Demanding a Say: The Contagious Diseases Act, Josephine Butler, and Conflicting Gender Ideologies in Victorian Britain

Parliament and supporters of the Contagious Diseases Act believed that the spread of venereal diseases could be controlled by regularly examining sex workers, without regard for their personal safety or liberty. Regulation advocates were unmoved by calls to consider prostitutes' welfare, and perpetuated a destructive double standard that placed women as the sole source of impropriety and disease. Conversely, the Act's adversaries believed in the responsibility of both sexes, and argued that state regulation directly infringed upon the liberty of sex workers. Josephine Butler, leader of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, spearheaded both the anti-vice and anti-regulationist movements. Her unsuccessful twenty year campaign attempted to not only destigmatize sex work, but to push women into the public sphere, and abolish oppressive gender constructs, both in and out of the home. Despite her commitment, Butler's platform failed to sway Parliament and the public. Upon investigating the debates surrounding the Contagious Diseases Act, it is evident that discussions entailed much more than disagreements on legalized sex work: they evoked the Victorian Era's conflicting gender ideologies, one that sought to emancipate women, and the other that strove to maintain the nation's male power structure. Historical research surrounding the Contagious Diseases Act has largely focused on arguments from supporters and opponents, but little to no scholarship has considered its debates as a lens from which to assess conflicting gender constructs in Victorian culture. This essay will show how the Acts offered Victorian women an opportunity to insert themselves politically by defending the civil rights of Britain's sex workers.