Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Hopelessly Fallen” (1902)

The Hopelessly Fallen

I generally like what Kate Austin says and always admire the spirited way she says it; but I feel move to write a word of disagreement with her and others concerning this attitude towards “fallen women.” I do not know just what class of persons are included in that category; but from K. A.’s general blunt, straightforward, non-equivocating nature, and her strong determination to apply her faith under all circumstances, I suppose she means all, beginning with the young girl who has once deviated from the rigid line of conventional morality, and been found out, to the inmates of the vilest brothel.

Now I can be think that had she lived in a city, where she must inevitably sooner or later, have seen prostitutes at their trade, that she would be compelled to admit either that their native morality was of such a low type that they never could fall, or that they had certainly fallen.

A week ago, at the corner of two busy streets not far from where I write, a woman in a most shocking state of intoxication, her face bleeding from a fisticuff fight with other inmates of the house, with no clothing but a long draggled torn chemise, rushed into the street, and commenced shouting abuse at everything and everybody; a policeman arrested her; he was as decent about it as the case allowed, did no clubbing, used no bad language; the crowd that always collects at such a scene gathered rapidly; at the patrol box, the woman jeered and mocked the policemen, and finally taking in her fingers the mass of corrupt matter, blood, etc., streaming from her nostrils smeared it on the policeman’s back. “—— you,” he growled, “stop that!” She laughed with the satisfaction of oen who has done something “smart,” and winked at the crowd. When the patrol wagon came she got in lightly and gaily as her drunken reel permitted, and calling to the crowd: “Ta—ta; see you again,” was driven away.

Now what is the use of pretending to yourself that such a creature has not fallen? And she is the very ordinary type of the prostitute. In her infinite degradation, she has one compensation: she does not care. She is light-hearted about it. In her sober state, she eats her dinner, and if in company with one of her kind discusses “the points” of her latest mail acquisition. I have heard one say to another: “She can’t have that old man—that old man’s mine.” If she is alone, she manages by every species of vulgar ribaldry to draw attention to herself. If she gets herself put out, perhaps arrested, so much the better. She has no sense of shame at being frowned or stared at; she feels complimented by it; she has advertised herself. If she finds a young man easy with his money and soft-heated she devises melting stories, which an hour later in company with some old bald-headed customer she laughs at; or she drugs him and steals his watch.

If Carrie Nation comes to pray, they all kneel down and shed tears and are pious beyond conception; when she is gone they imitate her and get especially drunk to celebrate the event. You can no more talk reform to such women than to the paving stones. You cannot talk anything to them. They understand nothing but how to get a drink and how to “make something.” To do something outrageous, shocking, attention-drawing—that is their trade. The foulness of their language is simply the index of their thoughts, if what goes through their brain can be called thoughts! It matters not how they came to be so, if you are going to do anything with them at all you must begin by understanding that they are so; that they are fallen to an almost unfathomable gulf of degradation.

It is useless to fly out with, “the respectable married prostitute is just as bad.” Whether she is or not, is not to the point; it cures nothing; it does not alter this case. And my own personal belief, from much witnessing and much reflecting, is that for women who have become confirmed prostitutes there is no help. They do not want to be helped. They do not admire your society. They do not like your company. They do not want you. They like drinking, gambling, eating, and wallowing. They see others who are a little older than themselves, hideous, diseased, beggars; they hear these old hags proclaiming themselves cheap at the corner of the saloon, and boasting how high-priced they were once. But not one of them all but imagines she is gifted with a cunning to outwit that fate; and they reason no further.

For the young woman who has made the mistake of deviating fro her own rule of right-doing, the remedy is to give her a better rule if her mind is capable of receiving it—a knowledge of sexual physiology and it demands; if not, then let her stick fast to her religion and its promise of forgiveness to the transgressor. For the beginning in the bargain and sale business, even, it may be that much might be done, if she has any real character, firmness, decision. But for these others it seems to me, that nature having mercifully administered the antidote of utter moral paralysis and rot in return for their physical degradation, the most sensible thing is to let them alone. You will not make a drunken man sober by telling him that he is; you will not make the prostitute self-respecting by talking to her as if she were Leo Tolstoi. Let them both alone; that is what they want of you. And spend your efforts where they will be of some possible avail. Undoubtedly these poor wretches are the victims of economic conditions, of sexual superstitions, of religious lies, of bad heredity. While these institutions flourish, for every one you try to save, a hundred new ones will be made. Go your way and try rather to give light to the young, and let those others alone to die upon the wheel whose revolutions hurt you far more to look upon than them who are bound upon it. They are fallen; they are felled; snapped off from all moral life at the root. Such is our society. Smile.

Voltarine de Cleyre.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Hopelessly Fallen,” Lucifer the Light-Bearer, Third Series, 6 no. 21 (June 5, E. M. 302 (C. E. 1902): 161.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.