Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’

There's Something About Mary

It is only in my third year as a history undergraduate that I have read Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, despite reading extracts during my A-levels I had not yet encountered the force that is Wollstonecraft.

Upon reading the second chapter of her book, ‘The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed’, for a required reading in one of my modules, I was shocked to feel empowered by a piece of writing that was written over two centuries ago. I did not expect her words to resonate quite as much as they did from a period so backwards as to what our society is now.

The passion she speaks with and her abhorrent views for the traditional patriarchal society in which she lived give us an insight of just how provocative her writing would have been when it was published. Her taboo-lifestyle and passionate ideology voices sirens still heard today, resonating into the twenty-first century Wollstonecraft speaks through us, academics, doctors, lawyers; who can know if we would be here without the publication of this ground breaking volume.

I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves. 

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Blog Post #4 – The Conclusion

Upon conclusion from the information detailed in Blog Post #1, #2 and #3, we are able to understand that the implementation of the Contagious Diseases Acts was not to solely to regulate prostitution, but was an attempt to reconstruct the gender, social and cultural structures which were destabilised in the early nineteenth century. Prostitution, although an act both male and female participated in, was pushed as a prominently working-class female occupation in sensationalist media. Working-class female prostitutes were associated with the spread of venereal disease amongst troops in the army, which in turn was linked with the destabilisation of the army and the strength of the British Empire. As a result, female prostitution became the biggest threat to the nations safety, and with the absence of male prostitution from media and legislation, the sole responsibility lay with over-sexualised women.

“Beyond disease, prostitution was seen as the embodiment of a wide range of social and economic ills, and therefore it was a thought that suppressing it could contribute to the wealth of the nation at home and the success of war abroad.”[1]

This observation summarizes the further agendas of the government whilst implementing the Contagious Diseases Acts, and highlights that the acts public and private agendas were similar to the public and private spheres society was supposed to adhere to. Publicly, sexual vice and prostitution was scapegoated as the downfall of the British Empire, although privately, prostitution was seen as necessary components of society to maintain the purity of middle-class women. Seemingly, the act was not instrumental in controlling or changing perceptions towards prostitution, as the ideology of women as the conveyors of disease and fear towards promiscuous women was still evident in the twentieth century.

Figure 1: Advertisements from 1940 advocating women as the carriers of venereal disease. [2]                       

Prostitution however, was only a feared vice of the underworld when it was related to women, when it was with regards to male prostitution, although it may have been feared through homophobic ideology of the time, it was silenced and absent from the media. This could prove that it was not prostitution that was the cause for concern amongst contempories, but an alarm at the sexualisation of middle-class women who were invented to be the epitome of asexual angels. Additional evidence which proves that the fear of venereal disease spreading amongst the British population was not a prominent fear between government officials was the viewpoint held by physicians of the period:

“Far from considering syphilis an evil, he regarded it on the contrary as a blessing, and believed that it was inflicted by the Almighty to act as a restraint upon the indulgence of evil passions. Could the disease be exterminated, which he hoped it could not, fornication would rip rampant through the land.” [3]

From this source, we can analyse further how venereal disease was not the main motive of

lock hospital colchester
Figure 2: Layout of the Colchester Lock Hospital, in operation from 1869 to 1886 [5]

the acts, and from a religious stance it is understandable to determine again that prostitution was necessary for the up keeping of moral members of society. This Victorian significance upon an honourable reputation for women was in the hands of the law enforcers during the implementation of the acts, with any woman who looked overly-sexualised (in the eyes of the police) or was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, was accused of prostitution. This accusation alone, without the need for prosecution, could have destroyed a woman’s reputation, which was the only element that was of use to a female in Victorian society, and therefore had the potential to place an enormous strain on members of the public. The loss of morality was of such devastation to one widowed actress who was accused and harassed by law enforcement, that she reportedly committed suicide rather than appear at the hospital prison with her sixteen year-old daughter[4] underlining the enormous influence the authorities had over the lives of women.

Sexuality in the nineteenth century was immensely hypocritical and contradictory, such as that between same-sex relationships. As has been previously discussed, male homosexuality was tolerated, yet hidden, just as prostitution was. However, female sexual relationships has been almost non-existent in writings from the Victorian period, as they were general not thought of as pleasurable, expected or significant.

Overall, the female body and re-defining of the hierarchical social system were more significant reasoning behind the implementation of the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 than the fear of prostitution, and therefore the construction of gender differences which was reflected in media and scholarly work of contempories during the era. Moreover, there is a huge amassment of evidence from the social reformers who demonstrated against the Contagious Diseases Acts which prove that this act prompted a change in gender structures, which albeit was slow to take hold, was the start of the modern thinking towards sexuality.



[1] Shoemaker, Robert B. (1998) Gender in English Society 1650-1850: The Emergence of Separate Spheres? Routledge, England, page 77

[2] FIGURE 1: Feree (1842) The History of Medicine Division; Prints and Photographs Collection, National Library of Medicine. [Available at] [Accessed on 27/03/16]

[3] Anonymous (1860) The London Lancet, Burgess, Stringer & Company, Volume 1, page 421.

[4Anonymous (4th April 1875) ‘Suicide of an Actress through Dread of the Contagious Diseases Act’, Reynold’s Newspaper.

[5] Layout of the Colchester Lock Hospital (1867) Ordnance Survey. [Available at] [Accessed on 27/03/2016]

Blog Post #3 – Masculinity, Male Prostitution and Homosexuality

Following on from Blog Post #2 and the analysis of the female body as a conveyor of venereal disease, I now intend to examine the absence of men within the forceful restrictions of legislature, and how this absence demonstrates the Victorian double-standard which sanctioned male lust and forced vulnerable women into a life of state registered prostitution to serve it. [1] I intend to examine the contradictions between male prostitution and the Contagious Diseases Act, as although authorities knew this was existent, there was mention of such activities in legislation. Victorian ideals of masculinity was as much enforced upon men as the virtuous virginal image was forced upon women, although the difference being that the Victorian ideal of masculinity was a promiscuous un-feminine heterosexual who had no limitations abound to them, something not all men could, or would want to, conform towards.

A prominent historian in this field of study, Judith Walkowitz, states that due to a want of easy amassment in the case of war, enlisted men were dissuaded from marrying, allowing for a ‘professional bachelor army without family ties’.[2] As a result, life for the unmarried soldier, within the confines of the camp, led many into the town in search of recreation and entertainment, and inevitably led the off-duty men into the world of prostitution. Ronald Pearsall argues that the army authorities tended to regard servicemen infected with venereal disease with indifference, further asserting that army officers expected the common soldier would contract venereal diseases at some stage.[3] B. W. Richardson comments upon the sanitary history of the men at Cambridge University:

“The prevalence of venereal disease is very great, and I received as an authority I cannot doubt that very few of the young men who go through University life escape one or other forms of the disease.”[4]

This stresses the distinctions between the men and women who had contracted venereal diseases; women were typecast as dishonourable and damaged, and men were supposedly acting upon their natural instincts. However, I have struggled to find any evidence of prosecution or mention in the Contagious Diseases Act of male prostitution, and the men that used them. Contrary to popular assumptions, prostitution has never been an entirely female profession, and the use of male prostitutes had been well-known throughout the nineteenth century, so why has this evidence been absent from mention in legislation and written studies of the profession?

An answer to this question may be the fear of changing ideas towards modern sexuality. Homosexuality became a crime in 1533 under the implementation of the Buggery Act, which “made sex with a man (or an animal) a capital offence”[5], whereby the association of sexual relations with animals and men tells us a lot about the homophobic nature of society which attempted to degrade and create an inhumane image surrounding homosexuality. However, due to the evolution of modern thinking towards sexuality, in 1859, Havelock Ellis believed that “many behaviours previously labelled as abnormal were actually normal” and he “denied that [homosexuality] could be considered a vice or a form of moral degeneracy, because a person did not choose it” and “reasoned [that] it should not be considered immoral or criminal”[6] This fear of disruption in gender and social norms may have been a serious reason as to the implementation of such a forceful and invasive act, yet it still does not answer why male prostitution was not regarded in legislation. Henry Mayhew, the influential nineteenth century social investigator, interviewed both male and female prostitutes around the area of London, though he thoroughly investigated the trend of young female prostitutes, and only inferred the same of men [7]. This acknowledgement without further response shows the common judgement towards homosexuality in the nineteenth century, with evidence to show that male prostitution was a “flourishing trade […] in London from the eighteen sixties onwards”[8], although these activities seldom being discussed or even considered.

The cause of this has been greatly debated by scholars, however gender historians such as Robert Shoemaker disagree that male prostitution was seldom considered by Victorian society.

“There was some tendency to overlook sexually aggressive men who had sex with other men, as long as their partners were young, the older man assumed the active role of penetrator, and that man also slept with women. Such men established their masculinity through the use of their penis and by having intercourse with women as well as young men.” [9]

By this observation, homosexuality was intertwined into the instinctive nature of masculinity, and as homosexuality was silenced in this period, this would suggest the reason as to why this was not mentioned amongst limitations on prostitution. It can also be suggested that whilst female prostitution was seen as a ‘working class vice’, male prostitution was deemed to be an ‘aristocratic vice’, which was reinforced in newspaper coverage of scandals such as the Cleveland Street scandal of 1889, thereby separating the two classes once again.

Figure 1: “The West End Scandals, Some Further Sketches,” Illustrated Police News, 4th December 1889. [10] For further information on scandal, see


[1] Jones, Claire (2012) ‘Prostitution and the Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866 and 1869)’, HerStoria [Available at] [Accessed 27/03/16]

[2] Walkowitz, Judith R. (1994) Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State, University of Cambridge, England, page. 74

[3] Pearsall, Ronald (1975) Night’s Black Angels: The Forms and Faces of Victorian Cruelty, Hodder and Stoughton, London.

[4] Richardson, B. W. (1864) The Medical Times and Gazette: A Journal of Medical Science, Literature, Criticism, and News, Volume II, page 660.

[5] Hyde, H. M. (1970) The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name: A Candid History of Homosexuality in Britain, MA: Little, Brown and Company, Boston, page 120

[6] Mayhew, Henry (1861) London Labour and the London Poor, Dover Publishing, England, page 38

[7] Savad, B. W and Yarber, W. L (2013) Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary America (8th ed.) McGraw-Hill, New York, page 46.

[8] Kilday, A. & Nash, D. (2010). Histories of crime: Britain 1600-2000, Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire, page 24

[9] Shoemaker, Robert B. (1998) Gender in English Society 1650-1850: The Emergence of Separate Spheres? Routledge, England, page 80.

[10] “The West End Scandals, Some Further Sketches,” Illustrated Police News, 4th December 1889. [Available at] [Accessed on 26/03/2016]

Blog Post #2 -The Dehumanisation of Women & the Working-Class

Following on from the representation of middle-class and working-class women in Blog Post #1, I know intend to analyse why women were linked with negative connotations and how this dehumanised women of all classes into mere objects whose primary reason for being was for the sexual use of men. (For further background information on the behaviour towards women in the 19th century, see previous blog post ‘Corsetry: The Objectification of the Female Body in Victorian Britain’.) In order to understand the fear rested upon women in the Victorian period, it is essential to understand the context with which women were viewed as dangerous beings compared to their male counterparts. It is this thought that was behind the implementation of the Contagious Diseases Act, where the polarisation of gender becomes more apparent as we delve into why the direction of the act, although involving an activity of which both male and female would have to equally participate, was only administered to women.

This clear evidence of gender symbolism within the inspection of venereal disease was concluded upon by the belief of women’s bodies as sexual pollutants, which can be evaluated further by reflecting upon the work of Mary Spongberg, in her study Feminizing Venereal Disease. Spongberg argues that the female body has been regarded as a sexual pollutant throughout history, and related the social and cultural images of women as the carriers of venereal disease, alongside more general views that suggest the inferiority of the female body.[1]

Figure 3: The Contagious Diseases Bill, 1864 [2]

Throughout the nineteenth century, doctors were concerned as to why gonorrhoea was undetectable in women and yet had such severe symptoms in men. The discovery that venereal diseases could cause infection in both internal and external organs created even more anxiety surrounding women’s body’s as this suggested that women could be the carriers of infection without showing any external symptoms. It was held in popular thought “that women could spontaneously generate gonorrhoea”[3], as well as that less feminine women were more susceptible to disease, feeding into the idea that women had to fit into the stereotypical wife and mother description to be respectable in Victorian society. This ideology appeared to suggest to contempories that women were more dangerous than men as the conveyors of venereal disease, and therefore was of good reason to place them as the sole focus of forceful treatments implemented through the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Despite this clear instruction of thought from a patriarchal elite, there were few contempories, such as William Acton, who acknowledged that the attempt to spread alarm amongst the link between venereal disease and women was false.  In 1870, Acton produced a substantial study in which he analysed the statistics of venereal disease in the Metropolis during the years 1846-48, and again in 1868. The table (inset, left) was created to highlight the inadequacies amongst fear-mongering media reports which greatly exaggerated the amount of deaths caused directly from venereal diseases amongst female prostitutes.

Figure 4: William Acton’s Table Distinguishing Males from the Females, their ages, and the Forms of the Disease of which they Died in London. [4]

Acton firstly comments upon the rareness of fatal cases linked with venereal diseases, further commenting:

“[…] only 127 deaths are noted during 156 weeks, out of a population amounting to more than 3,000,000. The above table disposes of the hypothesis that any large number of females, whether prostitutes or not, die annually of syphilis.”[5]

In an additional table created, Acton looks at the death of females from syphilis at different ages:

Figure 5: Deaths from Syphilis of Females at Different Ages in England and Wales, and in London, in the years, 1855, 1866, and 1867. [6]

Acton then attempts to explain the higher numbers of syphilis recorded in recent years:

“It is probable that at least a portion of the increase in the number of cases of syphilis is due to improved and more accurate registration.”[7]

By acknowledging the rarity of such cases resulting in death, Acton shows the exaggeration and mania created in the media was false, and therefore attending to further agendas to keep women fearful of the ‘great social evil’. This would suggest that the regulationist policy seems to aim its fearful propaganda towards women of the higher classes, instead of the population as a whole. Despite this increasing fear towards the capabilities of women’s body’s, the act of prostitution itself was not banned. This highlights the fact that prostitution was regarded as necessary for men to fulfil their instinctive sexual urges, whilst urging ‘respectable’, that is, middle-class women to steer away from public vices and remain in the safety of the private sphere. In conclusion, the fear that was pushed into public thought only accentuated the government’s agenda of creating a spatial order with clear class and gender biases. [8] As a result, the implementation of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1864 was highly significant in the way it emphasised prostitution as a tolerated, yet hidden element in the everyday lives of men.



[1] Spongberg, Mary (1997) Feminizing Venereal Disease, The Body of the Prostitute in the Nineteenth-Century Medical Discourse, Macmillan Press Ltd, England, page 5

[2] FIGURE 3: Contagious Diseases Bill (20th June  1864) The House of Commons, PP 1864, page 212

[3] Carpenter, Mary Wilson (2010) Health, Medicine, and Society in Victorian England, ABC-CLIO, England, page. 73

[4] FIGURE 4: Acton, William (1870) Prostitution Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects in London and Other Large Cities and Garrison Towns, John Churchill and Sons, London, page 34

[5] Acton, William (1870) Prostitution Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects in London and Other Large Cities and Garrison Towns, John Churchill and Sons, London, page 34

[6] FIGURE 5: Acton, William (1870) Prostitution Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects in London and Other Large Cities and Garrison Towns, John Churchill and Sons, London, page 35

[7] Acton, William (1870) Prostitution Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects in London and Other Large Cities and Garrison Towns, John Churchill and Sons, London, page 34

[8] Howell, Philip (2000) ‘A Private Contagious Diseases Act: Prostitution and Public Space in Victorian Cambridge’, Journal of Historical Geography, Volume 26, Issue 3, page 376

Blog Post #1 – An Introduction to Female Prostitution, Class Separation and the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864

Blog Research Question:

How the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act was used as an attempt to restrict the British population and return to a state of seperate social classes in a patriarchal society.

I aim to answer this question through a series of four blog posts which will analyse and evaluate the gender roles within society in nineteenth century England.

Blog Post #1 – An Introduction to Female Prostitution, Class Separation and the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864, will introduce the separate spheres and prevailing attitudes towards the working-class in Victorian Britain, familiarising the context of which the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 was implemented. I will also discuss the limitations with the historiography of prostitution during the period, and how said research has been without deliberation for further agendas behind the implementation of the Acts.

Blog Post #2 – The Dehumanisation of Women and the Working-Class, will focus on the popular thought of the period which made working-class women and prostitution interchangeable concepts, and with scaremongering from influential writers, the women’s body also became interchangeable with venereal disease.

Blog Post #3 – Male prostitution, Homosexuality and Masculinity, will primarily show the treatment the ‘other’ received, which refers to anyone that did not conform to the patriarchal, homophobic framework of society, and the contradictions of the government towards male prostitution.

Blog Post #4 – The Conclusion, will suggest that the Act was not implemented to restrict prostitution, but was implemented to pursue further agendas such as limiting and controlling the actions of the British population.



This blog was created to examine the sexual double standard in mid-nineteenth century English legislature, and how gender-biased acts such as the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 highlighted the fear of the government towards women and the working-class who were considered to be absconding from their pre-supposed roles within society.

Postcard from Colchester, Essex c. late 19th century. [2]


Contempories grew alarmed at the spiralling numbers of soldiers in the British Army who had contracted venereal diseases, due to evidence such as that from the 1862 Royal Commission into Sanitary Conditions in the Army, which revealed that almost half of the servicemen in Colchester had at some stage received medical treatment for venereal disease. [1] 

Due to the alarm of the plummeting health and safety of British soldiers, the Contagious Diseases Act was implemented in 1864, with subsequent reforms in 1867 and 1869.

The Act allowed for the forcible registration and brutal internal examinations of any woman suspected of being a prostitute, with women who were found to have a venereal disease being unwillingly held in a lock hospital to receive treatment. Through not banning the act of prostitution itself,the government essentially accepted that it was impossible for a man to resist their sexual needs, thus by upholding a different standard of chastity for men and women, it is evident to see that there were altered morals set for each gender, and that prostitution was not the main fear that pressed the act into legislation. This double standard is highlighted in this extract from the Royal Commission of 1871:

“We may at once dispose of any recommendation founded on the principle of putting both parties to the sin of fornication on the same footing by the obvious but not less conclusive reply that 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; with the other it is an irregular indulgence of a natural impulse.” [3]


The Contagious Diseases Act was not the only legislation that outlined the Victorian sexual double-standards, the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act also retained this double-standard of sexual behaviour by allowing a husband to divorce his wife by proving she had committed adultery, however for a wife to divorce her husband, she had to prove adultery, as well as incest, bigamy or cruelty, proving this ideology was perpetrated throughout society. This also allows us to explore the contradicting chauvinistic nature of the period that permitted sexual promiscuity for men and required virtue and chastity of women, however, the forceful nature of the Contagious Diseases Acts sets it apart from other legislation of the period.

The aim of this research is to confirm that prostitution was not the main fear that influenced the implementation of these acts, but the greater fear held by the government towards women evading their angel of the house role and of the working-class ‘spreading’ their immoralities into middle-class homes. By exploring Victorian society and analysing the Contagious Diseases Acts, we are able to view how and why contempories feared the interception of the working-class into middle-class homes. The majority of female prostitutes were from the working-classes, whereby it was common for families to be living in poverty due to the lack of economic opportunities available to them, and as a result of these statistics, working-class women became synonymous with prostitution. To highlight the attempt to further separate the working-class from ‘virtuous’ families, I have created a graph which shows the difference between one predominantly middle-class female problem with one predominantly working-class female problem.

Figure 2: Google Ngram Viewer marking the difference between written works on hysteria and prostitution, 1800-1900. [4]

Women considered to have hysteria exhibited a wide variety of symptoms including erotic fantasy and vaginal lubrication, [5] emphasising male distress towards female sexuality. In his casebook of 1854, the East Sussex physician Dr. Ormerod indicated that hysteria was chiefly a middle-class disease, stating that it was removed from affecting working-class women as ‘tired limbs do not fidget’.[6] Despite both hysteria and prostitution being targeted to re-enforce the chaste virtue that a women’s body should uphold, the class separation was again evident in the treatment, sensationalism and negative connotations given to prostitution and the working-class.

It must be mentioned that of course prostitution was not solely a working-class female occupation, however middle-class women would typically only become sex workers when they became widowed or lost their inheritance to a male relative, and therefore became ‘working-class’ with regards to losing their reputation as a member of the higher classes. As is shown on the graph, printed cases of hysteria greatly outnumbered that of the number of works published regarding prostitution. This suggests that hysteria was a far greater problem towards the end of the nineteenth century, but was not as sensationalised in the media due to the apparent upholding of middle-class reputations. There was a need to spread fear amongst the population about the working-class women and prostitution in order to create the boundaries appropriate to re-install the morality of society.




[1] Army Medical Department (1864) Statistical, Sanitary and Medical Records for the Year 1862, The House of Commons, Vol. XXXVI, page 89.

[2] FIGURE 1: Postcard from Colchester, Essex from the late 19th century. [Accessed on 23/03/2016] [Available at]

[3] “Report of the Royal Commission on the Administration and Operation of the Contagious Diseases Acts 1866-69 (1871)”, Parliamentary Papers, 1871 (C. 408), page XIX.

[4] FIGURE 2: Google Ngram Viewer of Hysteria and Prostitution in 1800 and 1900. [Accessed 23/03/2016] [Available at]

[5] Oughourlian, Jean-Michel (1991) The Puppet of Desire: The Psychology of Hysteria, Possession and Hypnosis, trans. Eugene Webb, Stanford University Press, Stanford, page. 145 in Maines, Rachel P. (1998). The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria”, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, page 8.

[6] Levine-Clark, Marjorie (2004) Beyond the Reproductive Body: The Politics of Women’s Heath and Work in Early Victorian England, Ohio State University Press, Columbus, page 102


A Fractured Movement: Inter-War Feminism and the Re-Structuring of Gender after WW1

The Suffragette Movement halted its enfranchisement agenda at the emergence of the First World War. All bodies were to be mobilised towards the war effort, the winning of the war being the universal agenda for both men and women. However, the women’s movement did not stop entirely. Instead, some chose to shift their attentions onto pacifism, promoting peace in a world at war. Both men and women were supporters of Pacifism, however this sparked a new campaign for women specifically to rally their already unified support against. This re-direction in interests paved the way for more branches of the women’s movement to be made, effectively de-centralising the aims of the group and scattering them into many different interests.


Representation of the Peoples Act, 1918

The Great War was of course monumental in changing the pre-supposed gender roles assigned during the Victorian period, women began working in factories, became head of the household whilst the male figurehead was away, and men returned broken people, not the ‘strong, heroic’ figure that was expected of them. A majority of men that came back from fighting on the front had horrific disfigurements and disabilities, as well as suffering from PTSD and other trauma-related disorders, therefore they did not re-integrate back into society or work upon their arrival as expected. Therefore the ability of women in the position of power was cemented into society, and it was only a short matter of time before this was regarded in legislature from the government. Despite this, popular thought still held strong, and despite proof of capability, women and working-class men still had to fight for their equality.

Alterations in the expectations of men and women was highlighted by the implementation of the Representation of the Peoples Act in 1918, which was heralded as a historic act, transforming the voting system in the United Kingdom.


Extract from the Representation of the Peoples Act (1918) [1]

However, as shown in the extract above, the Act was not extended equally across Britain. It is ‘often thought that the “woman question” was solved in 1918’ [2] although the act itself disqualified a majority of women from enfranchisement, despite the importance of its implementation. The Act of 1918:

  • Enfranchised men aged 19 and 20 who were on active service.
  • Introduced universal manhood suffrage by lowering the residential qualifications for male voters.
  • Removed the poor relief disqualification.
  • Enfranchised almost 8.5 million women.



The significance of this act should not be disputed, however the above extract demonstrates the limitations of the legislation, stating that only women over the age of 30 years old – who were married to electors – would be able to vote. Irrespective, with 8.5 million female voters now on the electoral roll, established politicians were forced to reconcile their pre-war opposition to women’s suffrage with their need to win women’s votes. [3] This defined women’s new role as active participants in the political system, and guided a way for new agendas to be focused on. Historian Mary Hilson suggests this was the cause for the ‘fractured movement’.

“[…] the groups energies were widely diverted into all manner of causes from pacifism to birth control, in contrast to the unifying force of the suffrage issue in the pre-war period. ” [4]

This fractured movement has been largely missed from scholarly research, despite some of the groups aims still being protested today. Such aims include equal pay, which outstandingly has not been configured almost a century after the attempt to equalise the sexes. According to the 1911 census, domestic service was the largest employer of women and girls, with 28% of all employed women (1.35 million women) in England and Wales engaged in domestic service, however women were still paid less than their male counterparts. Trade Unions were established in the 1850’s to cope with this problem, although as we can see from the illustrations below from modern media, this has not quite yet been achieved.

Illustration by Greg Perry for the Kelowna Daily Courier, Published 7th May 2014 [5]

Clearly, as Perry highlights, the Representation of the Peoples Act (and subsequent reform acts) may not have been as transforming of society as is taught. What influence is it to be able to vote if the government policies you’re voting for do not correspond with equality? It is irresponsible to claim that equality of the sexes was solved in 1918, or 1928, with the subsequent law which allowed all women over the age of 21 to vote. Therefore, why has so much of the research and analysis on the women’s movement stopped in 1914?

Re-Structuring of Gender in the Inter-War Period 

Two members of the Women’s Police Service comparing notes with a male constable at Euston station, London, 1918. Q 31088 [7]
Susan Kingsley Kent argues that feminism was killed by the experience of the Great War. Although to an extent this could be argued,  I propose that the Great War was followed by a Sex War, with both genders struggling to re-assert their positions in society. As is well known, women became completely mobilised in the war effort, working in factories and covering jobs and tasks previously thought to be ‘masculine’. Men returned from war not the ‘heroic, soldier’ image that was expected of them, the traumatic experiences and inability to work and return as the breadwinner left the men in the ‘female’ role. This was further implemented by the Sex Disqualification Removal Act of 1919 which enabled women to enter professions previously closed to them. Men coming back from the war were not returning to the patriarchal world they had left, further challenging their re-integration into a new British society.



Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells, 1918, by Anna Airy. Art.IWM ART 2271. [6]

The Suffrage movement prior to the war was supported by a huge number of women, although not a large proportion of the British population. After the war, it seemed women universally agreed through the forced interruption of seperate spheres that there abilities were matched with men, which for centuries had been taught otherwise. Although it is true to say that many women were working before 1914, their work opportunities were tremendously strengthened by their support and hardship on the home-front.


Without the ability to vote, women still attended to every duty needed of them. But, it was not just women gaining better opportunities which changed the experiences for women. 9% (750,000) of British men under 45 died in the First World War, prompting historians to call these young men the ‘lost generation’. As a direct result of the limited number of men returning from the war front, women were able to keep the job roles assigned to them during the war, but this was not the only change in society caused by this lost generation of men. One of the only expectations of women pre-war was marriage.

Without the push for marriage, women no longer needed to keep up the angel of the house role. Without a husband or children, they could focus on pushing their careers or involvement in ‘male’ activities. Women began to filter into the political world as a result of this, for example the Labour party had a seperate women’s movement who supported the men in workplace disputes, but there were also ‘women’s issues’ – notable birth control and family allowances – that were strongly pressed in the 1920’s on a trade union dominated party. [8]

Despite the incredible opportunities that came with the implementation of the Representation of the Peoples Act of 1918, there were some obvious drawbacks. Despite the increased jobs available to women, they generally remained in traditionally female occupations such as teaching. The vote was limited, and therefore not representative of the nation, and ‘higher’ politics was still reserved to men, limiting the amount of influence women had. Nonetheless, the Act was just the beginning of a series of acts thats aims were to equalise the people of Britain, such as that of the reformed Equal Franchise Act of 1928, which inevitable gave all women over the age of 21 the vote. Therefore, even though the 1918 act was not as ground-breaking as was hoped, it was fundamental in allowing the implementation of further equality acts that transformed society and allowed for the re-structured gender roles to applied to modern Britain.



[1] Extract from the Representation of the Peoples Act (6th February 1918) HLRO HL/PO/PU/1/1918/7&8G5c64 [Available at ] [Accessed 05/03/2016]

[2] Beddoe, Deirdre (1989) Back to Home and Duty: women between the wars,1918-1939, Pandora Publishing, London, p. 132

[3] Macguire, G. E (1998) Conservative Women: A History of women and the Conservative Party, 1874-1997, MacMillan, Basingstoke, pp. 49-50

[4] Hilson, Mary (2001) ‘Women Voters and the Rhetoric of Patriotism in the British General Election of 1918’, Women’s History Review, Issue 10, p. 326

[5] Perry, Greg (7th May 2014) ‘Gender Pay Gap Worsens’ [Available at ] [Accessed on 06/03/2016]

[6] Airy, Anna (1918) Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow. Art.IWM ART 2271. [Available at] [Acccessed 06/03/2016]

[7] Nicholls, Horace (1918) Imperial War Museum Photograph Archive Collection [Available ] [Accessed 06/03/2016]

[8] Howarth, Janet (1st June 1996) ‘Making Peace. The Reconstruction of Gender in Interwar Britain’ (Book Review), The English Historical Review, Vol.111(442), p. 799

Corsetry: The Objectification of the Female Body in Victorian Britain


“In every age, the different ways of dressing are intimately connected with moral, social and aesthetic codes.” [1]

Corsetry was a key underpinning of female attire during the Victorian era, it symbolised femininity and seperated women firmly away from the working attire of men. The feminine silhouette created by the corset singled out the respectable, moral women, with the sexually promiscuous woman, one with ‘loose morals,’ a term created for non-corset wearing women. [2]

The Nineteenth century was a period of enormous change, the impact of industrialisation created a ripple effect throughout society, transforming popular opinion and modifying the predetermined gender roles so clearly established in Victorian society.

The rising middle classes enjoyed increased disposable income which was spent on living the lifestyles previously unreachable to them, thereafter the grandeur dress of the aristocrats of former centuries became modern practice. The changing working conditions meant that agrarian women were no longer needed as ‘accessory breadwinners’and were therefore pushed into the popular Victorian image of the ‘angel in the house.’

The Angel in the house role cemented women into the private sphere, there to be accessories for their husband and children. Unable to include themselves in education or schooling, unable to engage in intellectual debate and (for the majority of women) unable to work – this encouraged the notion of women being significantly weaker, in mind and body, than men. Women were perceived as attachments to their husbands, not adding anything other than their looks and organisation of the home.

The female body has always been in the depths of discussion, even today, the female body is the focal point of many debates. Why this is not the same for the male body is another research point, however this should make it of no surprise that the female body was, once again, subject to great objectification by the Victorian public.

Corsetry became an acquired practice for both genders. However, boys would normally only wear corsets up until the age of 10, in order to pull back their shoulders and align their posture. The main focus for corsetry was aimed at women attempting to achieve the ‘perfect, modest, contoured’ figure, which in the nineteenth century meant a significantly unnaturally small waist. But with the availability of information about the dangers of corseting, why did so many woman conform to the nuisance garment?

Historian Leigh Summers answers this question by analysing the constructions of Victorian femininity, noting that through the ways in which binding and constricting one’s body could paradoxically offer sexual and social freedoms. For example, middle-class women could leave their homes until late into their pregnancies by corseting, as this hid their ‘indecent’ pregnant bellies. [3] Summers believes corsets were a ‘lifetime companion’ for many Victorian women [4], the corset simultaneously shaped the literal and metaphorical contours of acceptable femininity, and provided the means by which women could inhabit those contours in everyday life.

C. Willett Cunnington wrote in Englishwomen’s Clothing In The Nineteenth Century: “[…] there was no pretence that the underclothing worn was comfortable,” [5] which aids us in our understanding of why women wore the garments. They were (obviously) not for comfort, they were restricting and limiting when doing minuscule tasks, however they adorned to the admired figure during the period, and kept in keeping with genteel respectability. This succumbing to social norms and in keeping with their gender roles was followed by a majority of the population, as shown in the table below:


The decline in the width of waist is evident to see during the Victorian period. Although, there is more reason behind the severe push in corset wearing for women to correctly be identified as a ‘respectable’ lady.


To be a ‘beautiful lady’ as remarked in the above advertisement, women would have to limit their activities, be deemed unable to work, and be shown as weak (due to the number of women who would faint as a direct result of wearing corsets). Rendering the woman unfit for work or strenuous activity, this deemed it an attraction for the patriarchal hierarchy who felt their authority under threat by a quickly changing social structure.  In order to secure women were uneducated and unfit for work, the angel in the house ideology was pushed upon the nation in an attempt to keep women as mere accessories to their husbands.

Women were expected to wear corsets at all times, day and night. Any woman who did not adhere to these unwritten rules was noted as disrespectful and unfeminine. This shows us that corset wearing was tied up with morality, as when worn froze the female form and exaggerated it’s womanliness.

The corset made the woman attractive for men, and aids us in analysing the role women played in Victorian society. Women of all classes, races, and religions wore corsets due to social and moral codes, restricting female movements and abilities yet enhancing their feminine sexuality. A slender waist suggests that the woman has not borne children yet, implying virginity and pureness – and the virginal female was idealised by Victorian men. [7]

The misogynistic social attitudes and treatment towards women during the Victorian period are prevalent in the social norms that women had to adhere to in order to be respected in society. The corset is evidence of these restrictions placed primarily on women in order to refrain them from escaping their assigned role of housekeeper. Patriarchal hierarchy’s felt threatened and under pressure to re-assert these pre-conceived gender roles which was becoming de-stabilised by the debate of equal rights for women and the working-class. To keep women absent from the new modern economy kept her role at home instead of in the male public sphere, although many historians now questions whether these spheres were as defined as previously thought.





[1] Current Permanent Exhibition: ‘Dressing the body. Silhouettes and fashion (1550-2015)’ at Barcelona Design Museum in Barcelona, Spain [Accessed on 23/02/2016] [Available at]

[2] Aspinall, Hannah (2012) ‘The Fetishization and Objectification of the Female Body in Victorian Culture,’ brightONLINE student literary journal [Accessed on 23/02/2016] [Available at]

[3] Storr, Merl (2002) ‘Book Review: Bound to Please: a history of the Victorian corset’, Feminist Review; Palgrave Macmillan Journals, Issue 71, p. 105. [Accessed 07/03/2016] [Available at]

[4] Summers, Leigh (2001) Bound to Please: a history of the Victorian corset, Berg Press, London & New York, p. 4

[5] Willett Cunnington, C. (2013) English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations, Courier Corporation, London, p. 20.

[6] Richardson, Jane and Kroeber, A. L, ‘Three Centuries of Women’s Dress Fashions’ in Wills, Gordon and Midgley, David (1973) Fashion Marketing: An Anthology of Viewpoints and Perspectives, George Allen and Unwin, London, p. 61, Table 5

[7] Aspinall, Hannah (2012) ‘The Fetishization and Objectification of the Female Body in Victorian Culture,’ brightONLINE student literary journal [Accessed on 23/02/2016] [Available at]


The role of masculinity within the Suffrage Movement


While we are fed from a young age images of an all white female militant group which formed the Suffragette movement, we are missing a vital component, men.

A meeting of the suffragette Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Photo courtesy of


Before 1918, roughly 60% of male householders had the vote, singling out working-class men unable to participate. Many would counter-argue this with the fact that 60% of men having the vote was not a problem seen as women had none, however, this 60% was made from the elite higher classes, therefore  unrepresentative of the male population? Academics should not use these figures as a competition against which gender was worse-off, even though women had no inclusion, this should not mean that the men who were also not included should be invisible.


Suffragettes in Trousers

Men were an active part of the Suffrage campaign, however there are only a few prominent figures ever thoroughly analysed in relation to their work with women’s rights. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Hill are amongst those few; prominent and influential figures of the elite in Britain, of which it could be argued that they had a lot to lose in publicly showing their support for women’s equality. By showing their support for the power of femininity, according to anti-equality supporters, they were losing some of the masculinity that made them influential. Although why these men in particular are focused on unbeknownst to me, men in high places have the power to change laws, to persuade a greater number of people and be seen as the driving force behind these new modern ideologies, however it was ordinary men that marched alongside their female counterparts during suffragette rallies.

male support pic1
Male supporters at a Suffragette meeting. Photo courtesy of

The Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage was founded in America in January 1909, and by 1910 had ten branches in Britain. This integration of male and female support for equality was seen as inadvisable in a time when gender roles were increasingly being re-enforced by an unstable and fearful government. In essence, with acts such as the Contagious Diseases Act of 1867, which attempted to push the ‘assigned’ gender roles back into place, this disallignment of violent and protesting women (defined in early 20th century terms as masculine traits) only further fuelled the fear felt by society in an increasingly unstable country.

Women, especially working-class women, were having to escape their ‘angel in the house’ roles, the private spheres that kept their delicate selves away from danger and intellectual debate. Due to an increasing British population, poverty-stricken families whose women were forced into prostitution, and women who took the jobs of men who were serving in the First World War, women’s roles were naturally changing along with changes in society. Men, especially working-class men, grew accustomed to this. By seeing first hand that women were entirely capable of completing tasks previously deemed only capable by men, supporting the Suffrage Movement must have been instinctive.

So why weren’t more men involved in the movement? Possibly to avoid humiliation, to not tarnish their careers, or simply because the men that could not vote and therefore would be most inclined to feel support for equal voting would have been the poorest of society. Restrictions including long and unsocial working hours, no money to travel to marches, lower reading and writing skills (unable to read or contribute towards equal rights publications) meant that the number of public supporters, in theory, would have been a lot lower than the British citizens who supported the movement in private.

An article published in the Telegraph in April 2015 by Neil Lyndon believes that men who supported equal rights are still not being represented in modern society:

The reason is that the whole truth is extremely inconvenient. It conflicts with the dominant feminist narrative which portrays women as the victims of repressive men, from whom liberation and progress had to be wrested by militant uprising. The true history of votes for women, however, is not a story of sex war but of a continuous progress of electoral reform over a century from 1832-1928 in which women’s suffrage was only one element. [1]

Evelyn Sharp believed that the role played by the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage was very important in the struggle for the vote, and as with Lyndon’s article, Sharp agrees that the votes for women movement was not a sex war:

It is impossible to rate too highly the sacrifices that they (Henry Nevinson and Laurence Housman) and H. N. Brailsford, F. W. Pethick Lawrence, Harold Laski, Israel Zangwill, Gerald Gould, George Lansbury, and many others made to keep our movement free from the suggestion of a sex war. [2]

The patriarchal hierarchy so established into Victorian Britain would have no doubt been de-stabilised by the emergence of the Suffrage Movement, the superiority elite males held was something of which they wanted to hold onto, and therefore strong measures were put into place to restore the gender roles that made the government comfortable.

While there was opposition to equal rights movements from both men and women, men were an incredible source of support for the group, and as it was only the elite men who held positions in influential roles, the support of even a minority of these men would push the Suffrage Movement into places where it would gain the maximum publicity and attention. Without taking away the insistent hard-work and appalling treatment of the female members of the group, I argue that the memory of the Suffrage movement be as inclusive as its principles.

  • For more in-depth coverage of masculinity in the Suffrage Movement read history nerd’s blog essay via link!


[1] Lyndon, Neil (2nd April 2015) ‘Why has everyone forgotten about male suffrage?’ The Telegraph [Accessed on 22/02/2016] [Available at]

[2] Sharp, Evelyn (1933) Unfinished adventure selected reminiscences from an Englishwoman’s life, John Lane Publishing, London.

J.S Mill – The Subjection of Women

“That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes – the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.”

Continue reading “J.S Mill – The Subjection of Women”

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