The idea that Eve, from the biblical story in the Book of Genesis, was the prototypical fallen woman has been widely accepted by academics, theologians and literary scholars. Eve was not expelled from Eden because she had sex outside of marriage; rather she fell from a state of innocence because she ate forbidden fruit from the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That is, Eve and then Adam reached for knowledge, but in reaching for it, they disobeyed God and lost their original innocence - understood as the perfect integration of their bodies and souls, the harmony between their desires and their knowledge. In this interpretation, the consequence was that it became difficult for them to know the truth and love the good. The temptation offered to Adam and Eve in the story was to know what God knows and to see what God sees. It was a temptation based on envy and a desire to be like God. Thus, theologically speaking, there is a metaphor that is related to the Fall of Man from a state of grace as well as to the expulsion and subsequent fall of Lucifer from heaven.
The term "fallen" was nevertheless most often conflated with sexual "knowledge" (i.e., experience), particularly for women at a time when the social value of their sexual integrity was insisted upon. As the term narrowed to imply any socially unauthorised sexual activity, including pre-marital or extra-marital sex, whether initiated by the woman or not, it concealed the different reasons for such a "falling" out of God's and society's favour. "Fallen" was therefore an umbrella term that was applied to a variety of women in a variety of settings: she may have been a woman who had had sex once or habitually outside the confines of marriage; a woman of a lower socio-economic class; a woman who had been raped or seduced by a male aggressor; a woman with a shady reputation; or a prostitute. Furthermore, prostitution was defined in a range of ways and the "reality was that hard economic times meant that for many women, prostitution was the only way to make ends meet. Many ... were only transient fallen women, moving in and out of the profession [of prostitution] as family finances dictated."
In some cases, a woman may have been regarded as fallen simply because she was educated, eccentric, or elusive. Whatever the case may be, female fallenness as it appears in each of these renderings was the result of a woman’s deviation from social norms, in turn strongly linked to moral expectations. In the mid 19th century, for example, "For middle-class men seeking to establish a different basis for authority, from that which had been used by the nobility, moral authority became the key issue, evident in the power exercised by a man over the nuclear or bourgeois family and in his ability to regulate women's sexuality through her protection and containment in the domestic sphere."
Female dancers and performers have been regarded as deviating from social norms that expect women to stay away from the male gaze and hence have been described as belonging to the class of "fallen women". In Europe, women dancers were not socially acceptable and in Arabia, "the unveiled ghawazi, who performed publicly for men, were not respected".
One of the effects of the rapid urbanisation resulting from the Industrial Revolution in England was that a large number of prostitutes were working in the capital, London. This was assumed to be a large problem for the city and for the women themselves. Therefore it prompted many rescue and rehabilitation efforts, especially by middle-class women inspired by religious conviction or egalitarian principles or both. Some people worked on changes to legislation or served on committees to raise funds for charitable initiatives. Josephine Butler, for example, in the context of her efforts against the Contagious Diseases Acts wrote:
You must know there are many good men and women in our country who have devoted their lives to the work of reclaiming prostitutes, and of offering protection and aid to women and young girls, who through poverty, ignorance, or evil companionship are in danger of falling into sin. And because several persons working together can do more than each working alone, societies have been formed for this purpose, one of which, the Rescue Society, has in the last seventeen years, opened the doors of its various Homes to no less than 6,722 fallen women and girls, of which number seventy out of every hundred have been restored to a virtuous life, whilst lack of funds has compelled it reluctantly to refuse admission to many others who implored its aid.
Many of the homes were "strict, punitive and vengeful" but Urania Cottage, set up and managed by Charles Dickens with the help of his rich, philanthropic friend Lady Burdett-Coutts was "more agreeable", run with "good sense and good will."
Most famously, the Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone worked directly with fallen women to try to rescue them from their circumstances. At considerable risk to his political career, Gladstone spent a great amount of his own money and time on this effort, assisted by his wife, Catherine Gladstone. "There are more entries in Gladstone's diaries about prostitutes than there are about political hostesses, more recorded visits to the fallen women on the streets of London than recorded attendances at the balls and soirées of the grandes dames of polite Victorian society."
Rescue work among prostitutes was also part of the missionary work done by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), whose members also petitioned against alcohol and opium. In a speech to the National Purity Congress in 1895, WCTU temperance campaigner and social reformer Jessie Ackermann said:
From time immemorial we have read of fallen and outcast women, forms of speech used only in reference to our sex. To my mind the time has now come when we should apply the same term to sinful man ... the great weakness of our rescue work in the past has been its onesidedness. It has busied itself in reclaiming women, while men have been passed by.
What "amounted to conventional Victorian 'rescue work' for 'fallen' women" was carried out in the Philippines during the Philippine–American War on behalf of the United States Government as part of a much broader "social purity" campaigns to prohibit prostitution and alcohol and other "social evils".
As a genuine social concern as well as a metaphor for artistic explorations of vice and virtue, the theme of the fallen woman has a notable place in art and in literature. In some cases, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Blake, the artist/author has produced companion pieces in both forms.
Aside from the Bible, it was John Milton's famous and influential poem Paradise Lost, (1667) that communicated the story of the Fall and its consequences most powerfully. The idea of the fallen woman is most closely related to those sources which represent the fallen woman as an agent, as opposed to a passive receptacle, in the act of her undoing. For example, in "longing to reign rather than serve" Eve is ambitious for knowledge. The difference between these religious renderings of the iconic figure and the fallen woman presented in most 19th century texts is that the latter is suppressed/ disempowered/ silenced in her representations: "[T]he Victorian fallen woman is usually depicted ... as a mute, enigmatic icon ... who sleeps through the poem that probes her nature".
Lord Byron uses the idea of the fallen woman to relate vice and virtue and consider the effects of infidelity and inconsistency in his poem Mariano Faliero, Doge of Venice.
William Blake's series of poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789-1794) contrasts the two states in the context of industrialising England, the context in which women became more likely to "fall" as a result of great social change. Blake's poetry explores his deep concern about poverty and its effects as well as the relations between those in authority with those who are controlled by it, including moral generalities and the relations between the sexes. The connections between the Fall of Man and societal restrictions on sexual love are part of those broader concerns.
The theme of the fallen woman was becoming increasingly popular at the time that Rossetti began his picture Found. Conceived in 1851, it was described by Helen Rossetti as follows: "A young drover from the country, while driving a calf to market, recognizes in a fallen woman on the pavement, his former sweetheart. He tries to raise her from where she crouches on the ground, but with closed eyes she turns her face from him to the wall."
William Holman Hunt, like Rossetti a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, spent some time searching for a 'suitable' subject for his painting The Awakening Conscience and he "found it after reading about Peggotty and Emily in Charles Dickens's novel David Copperfield, and after frequenting the London streets where fallen women could usually be found."
The character of Esther, who becomes a prostitute in Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton (1848) is an example of a fallen woman being used to illustrate the social and political divide between rich and poor in Victorian England. The novel is set in a large industrial town in the 1840s and it "gives an accurate and humane picture of working-class life ... Esther is presented as something other than merely a bad girl; the abyss into which she falls is the same gulf that separates Dives from Lazarus". In terms of the construction of the novel, the conventions of the time required that sexual actions took place offstage or not at all. Readers (particularly female readers) were encouraged to imagine and condemn the actions that caused the character's fall but as with other authors concerned about the effects of poverty on people at the time, especially women, Gaskell's "conscious aim is to bring Christian principles as a mediating force within class antagonisms."
Aside from the well known critiques of society in his novels such as David Copperfield, (1850), Charles Dickens set up and managed Urania Cottage—a home for homeless women. He disagreed with the prevailing idea that once corrupted, especially by prostitution, and therefore fallen, a woman could not be uncorrupted or redeemed. Rather he wanted to treat them well and train them for other employment but he needed to convince his benefactor that it was possible for fallen women to return to mainstream life.
Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) explores the consequences for a heroine who became a fallen woman as a result of being raped. This is a key point because the author is trying to show that the consequences are independent of the heroine's actions or intentions.
In cinema, the fallen woman is one of the earliest representatives of the female prostitute, and the theme had great appeal during the silent era. By the mid 20th century, when women had access to a variety of jobs and their sexual activity was no longer necessarily associated with moral corruption, the fallen woman as a theme was no longer relevant. The films sometimes intended to convey a moral lesson; sometimes they were a social commentary on poverty; sometimes they explored the idea of redemption or the consequences of coercion; and sometimes they were about self-sacrifice. These contrasts, such as innocence and experience; sin and redemption; vice and virtue, as well as ideas about corruption, class, exploitation, suffering and punishment, build on themes in earlier literature. Some films, such as The Red Kimona (1925) in which the fallen woman was allowed to live happily at the end, were subject to severe censorship. The Road to Ruin (1928) was banned. Protect Us (1914) and The Primrose Path (1931) are films that emphasize the fault of the woman. The Jungle (1914) and Damaged Goods (1919) consider the element of coercion, whereas poverty is important in Out of the Night (1918), The Painted Lady (1924), and Die freudlose Gasse (Joyless Street, 1925), the latter film directed by G. W. Pabst.