Musings on Victorian Double Standards

Bending down to pick up ten dollars which dropped from her hand, she felt a jolt to her bottom-someone had kicked her. She looked up only to see that the violator had run off laughing at her. His laughter was a physical response to his amusement- her body bent over and her choice of life. As a prostitute Dorcas Doyan aka Helen Jewett had to fend for herself thus keeping track of her money was essential. The characteristics Doyen possessed that allowed her to manage life as a nineteenth century prostitute imbued her with traits that the Victorian time period reserved for men, not women. The assailant knew who she was-and had likely been a beneficiary of the titillation that her vocation routinely promised. Out in the theater however, in the public space he felt privileged enough in his maleness to assault and ridicule her.

This male privilege on a macro level exemplifies the control men had during the Victorian period dictating social mores and determining the distinctions between what was considered acceptable and what was socially deviant. From the houses of worship, street corner stoops and senate floors men could dwell in and out of literal and figurative spaces of respectability while escaping at will into “dens of iniquity” whenever they felt the inclination. Looking back into the world of Dorcas Doyen, nineteenth century prostitute provides us with yet another tale of double standards within Victorian ideals of social morality.

Read about Dorcas Doyen’s life in Patricia Cline Cohen’s “Murder of Helen Jewett.”

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