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Votes For Women & Sexual Morality

Excerpt from ‘Votes for Women’ (Paula Bartley) Hodder Education

The Contagious Diseases Act & The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a number of women were dismayed by the sexual double standard whereby women had to remain virginal before marriage and faithful inside it. On the other hand, a blind eye was turned if men had sex with more than one partner. One of women’s greatest victories was the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (CDAs). These Acts, the first of which had been passed in 1864, allowed police in a number of garrison towns and naval ports the right to arrest women suspected of being common prostitutes and require them to be medically examined for sexually transmitted diseases. If found infected, women could be detained for treatment. This, according to feminists, was unfair, because it blamed prostitutes for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, not the men who used their services. Under the leadership of Josephine Butler, the Ladies’ National Association led a campaign to repeal these acts and eventually succeeded 22 years after they had been passed.

The success of this campaign prompted feminists to launch a crusade against the sexual exploitation of young girls. In 1885 they achieved a victory when the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which raised the age of sexual consent to 16, was passed. Feminists and others founded the National Vigilance Association to ensure that this act was put into practice and to promote equal high moral standards between the sexes. Edwardian feminists, such as Christabel Pankhurst, took up the social purity cause and demanded that men improve their moral code by remaining chaste outside marriage. Although feminists achieved a small victory in repealing CDAs, the campaign to raise moral standards can be considered to have failed miserably. Today sex before marriage is accepted by the majority of people living in Britain, a fact that would have dismayed these early reformers.

The Suffragettes and Sexual Morality

Until the work of feminist historians in the 1970’s, most history texts ignored the emphasis placed on sex and morality by the suffragists and suffragettes. The few historians who did mention it ridiculed the suffragettes. For instance, the suffragette slogan ‘Votes for Women and Chastity for Men‘ is seen as an amusing peculiarity by George Dangerfield in the 1930’s and Roger Fulford in the 1950’s and as an example of spinsterish eccentricity by Andrew Rosen in the 1970s. However, the relationship between sexuality and the vote has enjoyed a long history in the annals of women’s suffrage. Both the suffragists and the suffragettes placed women’s franchise within the wider context of sexual politics and took the question of sexuality very earnestly indeed. For some suffrage campaigners such as Millicent Fawcett and Christabel Pankhurst the vote was as much about improving men’s sexual morality as it was about improving women’s working conditions.