Student Research Projects

Mothers, Moral Compasses, and Sisters to the Nation: Traditional and Radical Arguments against the Contagious Diseases Acts, 1864-1886

Student Rebecca Driscoll
Faculty Mentor(s)
Department History
Course History 460 : Senior Thesis


Between 1864 and 1886, England’s Parliament, appalled by the prominence of venereal disease in the military, passed the Contagious Diseases Acts (C.D. Acts) in an attempt to find and treat prostitutes with such diseases. The Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA) formed in response to the C.D. Acts, arguing that the legislation was not only immoral and seemed to legalize prostitution, but was also an attack solely on women and their rights.
The LNA was radical in that it was one of the first women’s groups to step into the public sphere and speak on a controversial topic. At the same time, however, members of the LNA relied heavily on traditional notions of middle-class femininity, which dictated that women were the “gentler sex” and possessed more morality than men. By casting themselves as mothers and sisters to the prostitutes affected by the Acts, and by declaring themselves to be the moral compasses of English society, the reformers began to shift their sphere of influence to the public realm, while still maintaining traditional respectability associated with middle-class femininity.