The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869 provide a fine political example of the law of unintended circumstances: legislation intended to protect members of the British armed forces from sexually transmitted diseases ended up galvanizing a major Victorian feminist movement in which working- and middle-class women worked together for a common cause. The British army, which did not permit enlisted men to marry, faced two consequences of this prohibition that officials deemed unacceptable. First, approximately a third of the armed forces contracted venereal diseases, and, second, men resorted to homosexual practices. In theory, several different solutions to this problem were possible:

The first solution was tried but abandoned because it supposedly demoralized the men, the second was not tried until much later, and Victorian morality would not permit the last three. Instead, the legislation sought to preserve the health of the military by permitting "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" (

"The Acts made the assumption," Megara Bell points out,

that prostitution was a permanent and necessary evil. They condoned male sexual access to fallen women and were specifically directed at women in order to protect the health of men. If the priority had been to fight VD, then inspecting the prostitutes' clients would also have been required by the Acts. However, the assumption was that, while men would be offended at the intrusion, the women were already so degraded that further humiliations were of no consequence. ["The Fallen Woman in Fiction and Legislation"]

These acts became a feminist cause because they permitted the police to detain and inspect any woman suspected of venereal infection, and, it was claimed, innocent women found themselves forced to undergo humiliating inspections. One obvious problem lay in the fact that the law did not distinguish between prostitutes and other women of the lower classes, and another was that, contrary to common Victorian belief that any extramarital sexual experinece inevitably doomed women to a life of prostitution and dismal, lonely death, many women only worked intermittently as prostitutes. According to the previously cited source, "The earliest opposition came from Florence Nightingale as well as from the Rescue Society, which was dedicated to reforming fallen women." Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Wolstenholme formed the Ladies' Association against the Contagious Diseases Act. Although many contemporaries were scandalized by genteel women speaking at public meetings about such inflammatory matters, others rallied to the cause, and these social activists acquired valuable political experience in organizing public rallies and speaking before large audiences. Parliament finally repealed the Acts in 1886, and this end to this noxious legislation has been considered a major feminist triumph.


Acton, William. Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects in London and Other Large Cities (1870). Ed. Fryer. 1968.

McHugh, Paul. Prostitution and Victorian Social Reform. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Walkowitz, Judith. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State. Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Winnifrith, Tom. Fallen Women in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. London: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

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Last modified 10 January 2009