The Ruined Woman
"She may be dead, or worse...she may in her hour of trial, [have] failed and fallen as woman falls never to rise again. God of heaven spare her from that. Better death than such dishonor."
The Midnight Lamp; or, Life in the Empire City (53)
At her most basic, a ruined woman is a woman who has had premarital sex. In the world of dime novels, this is a serious, and often deadly, sin; such relations are frequently described as "a fate worse than death." Though the ruined woman occasionally finds love and satisfaction, there seems to be no middle ground in the world of dime novels. The stories are either redemptive with happy endings or cautionary with tragic endings. Either way, the story of the ruined woman demands resolution, and for these women there are only two ways out: marriage or death.
In fairy-tale dime novels, when the woman is seduced by an overtly villainous man whom she loved in good faith and who refused to do right by her, she finds her happy ending in spite of her misfortune. She may temporarily lose her sanity and/or the respect of those around her on the way, but she will find her way to a good marriage, which in the dime novel is tantamount to perfect happiness.
In the moralistic, sensational dime novels, this is not the case, and marriage cannot erase the stain on a woman's honor. In these novels, premarital sex almost inevitably results in death for women, sometimes even by their own hand. This view of the unredeemable nature of premarital sex also permeates novels which do not feature ruined women. For example, in novels that feature The Kidnapping Victim, where men kidnap women who have refused to marry them, the men sometimes use the threat of this "fate worse than death" for coercion. These novels make no distinction between consensual sex and rape, and the threat usually underscores the villainy of the man and the dire situation of the woman.
But whatever their ends, the ruined women in dime novels are strong, passionate, and determined. Click on the pictures below to explore their stories.
Meet the Women: