Document Type



During England’s Victorian period, the Contagious Diseases Acts were established, which regulated women’s bodies and represented the intersectionality of gender, class, and power. Before the CD Acts, England began to grow rapidly during the Industrial Revolution, which was in part made possible by the work of underpaid and undervalued working-class women. One option for women to earn an income was prostitution. Men who worked as sailors and soldiers were common customers in prostitution, which contributed to the rapid spread of venereal disease throughout the British Empire. In the spirit of protecting men, the first CD Acts were passed in the 1860s. The CD Acts allowed any woman who was suspected of being a prostitute to be legislated, policed, and held hostage by men in the medical field. As a result of the targeting of women’s bodies, men and women unified to protect the rights of prostitutes against the unjust policies. By analyzing newspapers, speeches, and essays revealing the sexist and classist ideologies supporting the CD Acts’ legislation, this project will explore how men legally exercised control of women, and how those actions were justified by society’s perception of medicine, policing, and the social status of its practitioners, thereby allowing men to maintain their elite status through regulation. It will also address how women and allies worked together against the CD Acts in an effort to advance women’s rights. It is important to recognize the levels of bodily autonomy women have had, and why the regulation of working-class women has continued to protect men in positions of authority. This research is significant to understanding the use of women’s bodies in legislation and how the CD Acts and their repeal would later work in establishing feminist movements that crossed political, class, and power boundaries.



Thesis Comittee

Dr. Sarah Wiggins, Thesis Advisor
Dr. Meghan Healy-Clancy, Committee Member
Dr. Andrew Holman, Committee Member