This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

In 1864, the first Contagious Diseases Act was introduced which aimed to tackle the rapid spreading of venereal diseases (VD) in garrison towns and ports in Britain. However, the legislation only policed women who were suspected of being prostitutes, forcing them to be sexually examined; if their tests came back positive, they could face legal consequences such as imprisonment. The reforms made in 1866 and 1869 extended the Acts’ sphere of influence by enlarging jurisdiction and lengthening the time incarcerated. This brought opposition to the Acts because not only was the legislation imposed quietly demonstrating that the British government were aware of its potential controversy, but furthermore, men were not held accountable or examined, subsequently forcing the blame on women. The Act allowed any woman to be under suspicion because the police had the authority under the law to detain any woman under the pretext that she could be a prostitute. This outright abuse of power against women and the portrayal of them as the passive carriers of VD with no consideration of a male role in the issue, further represented the sexual double standard present in 19th century Britain.

In 1869, enraged by the sexual injustice women were facing, mid-Victorian feminists Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Wolstenholme founded the Ladies’ National Association (LNA) which aimed to campaign against these controversial acts. The organisation voiced their concerns against the sexual double standard and demonstrated in an article published by the Daily News that women were the victims and did not deserve the violation and humiliation caused by the medical examination. Their role in the repealing of the Acts proved indispensable as the lobbying of women against an oppressive ruling meant that women were able to actively voice their opinions and gain agency in the battle for women’s rights. Despite this, later suffragists feared being associated with the work of the LNA because they worried the discussion of sex would hinder their campaigning for the right for women to vote. As well as from the LNA, the controversial legislation also received criticism from within parliament including MPs who believed the Acts were brought in secretly without public knowledge and acknowledged the need for the Acts to apply to both men and women in order to be an effective legislation against venereal diseases.

The question of sexual morality and double standards is a topic still prevalent in today’s society despite the immense advancements in feminist thinking. Even though it took 22 years the repealing of the Contagious Diseases Acts was a small victory for mid-Victorian feminists but only a minor battle in the struggle against the oppressive patriarchal values of 19th century Britain that was reluctant to give women agency, authority, and most significantly, the vote.

By Charlie Timson