- A Body Politic of Women’s Own:Josephine Butler, Social Purity, and National Identity
The contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869, which can be seen as representing the social acceptance of the perceived reprobate sexuality of British men, became a political battleground upon which feminist middle-class women resisted the double standard of sexual morality and protested against male tyranny over women’s bodies. Regulationists justified the state supervision and medical inspection of prostitutes1 by labelling them vectors for the spread of disease, while they saw syphilis among prostitutes’ male clients as resulting from lust attributed to normal masculine sexuality. Josephine Butler (1828–1906), the central figure of the repeal movement, organized female networks to rescue their “fallen” sisters. This article will explore Butler’s promotion of female leadership in the context of the moral reconstruction of British national identity, focusing on her agitation for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases (cd) Acts and revealing her use of maternal imagery and her strategy of occasional alliance with working-class men to subvert middle- and upper-class men’s political and medical authority over women’s bodies.
Criticism in the last decade has re-examined Butler’s works from the dual perspectives of religion and feminism. Indeed, Great Britain in the nineteenth century witnessed the parallel developments of the organized feminist movement and of women’s philanthropic activities, both within and beyond the framework of evangelical religion. Anne Summers suggests parallels between Butler’s liberal framework and her Christian faith (60), and Helen Mathers places Butler’s campaign within a tradition of evangelicalism (124). More recently, collected essays for the centenary of Butler’s death revisit the religious dimension of her writings and activities, testifying to her uniqueness and the pre-eminence of her position as a Christian reformer.2
My analysis focuses on the aspects of dynamism in Butler’s political writing3 to illuminate the correlation between her audacious handling of political issues and her strategic employment of religious language. Butler recognized the importance of writing as a crucial device for influencing public perceptions of sexual morality. During the repeal campaign, she wrote a number of different texts, including pamphlets, circulars, books, and public and private letters, as well as numerous speeches for public [End Page 107] speaking tours throughout Great Britain. Butler admitted that her outspokenness at times conveyed to the public a violent impression of her (“A Letter to the Mothers of England” 80). This article examines the way in which her political writing on the repeal of the cd Acts and on prostitutes serves to reconfigure female roles and to strengthen women’s engagement and public visibility in the political arena, although her writing, in its tropes of motherhood and femininity, reveals conflicts between her views and those of medical women at the time. Butler speaks in emotional language in much of her writing and even in her plea for the roles of Rebecca Jarrett and William T. Stead in the aftermath of his sensational exposé, strategically mobilizes the British image of motherhood that was conventionally defined in sentimental images within the context of Victorian cultural myth. She thereby endeavours to recast mothers as fearless and aggressive political agents, acting beyond the confines of orthodox maternal roles.
the crusade of women as “god’s agents”
The first cd Act was introduced in 1864 as a temporary, experimental piece of legislation designed to contain the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the armed forces. Two further acts extending the original legislation were then passed in 1866 and 1869. The jurisdiction of the 1869 Act was extended to apply to nonmilitary residents in eighteen garrison towns and naval ports in the south of England and in Ireland. This amendment introduced a coercive form of medico-legal regulation of prostitutes as well as an intensified regime of police surveillance (Mort 59). Within a ten-mile radius of each of these towns, all registered prostitutes were required to submit to fortnightly examinations. The new act regarded women’s bodies as agents of infection and, by allowing any woman suspected of being a prostitute to be arrested and forced to submit to a medical...