Feminism and the ‘fallen woman’

The legacy of the women’s movement obsessive concern with prostitution has permeated the historical examination of Victorian political debate, and still persists as an issue of debate in contemporary feminist discussion and campaigns. Judith Walkowitz addressed this issue in 1980’s contemporary feminist debate;“The radical feminist attack on commercial sex has its roots in earlier feminist campaigns against male vice and the double standard.”[1]

The nineteenth century image of the prostitute and how it became a diverse device in political discourse was reflective of the twofold representation of women. The image of the ‘angel in the house’ and the ‘fallen woman’ were both based in narrative and notions of social purpose but do not acknowledge the diverse experience of women. Lisa McLaughlin discusses the duality in moralised ideas about women; “This association with morality, along with a structure of dominance based on culturally defined difference, resulted in the female image enshrining both morality and vice.”[2]. The image of the prostitute, or the ‘fallen woman’, become such a symbolic channel in which moral arguments of gender difference were voiced.

The Victorian obsession with the ‘fallen woman’ however is detrimental to the experience of women in the sex trade, not only is the threat of society personified in the image of the prostitute, it has been well acknowledged that reactive political actions like the Contagious Diseases Act primarily demonized sex workers and not the men that facilitated prostitution.

The image below is one of many nineteenth century illustrative displays of the danger of vice. The image of angels in shock and disgust surround the image of death. In this depiction the threat to society is personified in the deceit of a pretty woman who is secretly a vessel of vice.


[3] Figure 1.

What this representation questions is who is the real ‘Great social evil’? The sex workers or the men who participate and facilitate prostitution – or a greater consequence of society at large? “In the nineteenth century, the prostitute is perceived as the essential sexualized female. She is perceived as the embodiment of sexuality and of all that is associated with sexuality – disease as well as passion.”[4] These representations ultimately personify the threat to society, the prostitute, as the outsider, but the reality of the prostitute was that she was not an outsider at all. She was familiar with the every day running and the every day people of most cities, her perpetuation as a victim and both as vice does not account society for the realities of the experiences of these women. Society’s historical obsession with these ‘victims’ does not mean that the issues of sex work have been addressed. Sex work has not been made safer, it is not regulated in a way that benefits or protects these women, has it ultimately condemned and demonized these women further?

In the vast representations of vice and prostitution, even in representations that attempt to address her demonized image, the voice and experience of  sex workers is frequently missing. It is as if the prostitute is a distanced narrative – does this account for its lasting legacy and significance? We need to understand the political agendas that manipulated and used the narrative of the ‘fallen woman’ and “her use as trope, her ultimate transcience and disposability”[5], and how current feminist discussion should address this legacy.

[1] Walkowitz, Judith R., ‘The politics of prostitution’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, i, 6 (1980), 123–135, p.123.

[2] McLaughlin, Lisa, ‘Discourses of prostitution/discourses of sexuality’, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, iii, 8 (1991), 249–272, p.250.

[3] Figure 1, taken from, Gilman, Sander L., ‘Black bodies, white bodies: Toward an Iconography of female sexuality in late nineteenth-century art, medicine, and literature’, Critical Inquiry, i, 12 (1985), 204–242 p.236.

[4] Gilman, Sander L., ‘Black bodies, white bodies: Toward an Iconography of female sexuality in late nineteenth-century art, medicine, and literature’, Critical Inquiry, i, 12 (1985), 204–242, p.221.

[5] Nord, Deborah Epstein, ‘The urban Peripatetic: Spectator, Streetwalker, woman writer’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, iii, 46 (1991), 351–375, p.354.


One thought on “Feminism and the ‘fallen woman’

  1. You have focused your fifth and final post on an aspect you have chosen for your final longer research blog, rather than on a topic connected to the final bloc of the course (1928 and after). The content is ok, as a blog it lacks focus and originally (remember – this is NOT an essay!). I get the feeling you rushed this post and that is a shame since you had really started to develop a strong style to accompany your growing skills in blogging. I am pleased to you your image has a corresponding title (although no copyright reference?) and your use of tags etc is good.

    It is a shame you didn’t manage to attract many comments (other than me) on your blog, since communication and dialogue is a significant element of blogging generally, then again, you have made a start and I hope it proves useful to you in the future.


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