Contagious Diseases Act

In 1864 Parliament passed the Contagious Diseases Act. This legislation allowed policeman to arrest prostitutes in ports and army towns and bring them in to have compulsory checks for venereal disease. If the women were suffering from sexually transmitted diseases they were placed in a locked hospital until cured. It was claimed that this was the best way to protect men from infected women. Many of the women arrested were not prostitutes but they still were forced to go to the police station to undergo a humiliating medical examination.

Some women considered this law discriminated against women, as the legislation contained no similar sanctions against men. Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Wolstenholme led the campaign against this legislation by forming the Ladies' Association Against the Contagious Diseases Act. Butler and Wolstenholme toured the country making speeches calling for a change in the law. Butler, who was an outstanding orator, attracted large audiences to hear her explain why this law needed to be repealed. Many people were shocked by the idea of a woman speaking in public about sexual matters.

Some women did not agree with Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Wolstenholmeover this issue.Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who ran the New Hospital for Women in London, took the view that these measures provided the only means of protecting innocent women and children from venereal disease. The Contagious Diseases Act was finally repealed in 1886.

Primary Sources

(1) George Lansbury, Looking Backwards and Forwards (1935)

Another very gentle and lovable woman was Mrs. Josephine Butler. Once, in the big St. Mary's schoolroom in Whitechapel, I listened to her with tears running down my cheeks as she told of the cruel and barbarous workings of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Mrs. Butler left a comfortable rectory to fight this fight on behalf of womanhood. She had to face tremendous opposition, gross distortion and misrepresentation. There was at the beginning no organisation, either of women or men, to stand with her. Nor did her own sex support her. But the unremitting toil of this fine Christian woman, not overblessed with physical strength, and not an orator in the accepted sense, at last won her victory, and the "C.D." Acts were repealed.