- Economical Representations: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Jenny," Augusta Webster's "A Castaway," and the Campaign Against the Contagious Diseases Acts
- Victorian Review
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 17, Number 1, Summer 1991
- pp. 78-95
- View Citation
- Additional Information
ECONOMICAL REPRESENTATIONS: DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI1S "JENNY," AUGUSTA WEBSTER· S "A CASTAWAY," AND THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE CONTAGIOUS DISEASES ACTS Susan Brown University ofAlberta The spectre of the prostitute haunts the Victorians from the mid-nineteenth century onward. In an age characterized by extraordinary self-consciousness and self-assessment, she became a sign of fundamental cultural contradictions. "The Great Social Evil" became a national obsession which spawned dozens of "rescue" societies and homes for fallen women, hundreds of public debates, thousands of pages in periodicals, books, novels, poems, plays, pamphlets, tracts and sermons, a flood of defeated and enacted Parliamentary bills, and one of the most gender-marked political movements of the century, the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts.1 The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869 were the result of new social and sanitary approaches to prostitution, as well as a more general proclivity towards intervention in and regulation of the lives of the poor. The Acts instituted in the environs of various British military stations "a system of periodic fortnightly inspection or examination of all known prostitutes . . . made compulsory, under a well organized system of medical police."2 If found diseased, a woman would be kept in a "Lock" hospital for up to three months until pronounced well. The Acts also provided for one to three months imprisonment with or without hard labor, if, after failing to convince a magistrate of her respectability, a woman refused to sign a "voluntary" submission to be examined. Although the legislation was never extended, as some supporters desired, to the "civilian" population throughout Britain, those in opposition were quick to point out that the Acts actually applied entirely to the civilian population, since prostitutes were never officially employed by the military. Victorian Review 17.1 (Summer 1991) Susan Brown79 The Contagious Diseases Acts marked an unprecedented degree of state intervention in the domain of sexuality. Unlike previous public health legislation, "the acts implicated die state and medical expertise in a much more precise and extensive discourse on sexuality—inciting and crystallizing representations, especially around female sexuality" (Mort 73). One of the ways the Acts incited such representations was in neglecting to define such crucial terms as "common prostitute." The task was left to police and administrators, who adopted such vague criteria as "any woman who goes to places of public resort, and is known to go with different men" or that "It is more a question of mannerism than anything else."3 Representations of male sexuality were also at stake. The fundamental assumption was that men must have access to prostitutes. Medical authority and noted proponent William Acton's assertion that "prostitution must always exist" assumed a masculinity constituted by a recurrent and uncontrollable, though regrettable, need for sexual release through intercourse (163). Although Harriet Martineau had condemned the proposed legislation as early as 1863 and urged that men be treated "as moral agents and not as animals," such assumptions maintained influence over many Victorians (242). Thus, the 1871 Royal Commission on the Contagious Diseases Acts pronounced "there is no comparison to be made between prostitutes and the men who consort with them. With the one sex the offence is committed as a matter of gain; witii the other it is an irregular indulgence of a natural impulse" (qtd. in Walkowitz, Prostitution 71). These and other hegemonic representations of sexuality were challenged in the vigorous campaign for the repeal ofthe Contagious Diseases Acts. In late 1869, opposition to the Acts suddenly intensified as activists petitioned, lectured, lobbied, campaigned, and generally publicized both the conditions created by the Acts and the efforts to extend them to otiier, non-military, areas. Their energetic efforts quickly stemmed the tide of extentionist support in Parliament, although the existing Acts were not suspended until 1883 and finally repealed in 1886. The remarkable success of the repeal campaign raises a crucial question succinctly expressed by social historian Frank Mort: How did women and men of the repeal movement contest the discourses of medical expertise and military authority which underpinned the acts? What languages did they draw on to fracture the earlier consensus and what historical forces enabled them to orchestrate their campaign as a national protest...