'angel in the house', 'fallen woman', Elizabeth Gaskell, Evangelicalism, feminism, Harriet Taylor, Poor Law, Reclaim the Night, Ruth, Salvation Army, sexism, The Enfranchisement of Women, unmarried mothers, victim blaming, Victorian, William Booth
Much as I enjoyed taking back the streets in yesterday’s Reclaim the Night march, I keep having that age-old feeling of ‘I cannot believe I still have to protest this shit’. ‘Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.’ ‘Whose bodies? Our bodies! Whose lives? Our lives!’ But the fact that we only reclaim one night a year, whilst victim-blaming, ‘slut-dropping’ and sexual violence abound in media and popular culture, speaks volumes.
It is difficult to find an acceptable explanation for the prevalence of this sexist discourse; often, it is excused with an apologetic ‘’twas ever thus’. Yet this insistence on ‘custom’ was already exposed as a non-argument by Harriet Taylor in ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’; and furthermore, as I discovered whilst researching the Victorian Poor Law Amendments, victim-blaming in its current form was, if not created, certainly officialised by the Victorian New Poor Law of 1834.
One assumes that victim-blaming must have existed prior to the Amendment Acts; however, after 1834 it was enshrined in law. Under the Old Poor Law, if unmarried mothers identified the father of their child, efforts would be made to trace him if he had absconded, and a marriage would be arranged, or the mother would be able to claim support from him.
In the campaign for the New Poor Law, economic arguments often mingled with faux morals, with campaigners insisting on the one hand that the parishes could not afford to pay a pension to unmarried women, and on the other that a pension would unjustly reward women for sinful conduct. They warned that the promise of public support would impel many unscrupulous women towards immoral conduct, since that was often the quickest way to marriage and/or an income. It was shocking, cried these moralists, that women, once fallen, should be offered a second chance.
Importantly, these moral arguments placed the responsibility for sin entirely on the women. This fits in neatly with Victorian Evangelicalism and the doctrine of the ‘angel in the house’, which saw women as moral guardians, not only of themselves, but also of men. Accordingly, the New Poor Law restricted unmarried mothers’ access to support, either from the state or from the fathers of their children, in the expressed hope that this would discourage women from sacrificing their virtue for more worldly considerations.
The fact that this representation got the balance of power spectacularly wrong in the vast majority of cases, and generally only served to prevent women, once fallen, from ever re-establishing themselves, was already being pointed out during the Victorian period, by such diverse figures as the social novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and William Booth of the Salvation Army. Nevertheless, the notion of women as ladies or whores, successful guardians of their all-important virtue or dissolute and undeserving creatures, has proved shamefully persistent.
And that one of many reasons why we still march to reclaim our bodies, our lives and our right to full personhood.