In all the discussion of World War I, its heroism and its futility, a word is often used to describe the soldiers who died. They are the fallen. Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) memorably describes them in his poem For The Fallen:
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
When it comes to women, though, the fallen are not the country’s heroines. Their flesh has been used in a different way altogether. They are women who have dared to have a sexual experience outside marriage. In Biblical terms, the fallen woman has fallen from grace and into sin. As it has been from time immemorial, there is one rule for men and another for women, even in appropriating the language. Fallen women may be prostitutes, adulterers, rape victims, women who have simply experienced sex in a way that deviates from the social norm within marriage, whether by choice or not. They appear in much 19th century literature, art and opera, and on the whole they have to be punished, usually by dying. The term fallen woman is now considered anachronistic, and cheers to that. But how unfair that for so long one word could be used to celebrate male wartime sacrifice, and to condemn female sexual activity.
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