First Comes Love …

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage. It’s a children’s rhyme that most of us are familiar with, one used to taunt and embarrass other kids about kissing and love, and even worse, what comes after.

I was re-watching prior seasons of Downton Abbey recently and found myself thinking about one character, Ethel Parks, and her situation in the second season. She was one of the housemaids who made the mistake of becoming involved with a rich and titled gentleman, an Army major, when Downton was temporarily converted into a convalescent hospital for officers during World War I.

The poor girl was caught with the major in flagrante delicto by the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, and immediately sacked and sent on her way without a letter of reference, which in that era meant great difficulty in finding another job. Ethel turns up pregnant later in the season, the officer nowhere to be found now and ignoring her pleas for help.

I found it interesting how everyone reacted to her situation. While Mrs. Hughes was sympathetic once the baby was born, helping out with food and such when she could, everyone else looked at Ethel as a fallen woman who deserved her hardship and dark fate. The baby’s father could care less, and his family believed her a liar as well as a loose woman. The men of Downton Abbey, like Mr. Carson the butler, were of the opinion that men will be men, but a woman should never allow such a thing to happen.

In the third season, the discrimination of that era once again reared its ugly head and Ethel experienced more heartache. She was forced to turn to prostitution to make a living. Leave it to the gritty and determined Isobel Crawley to rescue Ethel from the streets and give the former housemaid a job in her home. Despite the Earl of Grantham thinking it scandalous and forbidding the ladies of Downton to visit the Crawley home, all ends well for Ethel and her son.

This was the prevailing attitude about a hundred years ago. It wasn’t until the 60s and free love that we saw the beginning of change. Now things are different.

Many single women have children, minus the stigma it used to carry. Women enjoy sexual freedom side by side with men. Love may come first, but for many younger people, living together before marriage is preferred. I bet when the childhood rhyme was first chanted, I doubt it even occurred to kids that it could be two men or two women, k-i-s-s-i-n-g in the tree. Gay and lesbian marriages are legal in many states and the federal government now treats same-sex marriage the same as heterosexual marriage.

Yes, we’ve come a long way baby, and I am glad of it. But watching the struggle for women’s rights during the period piece Downton Abbey has been an interesting reminder of how far we have come.