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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Victorianism skips a century, then returns

The Fallen Woman, an exhibition at the Foundling Museum curated by social historian Linda Nead, is a story in images and objects of how Victorian England inflated the Christian stereotype of Woman as weak and without moral judgment, and then filled this dangerous bubble with gendered notions of purity, fear of female sexuality, and political propaganda against women’s independence from men. 

A woman who had a baby out of wedlock was a social outcast. Her child was a bastard. To make this clear, the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act introduced Bastardy Clauses that made it harder and more humiliating for single mothers to obtain benefits. As wages for women were at most half those of men, even if doing the same work, few could afford to raise children on their own. Ensuring that women were economically dependent on men, while at the same time castigating them for failing to support their children when no man was present, made for an impossible situation. This was ideology dressed up as morality. 

That later Suffragist slogan, Votes for Women, Chastity for Men was not anti-sex, it was drawing attention to the double standard. Men were promiscuous – look at the picture Breakfasting Out, where the tall and whiskered tomcat in a top-hat is eyeing up the little milliner. But the message here – and boy did the Victorians love a message – is that women outside the sanctuary of home are vulnerable. If anything happened between a man and a woman, what the Victorians called a “criminal conversation”, it was the woman’s fault.

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