The Voiceless Fallen Woman

As previously explored, the 1800’s saw a rise in women using the novel to express their voice, but what of the women who had no voice? In Victorian Britain prostitution was a prominent occupation, however, these women were disregarded within society. Within society’s separate-sphere ideology, women were expected to be pure, have moral values and domestic virtues, all of which were not associated with prostitutes. [1] Prostitutes were regarded as ‘fallen women’ and an example of the ‘unrespectable poor’. Judith Walkowitz argues that by the mid-1800’s prostitution had become an activity ‘structured and defined by the law’ which allowed for the passing of the first Contagious Diseases Act in 1864. [2] Under the Act, which was originally enforced in garrison towns, women suspected of prostitution would be arrested and forced to undergo vaginal inspection. If a woman was to have venereal disease, they would be held in hospital until cured. [3] Leonore Davidoff argues ‘the Contagious Diseases Acts reflects the view of the social underclass being degraded and powerless, yet potentially threatening and disloyal’. [4]

The double standard of sexual morality led to the involvement of Josephine Butler in her aim to remove the Act as it was enforced to protect men whilst abusing women. Through Butler’s involvement the discriminating nature of the Act was exposed. [5] In her campaigns Butler spoke of a sexual double standard of men being removed of all responsibility of spreading sexually transmitted diseases, and brought forward the feminist message of prostitution being the sacrifice of women for the pleasure of men. [6] Butler actively listened to prostitutes’ experiences of being manhandled by the police and medical examiners, however, her speeches were never enough to remove the stigma of the fallen women. [7] Prostitutes continued to be viewed as an ‘infection of respectable society’: a stereotype which remained prominent throughout Victorian literature. Prostitutes were ‘outcast women’ who remained to be subjected to the division of ‘pure’ and ‘fallen’ women during and after the repeal of Contagious Diseases Acts in 1886. [8]

[1] J. R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1980) p7

[2] J. R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State. p13

[3] J. Murray, Strong Minded Women and Other Lost Voices from 19th Century England, Pantheon Books (New York, 1972) p424

[4] L. Davidoff, ‘Class and Gender in Victorian England: The Diaries of Arthur J. Munby and Hannah Cullwick’,  Feminist Studies 5 (1979) p88

[5] S. Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies, Pandora Press (London, 1985) p7

[6] S. Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies. p8

[7] D. Grube, At the Margins of Victorian Britain: Politics, Immorality and Britishness in the Nineteenth Century, I. B. Tauris (London, 2013) p109

[8] J. R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State. p4

Images: Unknown Artist, The New Swell’s Night Guide, estimated 1847, British Library Shelfmark: C.194.a.1217


3 thoughts on “The Voiceless Fallen Woman

  1. I really loved how you gave a voice to the ‘voiceless’ in this particular post because as we know from the contagious diseases acts being implemented by the British government in the first place, prostitutes certainly did not have the support from much of the political elite. Your referencing is outstanding and your attention to Davidoff, definitely illustrates how ‘fallen women’ were perceived by higher society to be dangerous and even dirty.

    I would also argue that Butler is a figure that should be focused on more by feminist historians, therefore your paragraph on emphasizing and celebrating her successful efforts to expose the harshness of the contagious diseases act was refreshing and exciting to read.


    1. I think Amy’s comment pretty much hits the nail on the head! I also love how your blog posts link very clearly to one another and, with regards to this post, you have given a voice to the voiceless without creating a distorted image of reality. I love the way you have structured your work; admittedly this is something I often struggle with. However, by initiating your post with background information/ context from the 1800’s then introducing key figures such as Butler you provide the reader with a well-rounded argument making it clear as day!


  2. Some excellent comments on your latest blog. You might consider responding, focusing on one or two of the points made, as in this way a dialogue develops and new ideas are (hopefully) generated.

    This is a well-paced, tightly focused post and what strikes me is the apparent absence of representations (voices of) the prostitute in mid – late 19th century literature, say compared to the 18th century. Then we see male authors “voicing the prostitute” through say Moll Flanders and Fanny Hill. Did Butler fulfil a similar role? She too gave prostitutes a “voice”, but her narrative of prostitution was different to say Defoe. Another comparison might be with Elizabeth Robins (feminist writer and suffrage activist) who in 1913 published a novel on prostitution “My Little Sister”. It conveys the horrors of prostitution.


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