The Ruined Maid
Ever heard of the Victorians? You know, those old British folk that lived at some point during the endless reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901)? What was with them anyway? They were so uptight about ev-ery-thing—just… everything. They were the epitome of modesty and ultra-conservatism, that's for sure. Just take a peek at this overview of these protocols of female fashion etiquette to get a sense for how proper the Victorians insisted on being about, yeah, everything. They had rules for dressing, rules for entering the dining room, rules for courtship, rules for how to hold your teacup, rules for what to talk about—rules, rules, rules. And then some more rules.
Nowadays, the Victorians are often made fun of for being the universe's biggest prudes. While sometimes they get a little more flak than they probably deserve, there is a lot of truth to all the jokes about their prudery. After all, we'd be lying if we said things weren't a whole lot different back then than they are now. For example, it was really, really uncool to talk about sex in public. It was a major no-no. In fact, there was a general belief that sex was sort of a necessary evil. Women especially were treated, and expected to act, as if they didn't have any sexual desire. (You can read a little blurb about Victorians and sex right here if you like.)
Now, since the Victorians were so uptight about the whole sex thing, you can imagine how they would react if a woman had sex outside of marriage. That was an even bigger no-no. It was such a no-no, in fact, that once a woman crossed that bridge, she was considered "ruined," or "fallen"—totally "damaged goods," as we would say nowadays. And being ruined or fallen wasn't good at all—ostracism, disrespect, loss of reputation, and even suicide, were frequent consequences.
Luckily, not everybody in the Victorian period thought these rules were reasonable. Guys like Thomas Hardy, for example, routinely questioned Victorian sexual norms. And by routinely, we mean all the time—in his poems, in his novels (he wrote those too)—basically everywhere.
"The Ruined Maid," written in 1866 but not published until 1901, is one of Hardy's most sophisticated critiques of Victorian sexuality. The poem, which is a dialogue between a ruined woman and her un-ruined friend, questions just what exactly it means for a woman to be ruined. The "ruined maid," for example, is clearly enjoying a more prosperous life as a result of her ruin (she has nicer clothes and speaks better, for example). She is no longer forced to do the demeaning farm labor that her companion still does, which begs the question of who is actually "ruined" (the woman who slaves away in the fields, or the one who walks the streets displaying her nice skin and fancy gown?).
Why Should I Care?
It's no secret that men and women are treated differently. Men tend to get paid more for doing the same job, for example, while women can't even get some of the same jobs as men. Even in this day and age, people assume women know how to do things like cook and sew and that men don't, or shouldn't. To take an example that you may be more familiar with: if a guy at your high school dates 20 different girls, lots of people might talk about how cool and studly he is, whereas if a girl does the same thing… yeah, it is quite the opposite.
While things are always improving, they're far from perfect, and everybody knows it. It is true, however, that things are much better than they used to be, that's for sure. Back in the day, heck even as recently as the fifties, women were pretty much expected to be stay-at-home moms and handle the cooking, the housework, child-rearing, and all that jazz. Now there are female CEO's, female politicians, and pretty much female everything (except president—haven't had one of those yet). If you've ever watched Mad Men, you know exactly what we're talking about.
This is where our pal Thomas Hardy and his famous little poem "The Ruined Maid" come in. On the one hand, if you thought things were bad in the fifties, Hardy's poem shows you that it was even worse in the late 1800s. Then, if you happened to be a woman and you decided that you didn't want to wait until marriage to have sex, well kiss social respectability good-bye. Yep, it didn't matter if you made a mistake just one night—once you crossed that bridge, that was it. The charming little term the Victorians used for these types of women was "ruined" (our contemporary version is "damaged goods").
The crucial difference was, back then if you were "ruined," the consequences were really serious. Your chances of getting married pretty much went out the window, people would treat you very disdainfully, your family might magically forget about you, and on down the line. Even though the Victorian period gave us a lot of wonderful things (like Sherlock Holmes), they were very unkind to women.
As is always the case when things just aren't right, somebody, or some people, eventually start to grumble about it and do their part to make a change. Well, Thomas Hardy was one such dude. "The Ruined Maid" doesn't just matter because it is a little window into a very strange period in history. No, no, no. It matters because it shows us there were feminist grumblings even 100 years ago. Now Hardy wasn't feminist per se, but in this poem, as in his novels, he implies that Victorian women were held to an unfair, impossible standard. A woman should be considered "ruined" and treated accordingly just because she had sex, just because she didn't want to be stuck on some dirty farm digging up weeds and potatoes anymore? Hardy basically shuts that kind of backwards thinking down with this poem.