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Impact of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 on Victorian Women's Morality

Info: 2941 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 23rd Sep 2019 in History

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To what extent did the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 challenge the morality of individuals in society toward the rights of Victorian women in that era?

Table of Contents

  1. Section 1: Identification and evaluation of sources…………………………………….. 3
  2. Section 2: Investigation …………….…………………………………………………… 5
  3. Section 3: Reflection ……………….…………………………………………………… 9
  4. Bibliography …………………………………………………………………………… 11

Section 1: Identification and evaluation of sources

This investigation will examine the question: “To what extent did the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 challenge the morality of individuals in society toward the rights of Victorian women in that era?”. The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 emphasized gender inequality of the nineteenth century and society’s role in controlling the behaviors of women.   

 Judith Walkowitz’s “Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State” and the “Contagious Diseases Acts from a sanitary and economic point of view” government document are pertinent sources to recognize the change in women’s rights in during the Victorian era. The book “Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State” is written by Great Britain historian and women’s history professor Judith Walkowitz in 1983. This is an academic analysis of the alliances between prostitutes and feminists and their conflict with medical authorities and police. This source is relevant  as it provides a narrower view on the effect of prostitution on women in society and how the Contagious Diseases Acts were received during the nineteenth century. The original Contagious Diseases Acts document, written in 1864, analyzes and justifies the passing of this legislation. Thus, this source is significant to this investigation by giving insight into the viewpoint of the legislators at this time, in relation to the controversial topic of prostitution.

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 Historian Judith Walkowitz is a women’s history and British history professor at John Hopkins University, with 30 years of research focused on the cultural and social events of the nineteenth century Britain. Her book “Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State” provides a glance into society at the time, from a perspective that is analyzing the events in retrospect. This source exists to demonstrate how the topic of prostitution was a cause for public discomfort and how feminists challenged these behaviors through social deviance. This source has the benefit of objectivity and hindsight, as it was published in 1980, more than one hundred years after the legislation was enacted. Therefore, Walkowitz was able to analyze the cause and effects of the Acts on medical knowledge and British society. However, a limitation of this source is that it does not develop other possible societal effects to the controversial problem of prostitution. It explicitly focuses on the views of the feminists of that era such as Josephine Butler, and is only an extract of the overall experience of women during the Victorian era.

The passing of the original Contagious Diseases Acts document caused thousands of women to be under suspicion of prostitution and imprisoned for long periods of time due to sexually-transmitted diseases. The Contagious Diseases Acts provided  the guidelines by which women could be detained and sent to lock hospitals until they were cured of their diseases. Having been written as a reaction to the spread of venereal disease amongst officers on military bases, this document has value because it would encapsulate the viewpoints of the legislators and public opinion during that era. However, as a pertinent source to the feminist movement, it is limited. The causes behind the Acts are not definitively demonstrated, and thus the effects of the policy was not recorded. Society’s reaction to the Contagious Diseases Acts could not be explained in this document and therefore does not show how the rights of women changed as a result of the Acts.

Section 2: Investigation

Nineteenth century Britain was laden with ideas of the feminist movement, to which the typical “feminine manner” (Hughes) was intolerable. As a result, women often counteracted the repeatedly raised controversy of prostitution, which evoked questions about venereal disease and the inequality between men and women during the Victorian era. There was an obsessive fear of venereal disease because it was viewed as an apparent weakness to the fighting capabilities of the British army. Hence, the Parliament enacted the contentious Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 which suppressed prostitution in an attempt to protect working men. The Contagious Diseases Acts enabled military camps to arrested women on suspicion of being a prostitute, and forcibly inspect prostitutes through an internal examination for venereal disease in order to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. The introduction of these Acts provoked a major movement in which working women “defended prostitutes as victims of social injustice rather than as criminal miscreants.” (Walkowitz, page 140). Thus, the Contagious Diseases Acts greatly emphasized the immoral inequality experienced by women and further challenged a woman’s place in society, which ultimately highlighted the rights of women during the Victorian era.

The Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA) was created by two notable figures of the feminist movement, Elizabeth Wolstenholme and Josephine Butler. Acting under the LNA, Wolstenholme and Butler published an article about the Contagious Diseases Acts titled “Women’s Protest” in the Daily News saying, “…it is unjust to punish the sex who are the victims of a vice, and leave unpunished the sex who are the main cause…” (Butler-Grey 9). Women were subject to humiliating medical examinations, despite the fact that men were also responsible for the spread of venereal disease. One of the most notable figures concerned with the rights of Victorian women involving the Contagious Diseases Act, was Josephine Butler who described the legislation as allowing for “medical rape” (“The British Contagious Diseases Acts,” 2018). If the women refused to comply with the police, they faced imprisonment in lock hospitals for treatment regardless of financial, economic, social and emotional impact on the woman. The Contagious Diseases Acts repressed women as they were mostly biased toward women, emphasizing the gender hierarchies of the time. This “double standard” (Luddy) for men demonstrated how the roles of men were favored over those of a woman’s. The Acts presented the “false and poisonous idea” (McElroy) that women had no rights, and were nothing more than victims of the immorality of society.

Britain during this time, was controlled by a society enthralled with the Christian mentality, which demonized prostitution and sexual activities. Therefore, in order to preserve the principles of the Christian faith, legislation was created in an attempt to abolish prostitution. As an inadvertent consequence of these Acts, Britain was not reformed, but rather women were further repressed and lost the rights to their bodies. Prostitutes and their clients were believed to be sinners as the evangelical movement of the nineteenth century occupied Britain. Prostitution was often misunderstood, and was customarily held as a “terrible evil” (Maccubbin) for the women that were forced into prostitution, the men who needed to fulfill their desires, and for society as a whole. Prostitution was said to be “an evil which it has been found impossible to suppress without the most disastrous consequences” (“The Contagious Diseases Acts,” 1871). Negative stereotypes about prostitutes compelled society to class women as “outlaws” (Acton 4) who were innately sinful. However, for many women prostitution was required out of circumstance and necessity. A large range of social conditions caused women to choose prostitution. Women were seen simply as “victims of seduction” (Luddy), so there was an incredible discrepancy between the available occupations and the pay for both genders. Society’s attitude toward working women complicated a woman’s ability to support their families, thus there were few opportunities for women to find a well-paying job after becoming a prostitute. Society’s role in the support of the Contagious Diseases Acts allowed for police harassment to ensue, thus causing a lack of rights for women to have their own social, legal, and economic identities.

Despite the overwhelming evidence denouncing the Contagious Diseases Acts as immoral, historian Frank Mort declared that the Acts were the “single most important legislative intervention addressing sexuality throughout the nineteenth century” (Mort 53). Great Britain was not the first of the European countries to establish and enact a Contagious Diseases Acts upon their population. For example, both France and Ireland provided the British government with inspiration to create their own system of regulation. However, the British model of the system only applied to the armed forces, whereas the other systems were applied to the entire civil population. Only two years after the original act was made, an extension to the Contagious Diseases Acts passed, thus extending the guidelines of the act to cover the entire British population. These Acts served as a shield by which men were protected from contagious diseases, often being justified by medical and military officials. Author Robert Maccubbin even argued that for men of any social status, prostitution was a convenience and was simply tolerated by society. One surprising supporter of the Acts was women’s suffragist Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Anderson was one of the few suffragist that supported the Contagious Diseases Acts because she believed it was the only means of protecting innocent women and children from venereal disease. Through these measures, the government was able to provide a “guarantee of security” (Jordan 68) to unmarried military officers who fulfilled their needs through “Government Women” (Jordan 68) or registered prostitutes who were confirmed to be “clean” (Jordan 68). Although the Acts were an effective method of preventing the spread of contagious diseases, the Acts greatly challenged the status and view of women in society, at the expense of their human rights.

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The Contagious Diseases Acts sparked a debate which encouraged both men and women to campaign against their implementation; it raised questions about women’s place in society; it openly acknowledged women’s sexuality and debated the role of government in attempting to control the behaviour and morality of individuals in society. The political and cultural significance of the role played by members of the LNA has been well documented. However, as Judith Walkowitz observes, their leader, Josephine Butler ‘only partially challenged the basic Victorian assumptions related to sex roles. She defended the right of women to maintain legal, political, and economic identities outside the family, but she also sought to exploit the notion of women’s moral preeminence’ (Walkowitz, 117). Various attempts to reduce prostitution, and its consequences in Victorian England resulted not in reform, but repression of women’s sexual activities and their bodies. “Fallen” women were not raised up with hands from the depths of society; on the contrary, prostitutes’ situations in the subjected districts worsened because of the Contagious Disease Acts and the social purity movement. Both in principle and execution, women were degraded. The patriarchal legislation, and misguided social purity campaign led to a lack of rights for women, and subjected them to police harassment, invasive and frequent medical exams, reform institute abuses, intensified poverty. Josephine Butler had succeeded. She had united women across class lines, made men reconsider their assumptions about sexuality, and exposed the corruption of authority.

Section 3: Reflection

Through the process of completing this investigation, I became more aware of the methods used by historians, and proceeded to carry out these methods, namely to closely analyze sources for reliability and relevance, as well as provide different opinions and criticisms on a subject. Upon concluding the research pertaining to my question regarding the Contagious Diseases Acts and prostitution in the Victorian era, I gained insight into the challenges that face historians when conducting historical investigations.

In order to attain knowledge for the subject of my investigation, I compared the perspectives of many reputable authors of various different backgrounds, found in a variety of ways, such as print sources, websites, and government documents. I found that it was difficult to acknowledge the validity of certain sources, as primary sources present historians with inferences that depict the opinions of the time. Historians are then often faced with the challenge of obtaining accurate historical knowledge. For example, I utilized a newspaper from the New Zealand Herald in September of 1882, titled “Contagious Diseases Acts”. This source is limiting in that it is opinionated, and does not provide evidence to support the assertions made in the article. It only reflects the uninformed public opinion of women during that era. Hence, I regarded this primary source as partially valuable as it highlighted the limitations of particular sources, and how they can distort the accuracy of the evidence, thus affecting the knowledge of the historian.

Unlike the study of mathematics or science, in history there is no certainty in terms of  the accuracy in which information is presented to the historian. However, it is also untrue that all of the versions of knowledge presented by historians are equally acceptable. For example, when considering sources I found that the evidence provided by  Judith Walkowitz in Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State could be deemed as more valuable in comparison to the newspaper by the New Zealand Herald because Walkowitz, a professor of women’s history at John Hopkins’ University, examined the medical and police regulation of prostitution to control the spread of venereal disease among enlisted men in absence of bias and the general opinion of the public.

To conclude, this investigation highlighted the methods used by, an challenges facing historians. I gained insight into the importance of evaluating the authenticity of historical sources and how aspects such as bias can affect my argument.


Primary Sources

  • Acton, William. Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social, & Sanitary Aspects, in London and Other Large Cities: With Proposals for the Mitigation and Prevention of Its Attendant Evils. John Churchill, New Burlington Street, 1857.
  • Butler, Josephine E. Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade. Marshall, 1896.
  • “The Contagious Diseases Acts : the Contagious Diseases Acts, 1864, ’66, ’68 (Ireland), ’69, from a Sanitary and Economic Point of View : Being a Paper Read before the Medical Society of University College, London, on Thursday, November 30th, 1871.” Full Text of “Passing”, London : F. Warne ; New York : Scribner, Welford, and Armstrong, archive.org/stream/b22298423/b22298423_djvu.txt.

Secondary Sources

  • Hughes, Kathryn. “Gender Roles in the 19th Century.” The British Library, The British Library, 13 Feb. 2014, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century.
  • Jordan, Jane. The Campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts. friendsoftheearth.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/campaigning-change-lessons-from-history-contagious-diseases-act-101818.pdf.
  • Luddy, Maria. “Women and the Contagious Diseases Acts 1864-1886.” History Ireland, 18 Mar. 2013, www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/women-and-the-contagious-diseases-acts-1864-1886-11/.
  • Maccubbin, Robert P. ‘Tis Nature’s Fault: Unauthorized Sexuality during the Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • McElroy, Wendy. “The Contagious Disease Acts.” The Future of Freedom Foundation, 29 Oct. 2012, www.fff.org/explore-freedom/article/contagious-disease-acts/.
  • “The British Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866, and 1869).” Towards Emancipation?, hist259.web.unc.edu/contagious-diseases-acts-1864-1866-and-1869/.
  • Mort, Frank. Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England since 1830. Routledge, 2000.
  • Walkowitz, Judith R. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State. Cambridge University Press, 2001.


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