We have discussed, throughout the past few weeks, traditional gender roles of both men and women, during the late 19th century, the Victorian Era. An aspect of the traditional role of women that we have yet to go into detail on, is sexuality and the traditional expectation of a woman to remain pure outside of marriage. This week, we plan to discuss this and how it pertains to Ada, who was labeled by the press as a “fallen woman.” But, what is a “fallen woman” and what does that term say about the expectation of women at this time, what becomes of women who fail to hold themselves to that standard, and how does that alter our basic understanding of Ada Brown in her murder case?
Traditional Role of Women (Purity and Domesticity)
To understand the importance of and the difference between what is a “fallen woman” and the expectation of a traditional woman, I am going back to discuss what the expectations of a traditional woman is, especially regarding sexuality and their role in society. The Separate Spheres Ideology, which we have discussed in previous weeks, explains the two very different roles in which men and women were traditionally expected to play in society. There were two spheres: the public sphere and the private sphere. Men were part of the public sphere. In this sphere, men worked and earned a living for themselves and their dependents, women and children. Women were part of the private sphere. In this sphere, women took care of the home and the children, living quite domestic lives (Laslett and Brenner 386). There were many traditional stereotypes and differences that were expected of men and women. It was expected of men to be well educated and to have opinions about politics and society. Men were also seen as powerful, logical thinkers, independent, and sexual beings. Women were, on the other hand, expected to be agreeable, passive, domestic, emotional and susceptible to madness/hysteria, and were expected pure until marriage (Radek). Whenever, especially women, stepped outside of these traditional expectations, roles, and character traits, they were viewed negatively and often treated differently because of it.
According to Professor Kimberly M. Radek, Historian Barbara Welter argues that there are four main virtues that a “true” woman must have. These four virtues are; piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity (Radek). The “true” woman was not supposed to have sexual urges or sexual desire. Therefore, for a woman to be sexual active and to feel sexual desire, was abnormal and deviant. Women were expected to wait until marriage to have sex and to only have sex within the confines of a marriage. Marriage was the only place for and reason for sex. Through sex, a woman’s duty was to have children and then to raise those children.
It is important to note that these traditional expectations were, more often than not, expectations of middle-upper class women. Lower, working class women often failed to uphold these expectations and were looked down on because of it. Different aspects within the lives of working class women and families forced these women outside of their traditional gender roles, which is why it does not come to us as a big surprise that someone like Ada Brown, was labeled as a “fallen woman.”
The term “Fallen Woman” is used to describe a woman who has lost her innocence and thus fallen from the grace of god. This expression was used to describe the belief that in order for a woman to be socially and morally acceptable, her sexual experiences should happen only when she is married. Something as little as a woman having knowledge of sexual experiences was frowned upon because this meant that she had the experience (Mills 5). Woman’s sexual integrity held some value, because of this, if a woman had any sexual experience what so ever, it would be much harder for her to find a man to marry her.
“Fallen” is more of an umbrella term. There are many different situations that can put a women in this category. Having sex outside of marriage, being seduced by a male aggressor, a woman with a bad reputation, a prostitute, or even being educated (Auerbach). Women, especially those of higher class, were to live up to the strict standards that society placed on them (Kubiesa 3). If they veered away from these standards, they were deviant. All of these examples stated above show the female is being deviant, which caused her to be labeled as “fallen.” Deviance is the main point that sticks out to us when we are talking about Ada. This is because she was believed to have been sleeping with or fooling around with not just one but two men.
As it pertains to Ada Brown
To begin, in past posts we have concluded that Ada is not the atypical woman within the time period, but does not fall under the category of a “New Woman.” As the first paragraph discusses the average woman in the time period, we see the words “agreeable, passive, domestic, emotional” and pure (meaning virgin until marriage). As we know, all of which do not characterize our victim. Her defense against Harrison in regards to the $10 counters most of the attributes listed. Further, the four virtues piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity also do not describe Ada. The overlapping expectation of women to not have sex before marriage within both a typical fallen woman and a typical upper middle class woman highlights the society’s tendency to fall onto religious beliefs. Ada had her daughter before she was married, breaking the whole idea of purity in sexuality that was dominant within the Victorian Era. Again, as Sam stated above, these are the expectations of upper-middle class women, but I believe that general society expected women to uphold these morals. The lower class women and their past/decisions have a direct correlation on whether or not they have “failed” to uphold the standards and as we know, this is true in Ada’s case. As Lauren stated, the idea of being “fallen” is a widely interpreted term, but in Ada’s case we are focused on sex before marriage, and being deviant. We can even infer that her defiance against Harrison would be something that could consider her to be fallen. The case at large was not handled in a way that Ada’s life was taken into consideration. She was left to bleed out because she seemed to be too far gone, could this be a result of the association of poor women within the location of her death? Could it be because she is a woman in a male dominated society? You be the judge.
Auerbach, Nina. “The Rise of the Fallen Woman.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 35, no. 1, 1980, pp. 29–52. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2933478.
Kubiesa, Jane M. “The Victorians and Their Fallen Women: Representations of Female Transgression in Nineteenth Century Genre Literature.” 2.2 (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
Laslett, Barbara, and Johanna Brenner. “Gender and Social Reproduction: Historical Perspectives.” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 15, 1989, pp. 381–404. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2083231.
Mills, Victoria. “The Fallen Woman and the Foundling Hospital.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. pp. 5-7
Radek, Kimberly M. “Women in the Nineteenth Century.” Women in the Nineteenth Century. Illinois Valley Community College, 21 Apr. 2008. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <http://www2.ivcc.edu/gen2002/women_in_the_nineteenth_century.htm>.
(By: Sam, Bella, and Lauren)