Virginity, Chastity and Purity: Defining Women Past and Present

I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘unmarried mothers’* recently: I gave a paper on perceptions of these women in Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century to the University of Hertfordshire’s History Lab, and I’m currently reviewing Pat Thane’s and Tanya Evans’s Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth Century England. Virginity, chastity, purity are all themes interwoven through the narrative. So when my colleague Jennifer Evans spotted this piece by Jessica Valenti in The Guardian newspaper on American Purity Balls earlier this week, she forwarded it to me.

Maintaining Purity 

Briefly put, Purity Balls are father-daughter dances, described as ‘Christ-centred evenings’. According to the FAQ section of the Purity Ball website,

The Purity Ball brings fathers and daughters together for an elegant evening of dining, discussion, and decision. Fathers commit to their daughters that they will remain pure, and ask their daughters for the same commitment. The fathers also commit to pursue the hearts of their daughters by working on strengthening their relationships and letting them know how much they love and care for them.

Essentially — though not explicitly stated on the website — the teenage girls take a pledge to abstain from sex until marriage.

Credit: Symphony999 via Wikimedia Commons

While I was in the States recently at a conference on representations of unwanted pregnancy in popular culture, I had lunch with one of the delegates who had actually attended a purity ball as part of her research. She suggested that few of the girls there truly comprehended what the event was about, and that, for most, it was actually another form of prom: an opportunity to wear a pretty dress and have fun with friends.  But I digress, somewhat.

What fascinates me about Purity Balls, is the message that they promote. If purity is equated with virginity, then — to echo Jessica Valenti’s piece in The Guardian — the implication is that without their virginity, these girls are damaged goods.[1]  

This was essentially the language of an Ireland in the not too distant past.

Unmarried Mothers

Reading the files in the Department of the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) relating to the introduction of Unmarried Mothers Allowance in 1973, I came across a stack of letters from Irish citizens criticising the payment.  The language is telling.  One woman was critical of the government for showing concern for the unmarried mother: the woman ‘who has sinned’ (emphasis added). [2]  The woman who became pregnant outside of marriage was treated with suspicion, viewed with disdain.

In 1972, along with six other women, Maura O’Dea founded Cherish, an organisation to support unmarried mothers.  Revealingly, though, they chose to use a different term in their aims: ‘to make the single mother and child accepted members of society’ (emphasis added). The following year, Woman’s Way published a frank article on the problems confronting unmarried mothers. As the magazine bluntly put it, ‘The single pregnant woman is a reality. Her baby is a person. Why should either of them suffer so because we chose not to accept a fact of life?’[3] 

‘Damaged Goods’

The advice column of that magazine is filled throughout the 1970s and 1980s with anguished letters from women who had become pregnant outside of marriage. Some worried that they would be asked to leave their family home, for others this had already happened. One mother expressed concern for her daughter’s reputation after the married man for whom she had become pregnant had offered to leave his wife and set up a new home with her. So far the pregnancy had been ‘hushed up’, concealed by sending her to live with her aunt, but if she lived openly as a family with the father of the child ‘everyone will know they’re not married and that the child is illegitimate’.[4]  Although she was chastised by the advice columnist for putting the opinions of others ahead of her daughter, the letter revealed much about how society perceived (or were assumed to perceive) unmarried mothers. This concern for reputation could also be found in a letter from the neighbour of an elderly couple. As the couple approached their fiftieth wedding anniversary, their grown-up children wanted to plan a party. The couple were reluctant, fearful that the event might somehow lead to the revelation that they were only forty-nine years married and that their first child had been conceived outside wedlock. Even after all those years, the neighbour explained, ‘They’ll never live it down if their family find out now’.[5]

An angry and heartfelt letter, published in 1985, offered the ultimate commentary on society’s treatment of unmarried mothers. In it, the woman wrote of her regret of giving her child up for adoption, and how she wished she still had her baby girl with her. But she had been compelled to place the child for adoption because of ‘so-called friends and neighbours, gossiping and looking at me as if I had the plague or worse’.[6]

The idea of women as ‘damaged goods’ clearly echoes across the pages of such publications.


* Note on language: Although ‘single parent’ is the correct and accepted term today, I have deliberately used the expression ‘unmarried mothers’ as it would be anachronistic to use a modern term when speaking of an earlier period.

[1] The Guardian, 5 May 2014.

[2]  2004/21/54, Department of the Taoiseach, National Archives of Ireland.

[3] Woman’s Way, 19 January 1973.

[4] Woman’s Way, 14 June 1985.

[5] Woman’s Way, 31 May 1985.

[6] Woman’s Way, 4 October 1985.

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.

2 thoughts on “Virginity, Chastity and Purity: Defining Women Past and Present

  1. This idea of virginity as representation of a woman’s value also appears in our research on how South Asian women were treated by the British immigration control system. Many people are unaware that numerous South Asian women were given gynecological examinations by doctors under orders from UK immigration control staff in the 1970s, euphemistically called ‘virginity tests’.

    A brief overview of our research on this topic can be found here:

    And our forthcoming book can be found here:

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