The First Time Irish Women Came Together To Repeal

So many parallels with this! It seems like we've come a long way, but sometimes not so far at all. Common to both movements is a bunch of very brave ladies. Five days to go! #repealtheeighth

Do you remember the story of Anna Haslam? She spent over five decades working steadily to win the right to vote for women. That was one looong campaign, but she got there in the end. It wasn’t her first campaign though. There was another campaign, before the suffrage one got started. This one was actually the first time that women in Ireland came together to protest and lobby for change. The law in question was the series of Contagious Diseases Acts which were passed in the 1860s, and ladies united for its repeal.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,  Medical Examination, Rue des Moulins  (1894).

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Medical Examination, Rue des Moulins (1894).

In the middle of the nineteenth century, nearly sixty years before the establishment of the Irish Free State, people in Ireland were subject to decisions made in Westminster. It was the height of the British Empire, and Ireland, along with many other countries around the world, had a large army presence. There were garrisons all over the island, but significant centres were located at the Curragh, Cobh (then Queenstown), and Cork. These large populations of soldiers created similarly large numbers of very poor women who found opportunity there in prostitution. This was encouraged by the army, who believed that this was a necessary service for the men. In fact, they regulated for it in colonies such as India, carrying out regular compulsory internal examinations on non-British women, and expelling them if they were found to be carrying an STD. Syphilis and gonorrhoea were running riot through army ranks at this time, and was affecting the army in serious enough numbers that the British government decided to bring in legislation to deal with it in all areas of the Empire. Bringing in legislation to compel women who were British subjects to submit to the same crude treatment was thought to be more convenient than bringing in women who were not British subjects solely for sexual service, something which they had already begun to do.  

This was the first Contagious Diseases Act of 1864. It was believed at the time that syphilis originated in women’s bodies. The Act thus gave powers to police in specific centres (and a five mile radius of these) to arrest women if they had a personal suspicion of her working as a prostitute, to submit to an internal genital examination by a male doctor (this was described as ‘steel rape’ by repeal campaigners), to be restrained in a ward for nine months until she was cured (although syphilis was incurable). If she refused to submit to this examination, she would be imprisoned for three months or sentenced to a period of hard labour. The soldiers themselves were not subject to any such examination or treatment. In 1866, the Act was amended to add the Irish garrison towns. In 1869, more areas were added, and the three month prison sentence doubled to six. All of these new laws applied only to women. The police assigned to these new duties dressed in plain clothes, and kept watch on women of all ages and all classes as they went about their lives. Women were particularly vulnerable while outdoors, especially if they met or greeted any man, known or unknown to them. No proof was required, and many women were arrested on the basis of rumours, gossip, or local grudges.

Women began to come together to protest these Acts. A huge barrier was the subject of the laws. Respectable ladies in the Victorian period were not meant to know anything about sex, prostitution, or sexually-transmitted diseases. Social rules for these women were extremely strict. It took an enormous amount of bravery to speak out.

“There are a great many ladies who exert themselves very much and we Catholic clergy do not approve of their putting placards before young females inviting them to read these acts of which women never heard before.”
- A Catholic priest in 1871.
“…with the natural repugnance felt by women in approaching so loathsome a subject… [we] must lay aside our tastes and inclinations, and the veil of blissful ignorance in which we indolently shroud ourselves, and come face to face with the evil in its most repellent forms.”
- Mrs Henry Wigham, Dublin, 1880.

In 1870, Josephine Butler founded the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. A year later, there were branches of the LNA in Dublin, Belfast, and Cork. This was when Anna Haslam got involved, and Isabella Tod was an important and influential campaigner with her. More organisations sprang up around the country to support Repeal. They organised petitions and public talks, they wrote to newspapers, and dispersed leaflets. This activism was an entirely new activity for all of the women involved. For the first time, women who were interested in improving the lives of women in Ireland found each other, worked together, and discovered that they were not voiceless. Many of these same women would go on to win huge social advancements for their sex through the next decades, in the areas of education, employment, and eventually, suffrage.

In the following 22 years, Parliament received over 17,000 petitions containing over two and a half million signatures. The key issues of the campaign were the misogynistic double standards applied, and the basic human rights and civil liberties it interfered with. Repeal finally came in Britain and Ireland in 1886.

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