02/21/2014 01:12 EST | Updated 04/22/2014 05:59 EDT

The Virginity Defence

The Huffington Post Canada is proud to be a sponsor of the prestigious RBC Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. In the weeks leading up to the March 10 announcement of this year's prize winner, we are publishing blog posts from each of the five finalists. Here is Charlotte Gray, author of the short-listed The Massey Murder, on why in 1915, a woman's virginity would trump a murder charge.


Today, if I see a mention of "virginity" in a news story, it's likely to involve members of fundamentalist religious sects (particularly Christian or Muslim) who attach unbearable importance to a peculiar female membrane. This membrane is the hymen in an adolescent girl's vagina, before she has intercourse for the first time.

Even by mentioning "hymen," I've probably lost half my readers. Who wants to think about something so intimate, and suggestive of physical violation? Few young women talk about their hymens these days, and many are eager to get rid of virginity as soon as they begin dating. They talk about "having sex," rather than any of the euphemisms of a few decades ago ("losing my cherry" was a particularly gruesome one). As a world-weary 28-year old explained to me, "It's hard enough being a teenager today, without having that hurdle to cross too. Anyway, who cares?"

Given such attitudes, it seems ludicrous how much people cared about virginity a hundred years ago. But they did care. In post-Victorian Canada, virginity supposedly typified the ideal woman - an ethereal being who kept herself "pure" until marriage, and, once she had walked up the aisle in white, disappeared into an exclusively domestic existence consisting of babies and household management. A decent woman was a demure woman.

This ethereal being was almost entirely a myth. Middle-class women in Canada, like women elsewhere, were frustrated by their limited options. They had helped settle this country: Why shouldn't they have a say in how it was run? In New Zealand, women had been voting in national elections since 1893: In Britain, suffragettes were throwing rocks and bombs and going on hunger strikes for the right to vote. Canadian tactics were less aggressive, but Canadian women were demanding the vote alongside access to universities, medical and law schools, and decent jobs in the professions. They didn't want to be angels floating around the home: They wanted a bigger role in public life.

At the same time, many working class women here already had jobs - but they were lousy jobs, keeping middle-class homes running. These women had no time to be delicate angels: They were too busy cooking, cleaning, scrubbing, ironing and looking after other women's children, for low wages and with little job security. Their priority was not a pair of wings: It was better working conditions.

Yet the mythology persisted, and in 1915, when Carrie Davies went on trial for killing Bert Massey, virginity - the state of physical innocence - was fetishized. If a woman lost her virginity before marriage, she had forfeited the right to be considered "pure": In fact, she had become a pariah or, in the euphemism of the day, a "fallen angel" or a "soiled dove." What's more, it was assumed she only had herself to blame for this fall from grace. Such a girl must have invited seduction, just like the dark-eyed vamps who populated the silent movies of the day. So she was fair game for any red-blooded man, who could not be expected to control his natural impulses around such a seductress.

Carrie Davies, an 18-year old British immigrant who had worked for the Masseys for two years, probably could not have parsed the meaning of virginity (and the hypocrisy surrounding it) for herself. But she certainly knew what happened to "fallen angels." She saw vulnerable prostitutes on the streets of Toronto on her afternoons off; she regularly read newspaper stories about unmarried girls who swallowed poison or threw themselves off bridges because they were pregnant. So in early February 1915, when Bert Massey made a fumbling pass at her, she was shocked and scared. As she repeated over and over again in the next few days, "He tried to ruin me."

Nonetheless, her fears alone probably wouldn't have been enough for her to escape a murder rap. After all, she stayed in the house the night after Massey's attempted seduction, so she couldn't have been too traumatized. Moreover, she had shot her boss in cold blood, while he was walking up his front path, unaware of the danger lurking behind his front door. And the Masseys were one of Canada's most powerful families: Who would believe her word against those of Bert's three-piece-suited brother?

But Hartley Dewart, K.C., Carrie's clever lawyer, knew exactly how to manipulate the reverence for virginity within early twentieth century Canada. When two doctors attested during the murder trial that Carrie's hymen was intact, he knew that this catapulted her onto the high moral ground. Far from being either a murderer or a "fallen angel," she was a victim. Bert Massey, as Dewart argued in Carrie's defence, was nothing more than a brute. "This was not manslaughter, this was brute slaughter!" Carrie had been fighting for her life and honour.

It was a powerful speech - a courtroom tour-de-force that would cut no ice today. A woman who shot a man in cold blood, for whatever reason, would be unlikely to walk in our world. Virginity is simply not that powerful a weapon, in a world where women take for granted rights and roles beyond Carrie's imagination.

But wait...that idea of the importance of virgin-white purity lingers on in our culture, in form if not in fact. In 2014, nine out of ten brides choose to walk up the aisle wearing white gowns. I suspect that none would claim to be angels, but (perhaps unconsciously) they are still flaunting the mythological importance of virginity.