2015-16 Exhibition: The Fallen Woman

Exhibition at the Foundling Hospital, London       25 September 2015 – 3 January 2016

The Fallen Woman exhibition at the Foundling Hospital is one that has exciting links to those interested in women’s political rights. Opening on 25 September 2015, the exhibition applies evidence from the archives of the Foundling Hospital to highlight how the figure of the ‘fallen’ woman was popularly portrayed in art, literature and the media as Victorian moralists warned against the consequences of falling into sin.This was the era of the ‘virtuous woman’, the middle-class angel in the home, whose position in society was defined by piousness, self-abnegation and domesticity. To be any other woman, particularly one who resorted to selling her body for the sexual gratification of men, guaranteed a life of misery, hopelessness and, often, disease.

There were some brave women, however, who challenged this exclusion of the women who fell outside of the angelic image – those whose economic, social and sexual situations cast them out beyond the ‘pale’. These were the women of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA); middle-class women who were not afraid to defy the conventions of society to speak on behalf of those less fortunate.

Formed in 1870 the Association had as its main purpose the Repeal of those Acts of Parliament of the 1860s that had sanctioned the containment and forced medical examination of any woman thought to earn her livelihood through prostitution in certain ports and garrison towns.

The movement, in which the LNA worked in parallel with the mixed-sex National Association for Repeal, was successful with the Acts being repealed, after a long battle, in 1886.

The exhibition shows how in paint, print and other media the image of the ‘fallen woman’ was promulgated in society – to both construct and prolong the myth of the ‘outcast’. It also shows how only ‘previously respectable’ women bearing their first illegitimate child had their petitions considered by the hospital.

This clearly highlights the class perspective inherent in their admissions policy and also the importance of seeing the political challenge posed by the LNA as significant – not only for the redrawing of what it meant to be a fallen woman, but for the challenge it posed to the definitions of social class and the female ‘sisterhood’ in nineteenth-century Britain.

© 2015 Maureen Wright PhD

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