Ye of the coarser sex who often rave
At fallen women, but never try to save;
Inform me, tell me if you can,
What art thou—but a fallen man?
T. Augustus Forbes Leith
Social Change for Women—From The Fallen Woman to The Single Mother
Fallen women have been represented in patriarchal art, often inspired by religious texts such as the Bible. Religious institutions have been instrumental in shaping society’s beliefs and attitudes about sexuality and motherhood. Throughout history, women have been pressured by society to choose between motherhood and sexuality. Before the relatively recent social change for women brought about by the feminist movement, women were viewed as intellectually inferior as well as physically weaker and in need of protection from men. Ironically, that protection was mostly from other men. According to religious dogma, the price of that protection was obedience.
Marriage was presented as a refuge from danger for women as well as a reward for her abstention from sex and her ability to produce heirs.
One of the most important developments that brought about the greatest social change for women was the birth control pill. Because society’s patriarchal structure is dependent upon controlling reproduction, abortion rights continue to be a political issue. In the past, pregnancy, because it is a visible sign of sexual desire, was viewed by religion as a valid reason to devaluate women. The social impact of that devaluation upon their lives was often devastating.
It was believed that women who chose to exercise their sexuality placed greater value on sex than on motherhood, and therefore lacked maternal instinct and would be unfit mothers. Women were expected not only to control and repress their own sexual desire, but that of men as well, an expectation in which it was often impossible for them to succeed. These religion-based expectations were often legislated into law. For example, in 1837, an Irish legislator stated that
“Irish females should be (…) guardians of their own honour, and be responsible in their own person for all deviations from virtue.”
However, poor women were often at the mercy of wealth employers who demanded sex in exchange for continued employment. The rules of social etiquette such men were expected to adhere to within their own social circles did not apply with women who had no recourse to social or legal remedies for their violation. As a result, many poor women who became pregnant were forced to enter homes for unwed mothers and give up their babies for adoption when they were born. While there, they were often expected to work without pay and were subjected to beatings as punishment.
These homes, often run by the Catholic church, existed in Europe, Canada and the USA, up until the late 20th century. One book, “Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945” describes the social change for women throughout that period.
Social Work—An Important Development in Positive Social Change for Women
One important aspect of social change for women regarding single motherhood was the shift from religious to secular organizations providing social services. With that change, the goal shifted from rehabilitating fallen women to providing protection and equal opportunities for single mothers and their children. Today, there is an exhibit dedicated to the memory of all the fallen women who often suffered for a lifetime by not being permitted to raise their children.
The theory behind the modern social programs designed to support, rather than punish, single mothers is that maternity should be regarded as work deserving of a living wage. Slowly, that theory was accepted and legislated into law. In the U.S., the first state to enact a law providing a pension for mothers was Illinois in 1911. Thirty-nine more states had enacted similar legislation by 1919. Perhaps for the first time in history, mothers in economic need without the support of a husband, whether single, divorced or deserted were offered aid rather than punishment.
In today’s society, there is still some judgment regarding both sexuality and motherhood. However, women are no longer expected to have to choose between them to be considered a good mother. There is still criteria that modern men use to determine who will be a good mother, but like recent social change for women, it too has changed for the better.