned at the stake. Despite the gruesomeness of her demise the play is pretty funny. It’s a comedy of errors to be exact. I definitely suggest giving it a read if you’re interested.
What this all means today. We’ve gone through two women’s rights movements and are currently in a third. The second wave of feminism had an emphasis on sexuality, especially a woman’s sexuality. This definitely changed how women interact with sex. Women are more free with expressing it and in engaging in intercourse outside of a marriage bed. However, there are still repercussions for women who engage in sex outside of marriage. I’m sure you’ve heard women being called sluts or whores for having multiple partners or for having sex, while men don’t get labelled as such. Families still get upset if their daughters are having sex. We as a society still think prostitutes are subhuman and dirty and don’t really consider the reasons as to why women choose or are forced into this industry. And I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but women cannot engage in sex with themselves and usually subvert their desires to that of a man’s. This means that men still, too a degree, control a woman’s sexuality in literature and film especially.
I love the show Sex and the City and the character of Samantha especially. She is unabashedly sexual and enjoys sex both with herself and with men and women. There was an episode where Carrie has published a collection of her columns into a book format and has asked Samantha for her help in marketing the book. Unfortunately, Carrie walks in on Samantha giving the FedEx boy oral. Carrie then spends most of the episode berating Samantha for what she does in her own sex life. Samantha finally tells Carrie to cut it out and to let her live her life how she wants it. And this is what we as a society need to reach. We need to stop worrying about what is going on in someone else’s bedroom, or office, and to be nonjudgmental. As a society we have done a good job with that so far, but we can definitely speed up that process. A big step in this direction was from disassociating a woman’s worth with her hymen and for not calling her a fallen woman. We have deviant women today and eventually I’d like to see that label dropped altogether so we just say she is a woman.
Until next time.