The British government grew concerned at the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the army and navy in the mid nineteenth century. These diseases were responsible for one third of all sick cases in the army, they were contagious and could be fatal. They could be passed on to the wives and other sexual partners of infected men and an infected mother could transmit them to her children. Soldiers and sailors contacted the diseases by visiting prostitutes who were to be found in plenty near barracks and dockyards. The government planned to control the prostitutes.
Parliament passed the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864, 1866 and 1869 to permit compulsory inspection of women suspected of being prostitutes near certain garrisons in England and Ireland. The areas concerned in Ireland were the Curragh Camp, Cork and Cobh. Any woman under suspicion could be forced to undergo a medical examination to see if she had a sexually transmitted disease and could face imprisonment if she refused to be examined. Infected women were sent to Lock Hospitals until they were cured.
There was no similar check for men and those who opposed these acts pointed out that they applied to women only, that they encouraged the double standard of sexual morality in that they were enforcing it for women but not for men, and that they interfered with the civil liberties of women.
In England, Josephine Butler set up the Ladies' National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1869 and an Irish branch was organised in 1870. They held meetings, lobbied MPs, went on deputations and sent out petitions. Though disapproving of prostitution, they were prepared to discuss the topic openly at a time when women were supposed to know - or pretend to know - little or nothing about sexuality. The Contagious Diseases Acts were finally repealed in 1886.
|Who has a right to say that men are too pitiably weak to bear such a law? That they are incapable of responding to higher calls than those of self-indulgence? There are men who say it ... because they say that men must sin, and that a certain number of women, who have fallen out of knowledge of society, may lawfully be seized and sacrificed for it.
Isabella Tod addressing the Ladies' National Association in 1878, quoted in Maria Luddy, Women in Ireland 1800-1918, Cork, 1995, p.257.
Isabella Tod and Anna Haslam were involved in this campaign from the beginning and both went on to found women's suffrage societies. The campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts made many women think more deeply about the status of women and marked the beginning of feminist organisation in Ireland.