Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Not Worse Than Other Girls": The Convent-Based Rehabilitation of Fallen Women in Victorian Britain

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Not Worse Than Other Girls": The Convent-Based Rehabilitation of Fallen Women in Victorian Britain

Article excerpt

The Victorians were both fascinated by deviance and obsessed with its control. Victorian Britain developed a wide range of institutions designed to control, contain, or change nonconformist and problematic behaviour. The study of the control of deviance is an area of scholarship which is currently burgeoning; studies of reformatories, prisons, asylums, and borstals proliferate, many influenced by Foucault's analyses of institutions and power. While American historians have been in the vanguard of the study of moral reform movements, British historians have tended to emphasise studies of organizations which still exist in some recognizable form. What is still lacking are detailed studies of institutions which have no real equivalent in this century; perhaps the most important of these forgotten institutions was the female penitentiary for the reformation of prostitutes. The penitentiary is a doubly interesting concept because the name continues to thrive, but is attached to an institution very different in all essentials from its Victorian counterpart.(1)

In Victorian Britain, a female penitentiary was not a penal institution for the punishment of crime, but a charitable enterprise entered voluntarily by members of an outcast group, popularly known as 'fallen women.' Many fallen women were prostitutes, but the category also encompassed groups other than sexual deviants: female thieves, tramps, alcoholics, and those who were described as feeble-minded were also considered fallen, and it was seen as appropriate to rehabilitate them alongside street-walkers.(2) Penitentiaries were intended as transformative institutions, where female outcasts of many kinds could be changed into 'honest' women, a conversion which incorporated both a spiritual change from sinner to penitent, and an equally important social shift from dissolute and deviant female to respectable woman.(3) The penitentiary, despite its penal overtones, was a therapeutic community which was not experienced as unbearably punitive. As well as reforming prostitutes, Anglican penitentiaries in Victorian Britain offered shelter to the survivors of incest and sexual violence, women fleeing abusive relationships, and female alcoholics.

Most penitentiaries for sexually and morally outcast females were established and operated by another group of Victorian sexual radicals - Anglican nuns.(4) These women, who rejected their culture's assumption that marriage and motherhood were the desired goal and instinctive norm for all women, embraced celibacy as an alternative to marriage. Sisterhoods renounced the belief that sexual immorality was a unique offence against the moral order, one that resulted in irredeemable degeneration of the character. Instead, they argued that the differences between the penitents and other working-class women were more of circumstance than of character - these 'fallen women' were not essentially different from other women of the same social origins. At the same time, they did not question the need to tame, control, and elevate the "poor and pagan" working-class women with whom they lived: they founded institutions to manage the morals of women who had transgressed against sexual or social convention. Inextricably tangled within the working of the penitentiaries were ideas of paternalism, metaphysical motherhood, class and gender solidarity, and the double standard.

The first penitentiary for the institutional reclamation of fallen women was established in London in 1806. In the early 1840s there seem to have been fewer than a dozen penitentiaries within the United Kingdom, almost all linked to the Established Church, and staffed and managed by men. After the establishment of the first Anglican sisterhood in 1845, the number of penitentiaries grew rapidly: by 1903 there were 238 Anglican penitentiaries: of these, more than 200 were directed by sisterhoods.(5) In 1840 there was space for 400 women in Church of England penitentiaries, but by 1893 more than 7000 women could be accommodated each year, primarily in institutions run by Anglican nuns. …

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