05th October 2020
A 'fall from grace' or a push from the patriarchy?
Cecily O'Neill is a local A level History student who offered to write a blog post for us, about a subject from our area, as she is hoping to read History at university. Here she writes about the York Penitentiary on Bishophill, which features in our poverty research project, with Mary Anne Steel (see here). Cecily explains some surprising features, such how as any woman seen out at night in York might have been seen as a prostitute, and how the Penitentiary management was organised along typical gendered lines. For the full article follow the link at the end.
We're very happy to hear from other local students who might want to write for us about their interest in some aspect of history relevant to our area.
The site of York Penitentiary on Bishophill
The ‘fallen woman’ is an archaic term, traditionally associated with a woman who has ‘fallen from the grace of God’. During the 19th century however, this phrase became inextricably linked to chastity. This image was perpetuated by art, literature and perhaps most prominently, the workings and structure of society itself. It was used to pigeon-hole women into their ‘rightful’ place in the home, hence why the actions of militant Suffragettes, for example, were deemed so shocking.
By entering the ‘public sphere’ a woman pushed against the deeply ingrained concept of ‘gendered space’ in Victorian society. Works of art and literature, such as Augustus Egg’s triptych ‘Past and Present’ and Dickens’ juxtaposition of Biddy and Estella in ‘Great Expectations’, explore the concept of the ‘fallen woman’ and the attributes of a ‘good’ Victorian woman respectively. Although such vivid depictions of the Victorian woman have stood the ‘test of time’, this ideal image was promoted in other, arguably more harmful ways.
Through my study of a women's penitentiary located on Bishophill in York. I have come to see how this institution promoted the Victorian theory of ‘separate spheres’, in an effort to protect society from ‘dangerous’, ‘fallen’ women. It seems to me that we have adopted a too ‘present-centric’ view of the work of reformers. Thus in order to fully understand the impact of the York Penitentiary Society (formed in 1882), we need to contextualise their actions within Victorian society.
My research into this institution, the refuge which they opened and the extent of its impact on wider society, sheds a new light on how our perception of history can become too grounded in our contemporary understanding of the past, and therefore promotes a surface level, isolated look at events, individuals and architecture. The purpose of this article is not to paint reformers in a negative light, but rather to allow one to adopt a holistic understanding of this case study in its rightful context.
To read her article in full, follow this link.