Monday, 11 February 2008

Legally emancipating Women: 3

Prostitution and the Contagious Diseases Acts

Growth in population and in the corresponding preference for urban living mobilised an increasing degree of state intervention in the private lives of its citizens. Sanitation and housing, water supplies and the control of disease, all became subject to government directive in some way during the century, alongside the cross-over from the definitely public to the obviously private. Government’s role was an increasingly prescriptive one laying down acceptable sexual behaviour and policing sexual relations through laws governing such areas as prostitution, homosexuality and contraception. In many respects, the state assumed the role previously played by the church. This can be seen in its sanctioning marriages and its pronouncements as to the grounds on which divorce was valid, in its defining the forms of licit and illicit sexual behaviour and in its treatment of prostitution[1].

Legislation and repeal

In the urban context, increasing anxiety was expressed over the perceived increase in prostitution and its corollary, of venereal disease. Military reports had reported a steady increase in venereal infections among the men since the 1820s. A series of government inquiries in the 1850s and 1860s, precipitated by the Crimean War, testified to the seriousness with which the dual problems of VD and sexual immorality among the lower ranks was regarded in official circles. In 1862 29 per cent of all army men admitted to hospital and 12.5 per cent of all naval hospital admissions were for sexually transmitted diseases. From the 1840s public anxiety had also been focused on prostitution, the ‘great social evil’, by studies from evangelical clerics and doctors and by rescue and reform societies campaigning for a police crackdown on the London streets. Attempts to subject enlisted men to periodic genital examination met with considerable rank-and-file resistance and government turned instead to the regulation of the women with whom soldiers and sailors consorted leading to the passage of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869 [hereafter CDA].

The 1864 CDA applied to a number of naval ports and army garrison towns in England and Wales. Under its provisions, both police personnel and medical practitioners [acting under the direct supervision of the War Office and the Admiralty, rather than the local constabulary] were empowered to notify a justice of the peace if they suspected a woman of being a ‘common prostitute’. The woman would then be apprehended and taken to a certified hospital for medical examination, where she could be detained for up to three months to effect a treatment if the examination proved positive. A woman’s refusal to co-operate with what was effectively a suspension of habeas corpus could lead to a prison sentence of one month, doubling for any subsequent offence. Infringement of the hospital rules, or quitting without medical consent, also carried penalties of up to two months imprisonment. In apprehending a ‘common prostitute’, the police relied on certain indicators of guilt: residence in a brothel; soliciting in the street; frequenting places where prostitutes resort; being informed against by soldiers or sailors; and lastly, the admission of the woman herself. There were also penalties for brothel keepers.  The CDA 1866 and 1869 extended the geographical locations covered by the regulations, while the Admiralty and War Office were now mandated to provide hospital facilities for inspection and treatment. Provision was also made within hospitals for adequate moral and religious instruction of the women and for regular fortnightly inspections of former detainees, while the period of compulsory detention was extended to six months.

Supporters of the acts did not see the principles of state hygiene as contradicting the moral emphases of the public health movement. Far from the state sanctioning male vice by providing men of the forces with a clean supply of women, it claimed that the acts were essentially moral in aim and intention. In reality, the acts were concerned with the regulation of the sexual and moral habits of two particular groups within the urban poor: female prostitutes and the lower ranks of the armed forced. But the tactics used to discipline these two groups were markedly different.  The legislation understandably angered women, and many men, the more so because of the opportunities it afforded the police to harass women. The result was organised opposition to the acts which gained ground during the 1860s and led to the setting up of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1869 led by Josephine Butler. The repealers were well organised and effectively vocal. As soon as it was established it issued a strongly worded protest in The Daily News signed by prominent figures like Florence Nightingale, claiming the acts were not only an attack on the civil liberties of all women but also implicated the state in sanctioning male vice. The Shield, a weekly circular giving news of the acts and of protests against them, began publication in March 1870.

The women’s protest was received with expressions of outrage and puzzlement by men within the dominant political culture. Divorce, prostitution and women’s emancipation were designated as outside the parameters of political discourse and MPs customarily prefaced speeches on these topics by apologising to the house for intruding on parliamentary time. Repealers soon grasped this and drew on the only vocabulary able to bear the moral and intellectual weight of their challenge. This was the militant language of radical dissenting religion. Many LNA women came from a background of similar, if less explicitly sexual, moral reform campaigns, anti-slavery and temperance in particular. The recognition that class was an important consideration won them support from working class men fearing the effects of the acts on their own wives and children. In the feminist context, the CDA agitation proved important in crystallising the value of a wider feminist analysis. In the wake of the suspension of 1883 and the final repeal of the acts in 1886, many women choose to concentrate not on older-style feminist campaigns such as those in education, but on obtaining a single moral standard for men and women alike.


The repeal campaign in retrospect

The issue that concerned Victorian feminists in the 1870s and 1880s was what the proper balance should be between state intervention and individual liberty. The passage of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864, 1866 and 1869 crystallised much feminist thinking and led to the development of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts [LNA] in 1869 as the leading pressure group for repeal. This was eventually achieved in 1886 following suspension of the legislation three years earlier.

The LNA leadership included veterans of the Anti-Corn Law League and the abolitionist campaigns in which women had forged themselves an important role that stopped short of feminism. The timing of the CD Acts was important for British feminism and the campaign against the legislation absorbed women who might otherwise have been attracted to the burgeoning temperance movement with its comparable stress of women victimised by male vice and power[2]. The consequence for the LNA was that its critique of male-dominated society was far more radical. In contrast to the feminist organisations of the 1850s and 1860s, the LNA, like the suffrage movement of the 1870s, was national in scope rather than London-based, claiming 92 local associations in 1882. The LNA was particularly strong in big cities where prostitution was widespread and in middle class, Nonconformist families.

However, there was a tension between married and single women within the repeal campaign and within feminist agitation generally. Married women received priority in the agitation for property law reform, single women in the push for employment and educational gains. In was the divisive British emphasis on a limited suffrage that would disproportionately benefit single women may have strengthened the determination of married women in the LNA to take the lead on matters where there sexually inexperienced sisters were at a disadvantage.

Josephine Butler embodied the background and preoccupation of the LNA leadership. She was the daughter of a Northumberland agricultural reformer and abolitionist, married to a supportive Anglican clergyman and educator established in Liverpool. She could speak for the middle class provincial activist independent of the London elite. Like many women who undertook moral reform, religious conviction and faith drove her. She had not herself been an abolitionist but she shared with anti-slavery activists’ empathy with powerless fellow-women debased by circumstances. The LNA attracted some working class women to its meetings and Mrs Butler, together with its other middle class leaders, stressed that repeal was essentially a women’s cause and a cause of all women. Butler stressed medical moral and constitutional arguments against the CD Acts. The underhand ways in which they were passed. Their failure to detect or check venereal disease; the unfair way in which they penalised women but ignored her better-off client; the infringement of women’s civil liberties. The attempts to condone sanitise and regulate sin; and the physical results that might be visited on innocent married and unmarried women. The Acts were, she maintained, a mockery of formal Victorian veneration of womanhood.

Middle class evangelists had worked for the poor since the early part of the century, attempting to stamp out their alleged immorality. Leading repealers took a far more direct and, on occasions, dangerous action. They believed in the power of united womanhood and openly worked with, as well as for, the objects of their concerns. They sought out registered prostitutes, gave them practical help and moral support in opposing the legislation. Feminists of the LNA supported the contemporary campaign for female doctors and challenged male doctors, politicians and army men with a number of telling points. First, they denied the naturalness of male lust and the double standard of morality for the sexes. They rejected the commonly held view, directed at middle class women, that prostitutes in the public sphere protected virtuous females in the private sphere against unreasonable sexual demands and argued that all women were vulnerable to sexual exploitation within their profession of marriage and that men should raise themselves to women’s levels of sexual self-control.

Secondly, activists condemned MPs’ prurient interest in the sordid matters raised by the repeal campaign and criticised doctors’ insistence on internally examining arrested prostitutes. The support for the CD Acts by Elizabeth Garrett who, like male doctors, put checking disease before defending liberty, was an embarrassment to the LNA that was not concerned with the control of venereal disease. Thirdly, feminists argued that a Parliament of rich men was unfit to legislate for poor women on such matters, contrary to the politicians’ assertions that they looked after the interests of disenfranchised females. Feminists resented the way in which women were defined only in relation to men and motherhood. Men predictably objected to changing a state of affairs from which they benefited considerably.

There were problems of emphasis. Some repealers argued that prostitution was a result of women’s exclusion, by men, from most rewarding and reliable work. Others, however, focused on its immorality and, in presenting the prostitute as a helpless victim of male lust, drew attention away from her social context and attitudes to the institution thereby reducing the woman at the centre of their fight to an abstraction. The LNA leadership and rank and file also had different priorities: the former stressed the importance of political agitation while local workers, outside exceptional branches such as Bristol, highlighted religious objections to regulation. It was these individuals, concentrating on the less controversial and well-established work of providing refuges for prostitutes, who formed the backbone of the more repressive purity campaigns of the 1880s and 1890s.

The campaign against the CD Acts did not destroy the double standard of morality for the sexes any more than it materially improved the position of prostitutes. Politicians may have become disenchanted with the CD legislation and tired of the struggle in provoked, but they had not been persuaded that Parliament should abandon other attempts to regulate vice. Women were divided on the issue. Rescue work attracted both feminists and non-feminists members of the LNA, and women outside the Association. It reinforced those notions about feminine mission and moral superiority that had encouraged female community and justified women’s involvement in reform earlier in the century. During the 1880s and 1890s it led some of them, mobilised in a host of social purity groups like the National Vigilance Association to believe that legislation could be used to ‘force people to be moral’.


[1] There is a growing literature on prostitution. The best starting point is Judith Walkowitz Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State, CUP, 1980 and Paul MacHugh Prostitution and Victorian Social Reform, Croom Helm, 1980 deal specifically with the debate on the Contagious Diseases Acts. Linda Mahood The Magdalenes: Prostitution in the nineteenth century, Routledge, 1990, Eric Trudgill Madonnas and Magdalens: The origin and development of Victorian sexual attitudes, Heinemann, 1976 and Frank Mort Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-moral politics in England since 1830, Routledge, 1987 provide valuable background. Philippa Levine ‘Rough usage: prostitution, law and the social history’, in A. Wilson (ed.) Rethinking social history: English society 1570-1920 and its interpretation, Manchester University Press, 1993, pp.266-292 provides an up-to-date synthesis. Trevor Fisher Prostitution and the Victorians, Sutton, 1997 is a useful collection of sources.

[2] In the United States the rise of abolitionism in relation to alcohol arose at the same time as the CDAs and LNA in Britain. Its critique of male attitudes was far less radical. Had the CD legislation not been passed, it is possible that British feminism would have also taken this route.

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