'It was as if you were cattle'

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The Contagious Diseases Acts were symbolic of bourgeois society's desire to control working class women's bodies, writes Diana Swingler. Let's celebrate the campaign that got them repealed

One hundred and fifty years ago the Contagious Diseases Acts, first imposed in port towns in 1864, were extended to civilian populations. They were met with one of the first successful women’s rights campaigns in British history, which has a resonance with the fight for women’s right to control their own bodies today.

The stated aim of the Contagious Diseases Acts (CDAs) was to control sexually transmitted diseases, particularly syphilis, which were causing sickness absence in the armed and naval forces. But the measures were never aimed at servicemen, but at women they might have sex with, who were subjected to compulsory internal examinations. In a stark example of the double standards of bourgeois morality, it was taken for granted that men obliged by the government to live away from home needed to be serviced by prostitutes, while women suspected of being prostitutes were debased and victimised.

Rates of prostitution were geographically varied based on alternative work opportunities for women who needed to earn a living. They were higher in towns where the main alternatives were domestic service or shop work, which were both poorly paid. Medical journal The Lancet estimated at the time that one in every 16 women in London engaged in prostitution to some degree. Rates were lower in mill towns where factories employed large numbers of women.

The CDAs instructed plain-clothed policemen to “find” and forcibly register prostitutes on a list and haul them in for fortnightly internal examinations. If an STD was diagnosed (very often misdiagnosed) the woman was detained in a lock hospital with a harsh prison regime for nine months. In 1869 this was extended to a full year. Women were literally whisked away overnight, with no consideration for their children or other dependents. Any woman registered on the list had to display a “clean” ticket with the date of her last examination. Consenting to an internal examination was taken as an admission of prostitution and the woman would go on the register and be subject to continued fortnightly examinations. Refusal to consent often led to imprisonment.

Large numbers of working class women attended repeal campaign meetings to give accounts of police harassment. Any woman could be picked up for walking out in the poorer parts of town where they lived, for wearing colourful dress or because an individual maliciously denounced them. When resistance began, campaigners were also targeted by the police in the same way that, a few decades on, militant suffragettes were imprisoned and brutalised.

The internal examination was itself a violation. It was carried out upon unwilling women who were already considered debased, so no care was wasted on them and often instruments were not even clean. One woman’s testimony at a campaign meeting described being physically forced into a position that was “disgusting and painful...then they use these monstrous instruments, often several. It was as if you were cattle and hadn’t no feeling.” Pregnant women were not excluded and in some cases the examination caused miscarriage. There were also frequent accusations from women of molestation by both police and inspecting doctors. Many women went to extraordinary lengths to escape the ordeal, even suicide.

The campaign against the CDAs began with Josephine Butler. She came from a family of genteel moral reformers and her father, Lord Grey, opposed slavery. She was a deeply religious (but non-conformist) woman and anguished over the plight of prostitutes — women she felt were denied the chance to return to god’s grace. She was ostracised by many of her liberal friends for even speaking about such a subject in public. She was viciously lampooned in the press, denounced as “worse than a common prostitute” by a respected MP, and meetings where she spoke were violently attacked.

At meetings Josephine Butler spoke of the plight of ordinary women who had turned to prostitution through “starvation hunger”. She argued that the CDAs meant they were “no longer women but only bits of numbered, inspected and ticketed human flesh, flung by the government into the public market”. Throughout the campaign she insisted that only by improving the lives of working class women could this cattle market be ended. Butler persuaded some members of her own class to join the repeal campaign but she had to look outside the traditional liberal reforming committees. She addressed meetings of soldiers and of working men, and drew hundreds of working class women to meetings she organised both in Britain and across Europe.

The unpopularity of the CDAs meant they were finally repealed in 1886, although they were replaced by an act which punished soliciting and for the first time criminalised male homosexuality. Sadly Butler supported this act.

Working class women across the world still have to fight the state for the right to control what happens to their own bodies. Abortion rights are limited everywhere and constantly need defending. Working class women reporting rape are still not taken seriously, especially if they are involved in prostitution. Victims of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and elsewhere, many of whom came through the state care system, were not listened to. Women are still told they cannot walk out when they want, wearing what they choose to wear, without facing consequences.

But just as oppression continues, so does resistance — from abortion rights campaigns to “Slut Walks”, to defending Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab or veil if they choose.