Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Legally emancipating Women: 4

Campaigns for moral purity

Much of the moral stance of late Victorian feminists assumed stemmed from fear. Feminist attitudes to sexuality revolve largely around the dangers it implied[1]. Campaigns around marital violence pre-dated the murders by a full decade and one of the most powerful arguments that campaigners against ‘wife-torture’ had was the inadequacy of the law in protecting women from reprisal. Frances Power Cobbe and many others were convinced that levels of male violence were made worse by the consumption of alcohol; an analysis not exclusive to feminists as long-standing temperance societies show.

The moral stance that characterised the feminist position should be understood against a background tinged with both economic and physical threats as well as with theoretical objections to legislative or even cultural injustices. They saw themselves as victims of a male ideology, as victims of a lust denied to them, of a right to speak denied to them, of a society shaped by male requirements. Feminists took hold of the position to which they were limited by Victorian ideology and inverted its precepts, turning the duties of moral guardianship into a campaign that castigated the laxity and degradation of precisely those who ascribed them that role. Yet the element of philanthropy that surfaced in almost all the campaigns is apparent here to: some of the activity centred around the prostitution controversy and laid emphasis on the rescue of ‘fallen women’ and their moral re-education.

From the early part of the nineteenth century, until absorbed by the new social purity movements of the 1880s, the Society for the Suppression of Vice [founded in 1802] remained the Victorian’s basic legal force against the obscene. Its work demonstrated the often close relationship between private vigilance and public authorities. It was the persuasion of the Vice Society that led to the Obscene Publications Act 1857. Through the 1870s and 1880s, the ‘abolitionists’[2] were a major social force and the stimulus for the emergence of vigorous social-purity organisations such as the National Vigilance Association. Why was there a major attempt at moral restructuring in the last decades of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth centuries? Various causes can be identified:

From the 1870s, following what was seen as a decline in standards in the 1850s and 1860s, a new confidence in the moralistic ethic can be detected[3]. In the early years of the century moral reformers had been sustained by the threat of revolution. No such fears limited them in the 1880s and 1890s but there were a series of causes and scandals that maintained their momentum: the iniquities of the CDA to the scandalous leniency meted out to high class ‘madams’; from the exploitation and abduction of young girls in the White Slave Trade to the divorce case of Charles Dilke in 1886 and the Irish leader Parnell in 1890; the scandal of the Cleveland Street homosexual brothel 1889-90[4] said to involve the eldest son of the heir to the throne and the Cranby Croft gambling scandal of 1891 that did involve the Prince of Wales.

There was a constituency ready to be stirred by such scandals, in the lower middle class and the respectable working class whose values were being attacked by radicals and libertarians. Respectability, with its stress on values such as self-help and self-reliance, the value of work and the need for social discipline and the centrality of the family, was threatened by public immorality. Here was a strong basis for social purity. Behind this, giving the campaigns a tremendous dynamism was an evangelical revival, bringing large sections of the feminist movement into alliance with nonconformity, an alliance sealed in outrage against double standards. Many of the leaders of the campaigns in the 1880s were products of this Christian revival. W.T. Stead described himself as ‘a child of the revival of 1859-60’ which had swept across the Atlantic and won hundreds of thousands of converts. Social purity was also able to mine very deep fears of a more secular kind. 1885, an immensely important year in sexual politics, was also the year of the expansion of the electorate [Third Reform Act], there were fears of national decline following the defeat and death of General Gordon, anxieties about Ireland and all this in the context of a socialist revival and feminist agitation. Social purity became a metaphor for a stable society.

By 1885, social purity was able to tap an anxiety that found a symbolic focus in the ‘twin evils’ of enforced prostitution and the exploitation of young girls. W.T .Stead’s sensational expose of the latter in his articles on ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ generated a sense of outrage with which a wide range of public opinion found itself in sympathy. The result was the Criminal Law Amendment Act which attempted to suppress brothels, raised the age of consent for girls to sixteen and introduced new penalties against male homosexuals in private as well as in public. Further changes, in the Vagrancy Act 1898 and the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1912, underlined the new legislative involvement with prostitution and homosexuality. Reformers in 1885 had no doubt that their cause was right: a crusade against ‘a dark and cruel wrong’. Yet reformers were directing their energies at many of the wrong targets, illustrating the typical nineteenth century preference for moral campaigns rather than structural social reforms.

Social purity was linked with the issue of birth control and eugenics in the period after 1870. The birth control controversy spanned the century. Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and James Mill proposed various kinds of birth control. It was in the 1860s and 1870s that there was a real extension of propaganda on birth control directed at the middle classes. Charles Bradlaugh’s National Reformer carried articles on the issue. It was, however, the trial of Bradlaugh and Annie Besant in 1876 for republishing a banned pamphlet that gave the birth-control movement wide publicity and created a demand for more information and led to the setting up of the first organisation to campaign on birth control, the Malthusian League. Between 1876 and 1881, over 200,000 copies of the banned tract were sold in England and Annie Besant’s own The Law of Population, published in 1877, sold 175,000 copies by 1891. The arguments in favour of limiting the size of the family had never before been presented to so large a public.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the sexual question was inextricably linked with the politics of population and the case for racial as well as social purity. A major sign of this was the re-emergence of neo-Malthusianism in an organised form with the founding of the Malthusian League in 1877. The consequence of a failure to limit population was, contemporaries believed, growing degeneracy, a view reinforced by the drastic unfitness of the imperial race shown during the Boer War. There were different approaches to these perceived problems. Maternalism marked a partial shift in the dominant ideology away from the nineteenth century stress on woman as wife towards woman as mother. Motherhood was seen as a major key to a healthy population. Therefore it was not poverty that was seen as the major cause of physical deterioration and high infant mortality, but poor maternal training. The result was the tackling of working class ignorance by a host of unofficial voluntary bodies that sprang up in the years prior to 1914 like the Institute of Hygiene [1903] and the Women’s League of Service for Motherhood. A change in official attitudes away from child rearing as just an individual duty to it as a national duty. This was reflected in increased state intervention. Compulsory education had already undermined parental choice and the measures associated with the Liberal reforms accentuated this trend: school meals in 1906; medical inspections in 1907 and the Children Act of 1908. Most of the policies that were adopted were ad hoc rather than part of a national strategy. Nevertheless, they did contribute to an improvement in health underlined by the reduction in infant mortality and the growth of child-welfare centres after 1918.

Control of aliens was grounded in the thesis that race-mixing was an evil, causing degeneration of a biological stock appeared in 1853 and was particularly influential in Germany were the term ‘anti-Semitism’ first appeared as a biological rather than religious concept in 1879. Yet Jews in Britain had long been received more liberally than in many other European countries but there was a change of mood, reflected in literature as well as reality, by the end of the century[5]. A Royal Commission on Aliens was set up in 1903, rejected the contention that immigrants were unclean or unhealthy and concluded that fears about alien immigration were largely unfounded. Nevertheless it recommended controls which became law in the Aliens Act 1905[6]. The underlying belief behind eugenics was a conviction that it was possible to intervene directly in the processes of producing the population by regulating sexual selection between stocks and individuals.

Anxieties about moral standards reflected a deep belief that the roots of social stability lay in individual and public morality. The marked interest in the moral sphere that grew to such significant proportions towards 1900 was a double-headed beast. In part, it was a logical successor to early moral reform campaigns bringing into feminism women who had championed more immediate rights, but it also gave those women a means of understanding those grievances through the lens of gender.


[1] This can be seen in Judith Walkowitz City of Dreadful Delights, Virago, 1993 which uses the Ripper murders of the autumn of 1888 as its liet-motif.

[2] They were in favour of the repeal of the CDA.

[3] Trevor Fisher Scandal: The Sexual Politics of Late Victorian Britain, Sutton, 1995 is a useful and readable examination of this issue.

[4] On this see Lewis Chester, David Leitch and Colin Simpson The Cleveland Street Affair, Weidenfeld, 1976. This book demonstrates clearly the ambiguous attitudes to homosexuality by the Establishment. When the affair seemed likely to become the most explosive scandal of the nineteenth century and the taint of homosexuality came close to the royal household, it was quickly and quietly buried.

[5] David Feldman Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture 1840-1914, Yale University Press, 1994 is now the standard work on this issue and much else besides.

[6] On this issue see Ann Dummett and Andrew Nicol Subjects, Citizens, Aliens and Others, Weidenfeld, 1990.

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