The Contagious Diseases Acts: Injustice against women civil liberties

by Haaris Mahmood

The Victorian period witnessed significant medical advancement that saved countless lives and greatly developed society and medicine overall. The 1848 Public Health Act and the introduction of chloroform in 1846 developed Victorian society by regulating greater hygiene upon society and the effective administration of anaesthesia on patients.[1]However, one controversial and debated medical transformation is the Contagious Diseases (CD) Act during the 1860’s and its impact on society. During the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, the British army and navy were diagnosed with Venereal Diseases such as Syphilis and Gonorrhoea that affected their fighting capabilities.[2] VD was exacerbated upon the troops, as they were discouraged from getting married and thus sought sexual refuge in prostitutes.[3]Prostitution was significantly high in army towns, ports, and London.[4]In 1864 it was noted that one out of three sick cases in the army was due to VD.[5]

Retrieved on 25th January 2018 from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_haymarket_at_midnight.jpg. A painting made in 1861 called The Haymarket-Midnight, by Mayhew, Henry; Tuckniss, William.This painting shows one area in Victorian London that was well-known for the number of prostitutes inhabiting the area.

A painting made in 1861 called The Haymarket-Midnight, by Mayhew, Henry; Tuckniss, William.This painting shows one area in Victorian London that was well-known for the number of prostitutes inhabiting the area. Retrieved on 25th January 2018 from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_haymarket_at_midnight.jpg. 

In an attempt to counter the spread of VD among the British troops, the British government prepared the first CD Act in 1864.[6] The acts was passed through the House of Commons in June and given royal assent in July in 1864.[7] It gave power to the police and doctors to take women/prostitutes they suspected of having VD to the magistrate. If proven guilty, they could keep them in the lock hospital for 3 months and if they refused, the police could detain them. Originally, it was placed upon 11 garrisons in England and Ireland. The 1866 CD Act made it permanent and extended the time of treatment to 1 year and the 1869 CD act opened it up to 6 new towns.[8] The reactions towards the acts varied significantly from support to opposition that affected the strength of the acts and its impact on Victorian society.

After their creation, the acts witnessed a degree of support and some campaigned for their extension. including many Tories, military men, aristocrats, physicians and members of the Catholic Church.[9]There were many arguments supporters made as to why they wanted the acts extended. In terms of morality, the acts were regulating and minimising the extent of prostitution in society.[10] Statistically, the 1867 Harveian Medical Society of London report revealed signs of moral and social improvements created by the acts and the weakening of VD overall.[11] The acts themselves held some previous credibility as the measures had already proved successful in India and Malta.[12] Finally, the acts were perceived to be very beneficial for the British army and navy, the prevention of VD was thought to be vital for the strength of British fighting capabilities. The supporters pushed further by organising a campaign for the extension of the acts. The year 1866 saw the creation of the Association for Promoting the Extension of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which worked to educate the public about the claimed benefits of the acts. Overall, the supporters seemed to gain a degree of success as they managed to get the acts extended through the 1866 and 1869 enhancements of the CD Act.

Despite gaining some initial support, there was also some hostility and opposition towards the acts. From the beginning of the acts, figures like Florence Nightingale opposed the acts and organised a VD committee to oppose the establishment of their establishemnt. Others like Harriet Martineau and the British Medical Journal all originally opposed the acts, but their campaign was weak in numbers.[13]The secrecy of the creation of the acts was seen by some as the reason the acts was originally passed, but as the years went on people became more aware of what the acts consisted off. Other features such as the police abusing the powers they were given by the acts and being brutal towards women they suspected of having VD placed the CD acts in public light.[14] Many different groups of society had issues with the CD Acts. Religiously, the opposition came from the Quakers, Presbyterians, some Protestants and some members of the Catholic Church.[15] They argued that the acts were legalising/legitimising prostitution by labelling it as a social necessity.[16]  Liberal politicians like James Stanfield argued in the House of Commons of the moral issues of the acts of legalising prostitution and attacked the strength of the statistical report of the CD acts against VD. Feminists such as Josephine Butler argued that the acts revealed double standards against women as men were not subject to the examination of VD, only women.[17] Alongside this, the act was seen to be giving too much power towards men against women. The police were given substantial power to apprehend suspicious women and any man could get a women apprehended by declaring she had VD. Eventually, the media began to come on board as the Times and Daily news began to label the act as a civil rights violation.[18]

One significant impact these acts marked was the effect of the repeal campaign and organisation of society against the CD acts. Figures such as Butler worked tirelessly by travelling 3,700 miles and attending 99 meetings to promote the repeal of the CD acts in 1870.[19] 1869 witnessed the creation of two associations promoting the repeal of the acts: The National Association for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act and the Ladies National Association.[20] They held many public meetings and petitions over the CD acts resulting in gaining 2,000,000 signatures on 10,000 petitions between 1870 and 1881.[21] This all led to the suspension of the acts in 1883 and they were finally repealed in 1886.[22] It demonstrates the power of social agitation towards government legislation but the repeal of the acts was a big success for the feminist cause. The CD acts had united women under the LNA and allowed them success in other areas as women entered the field of business, medicine and, admission into Oxford and Cambridge.[23]

This short video highlights the main origin, issues and developments of prostitution during the Victorian period, discussing the different characteristics of prostitution. It also analyses the impact of the Contagious Diseases acts on women and its effect on Victorian society and feminism.

Josephine Butler 1838-1906

Josephine Butler was a massive inspirational and influential figure for the feminist cause during the Victorian period. Born in 1838, she worked vigorously towards the emancipation of women and consolidation of their civil and human rights. After the death of her 6 year old daughter in 1863, Butler threw herself into her political work, working towards fighting for the rights of women.[24] She immediately began to work on helping children that were subjugated to prostitution and agitated parliament to change the age of consent from 13 to 16.[25] As mentioned, Butler also worked towards the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts where she was acclaimed as the leader of the crusade.[26] She not only held many public meetings and petitions but also aided in the creation of the first effective feminist agitation movement through the Ladies National Association.[27]Finally, Butler also worked towards equal education for women.[28] She pressurised Cambridge University to allow increased admission for women which resulted in women gaining access to Oxford and Cambridge and enhanced the prospects of education for women. It also led to the creation of the all-women college at Newnham and in 1867 Butler was appointed the president to the North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women. In 1906 Butler passed away but her name was known by many, Millicent Fawcett called her ‘the most distinguished women of the Nineteenth Century’ and she was witnessed as the pioneer for women’s rights. Despite this initial recognition, Butler has been forgotten, partly due to the immense work of the suffragettes that overshadowed her work. Nonetheless, Butler is clearly a massively influential figure in the feminist cause during the Victorian era.[29]

Further Resources:

 

[1]http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/h/health-and-medicine-in-the-19th-century/

[2] Malcom, E. (1999). Troops of largely diseased women’. VD, the contagious diseases acts and moral policing in late nineteenth-century Ireland. Irisih Economic and Social History, 26(1). 10.1177/033248939902600101. P2

[3]Sigworth, E. M.; Wyke, T. J. (1980). “A Study of Victorian Prostitution and Venereal Disease”. In Vicinus, M. Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. Methuen & Co. p.88/89

[4] Bartley, P. (20000;1999;). Prostitution: Prevention and reform in England, 1860-1914 (1st ed.) London: Routledge. pp- 3

[5] Walkowitz, J. R. (1982). Prostitution and Victorian society: Women, class and the state. Cambridge: Cambirdge University Press. p 49

[6] Fisher, T. (1997). Prostitution and the Victorians. Stroud: Sutton. p 83

[7] Malcom, E. (1999). Troops of largely diseased women’. VD, the contagious diseases acts and moral policing in late nineteenth-century Ireland. Irish Economic and Social History, 26(1). 10.1177/033248939902600101. P1

[8]Malcom, E. (1999). Troops of largely diseased women’. VD, the contagious diseases acts and moral policing in late nineteenth-century Ireland. Irish Economic and Social History, 26(1). 10.1177/033248939902600101. P1

[9] Walkowitz, J. R. (1982). Prostitution and Victorian society: Women, class and the state. Cambridge: Cambirdge University Press. p 80

[10]Hamilton, M. (1978). Opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts, 1864-1886. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 10(1), 14-27. doi:10.2307/4048453. P 19

[11] Walkowitz, J. R. (1982). Prostitution and Victorian society: Women, class and the state. Cambridge: Cambirdge University Press. P 79

[12]https://revisitingdickens.wordpress.com/blog-page-two/

[13] Walkowitz, J. R. (1982). Prostitution and Victorian society: Women, class and the state. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. P 75/77

[14] Malcom, E. (1999). Troops of largely diseased women’. VD, the contagious diseases acts and moral policing in late nineteenth-century Ireland. Irish Economic and Social History, 26(1). 10.1177/033248939902600101. P11

[15] Malcom, E. (1999). Troops of largely diseased women’. VD, the contagious diseases acts and moral policing in late nineteenth-century Ireland. Irish Economic and Social History, 26(1). 10.1177/033248939902600101. P8

[16] Bartley, P. (20000;1999;). Prostitution: Prevention and reform in England, 1860-1914 (1st ed.) London: Routledge. P 12

[17]Hamilton, M. (1978). Opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts, 1864-1886. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 10(1), 14-27. doi:10.2307/4048453. p 17

[18]Hamilton, M. (1978). Opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts, 1864-1886. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 10(1), 14-27. doi:10.2307/4048453. p 22

[19]Mathers, Helen (2014). Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and the Victorian Sex Scandal. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press. ISBN 978-0-7524-9209-4. P 81-84

[20]D’Itri, Patricia Ward (1999). Cross Currents in the International Women’s Movement, 1848–1948. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.ISBN 978-0-87972-782-6.P 31

[21]Hamilton, M. (1978). Opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts, 1864-1886. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 10(1), 14-27. doi:10.2307/4048453. P 23

[22] Bartley, P. (20000;1999;). Prositution: Prevention and reform in England, 1860-1914 (1st ed.) London: Routledge. P 12

[23]Hamilton, M. (1978). Opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts, 1864-1886. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 10(1), 14-27. doi:10.2307/4048453. P 25

[24]http://www.josephinebutler.org.uk/a-brief-introduction-to-the-life-of-josephine-butler/

[25]http://spartacus-educational.com/Wbutler.htm

[26] Walkowitz, J. R. (1982). Prostitution and Victorian society: Women, class and the state. Cambridge: Cambirdge University Press. P 93

[27] Fisher, T. (1997). Prostitution and the Victorians. Stroud: Sutton. P 95

[28] Woodward, J. (2011). Josephine butler: A guide to her life, faith and social action – by Rod Garner: History and sociology of religion. Reviews in Religion and Theology, 18 (1), 10.111/j.1467-9418.2010.00741.x. P 65-66

[29] Julie Bindell (2006) https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/sep/21/art1

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