Sexual revolutionaries of the suffrage movement

LSE Library

Long before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, these suffrage campaigners were re-imagining women's roles and rights in love, sex, marriage, and reproduction.

Josephine Butler
Josephine Butler was an early suffrage campaigner, active during the late 19th century – but she is best remembered  for her campaigning on the rights of married women and sex workers. Josephine was married to clergyman, George Butler, a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. The couple shared a strong Christian faith, and were uncomfortable with the sexism and sexual double standards they observed in Oxford society.

From the 1850s, Josephine and her husband began to help support local 'fallen women' – some of whom came to stay in their home.

After the family moved to Liverpool in 1866, Josephine began visiting women in the local workhouse. She went on to set up two hostels, providing women with both shelter and employment.

Around the same time, Josephine was also campaigning for women to have a better education, and had been a signatory on the 1866 petition for women's suffrage.

In 1868, Josephine established the Married Women's Property Committee with fellow suffrage campaigner Elizabeth Wolstenholme.

Under the legal doctrine of coverture, married women had no legal rights and obligations of their own; all their property became their husband's, and divorce initiated by a woman was virtually impossible.

The committee's campaigning eventually led to the Married Women's Property Act 1882, which recognised husbands and wives as separate legal entities, and allowed women to own and control property in their own right.

Josephine's other big legislative campaign was against the Contagious Diseases Acts.

In an effort to prevent the spread of venereal diseases, these Acts made it legal to force any woman suspected of being a prostitute to undergo genital examinations – a process that Josephine referred to as 'surgical rape', or 'steel rape'.

Under the remit of the Acts, policemen routinely harassed and arrested working class women and prostitutes. Any woman found to have a sexually transmitted infection was confined to and treated in a 'lock hospital'.

In 1869, when women were barred from joining the newly formed National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, Josephine and Elizabeth responded by forming the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act.

Their manifesto stated that the Acts: "not only deprived poor women of their constitutional rights and forced them to submit to a degrading internal examination, but they officially sanctioned a double standard of sexual morality, which justified male sexual access to a class of 'fallen' women and penalised women for engaging in the same vice as men."

Forced examinations were eventually suspended in 1883, and the Acts were formally repealed in 1886.

Josephine's next campaign was to expose Britain's child prostitution trade. Her work led to increased protection for young girls, and the implementation of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885.

As well as raising the age of consent from 13 to 16, this Act made it illegal to use drugs, fraud, intimidation or abduction to 'procure' girls under 18 for sex.

Josephine died in 1906. This banner, designed by artist Mary Lowndes, was created in her memory two years later.

It was one of several banners commemorating and celebrating the work of early suffrage and women's rights campaigners.

They were carried by suffragist campaigners at a demonstration held by the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), on 13 June 1908.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme, Josephine's campaign partner, also made waves in her personal life.

She was in a free love relationship with feminist, secularist mill owner Ben Elmy, who joined Elizabeth's various committees campaigning for women's education and rights.

When Elizabeth fell pregnant in 1874 it caused such a scandal amongst other feminists that she reluctantly married Ben, becoming Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy.

Marie Stopes
Birth control pioneer Marie Stopes was the daughter of suffragist campaigner Charlotte Carmichael Stopes. Charlotte was a member of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), and the author of influential pro-suffrage publication,  'British Freewomen: Their Historical Privilege'.

Marie studied botany and geology, before becoming a lecturer in Palaeobotany.

In 1911 Marie married Canadian geneticist Reginald Ruggles Gates, but he struggled with both her feminism and her success.

Not only was Marie's academic work proving more successful than Reginald's, she had kept her own surname on principle, refused to accept his authority as head of the household, and was supportive of the suffrage cause.

Marie filed for divorce in 1913, on the grounds that the marriage had never been consummated.

She also began work on Married Love, a controversial book laying out her vision for how marriage should be – which included a chapter on contraception.

Married Love was published thanks to financial backing from Humphrey Verdon Roe, who went on to become Marie's second husband shortly afterwards.

Her second book, Wise Parenthood, was a manual ('for Married People') on birth control, published later the same year.

She followed this up with her free pamphlet, A Letter to Working Mothers on how to have healthy children and avoid weakening pregnancies, which was intended to be distributed to poorer women.

After suffering a devastating stillbirth, Marie returned to work in 1920 and began engaging in public speaking, and responding to letters asking for advice on sex, marriage, and contraception.

Her Letter to Working Mothers had not been well received by working class women, so Marie sought a more practical approach.

Both Marie's husband Humphrey, and her friend and fellow birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, had previously tried but failed to open birth control clinics.

In 1920 Marie resigned from her lecturer role. Together, she and Humphrey opened The Mothers' Clinic in north London.

Marie's reproductive health clinic was free for all married women.

She was anti-abortion, believing that contraception should be women's only method for controlling their fertility.

She was also in favour of using birth control for eugenics, or what she termed "racial progress".

The clinic even offered a contraceptive device known as the "Pro-Race cervical cap".

Marie established a network of clinics across the UK, which went on to become global NGO Marie Stopes International – which does now offer safe abortion services, as well as contraceptive advice and reproductive healthcare, in 37 different countries.

Sapphic suffragettes
The role of lesbian and bisexual women has long been erased from the suffrage story – despite evidence of several openly lesbian relationships within the movement. Many of the movement's leading figures also had very close relationships with other women, leading to speculation about their sexuality. These include Chief Organisers Annie Kenney (pictured), Grace Roe and Olive Bartels; and leading militants Emily Wilding Davison, Mary Leigh and Lilian Lenton.

However, some lesbian relationships between suffrage campaigners were very open.

Suffragettes Lettice Floyd and Annie Williams were very open about their romance, and Vera 'Jack' Holme – chauffeur to the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) – was in a long-standing relationship with fellow suffragette Evelina Haverfield.

The couple even had each other's initials carved on their bed.

Irish poet Eva Gore-Booth was also in a lesbian relationship, with Manchester-based suffrage campaigner Esther Roper.

Together, the couple established and edited the Women's Labour News, as well as founding the Lancashire and Cheshire Women's Textile and Other Workers Representation Committee.

The impact on domestic life was not, of course, as drastic as many anti-suffrage campaigners suggested it would be.

But the campaign for women's suffrage really did signal the beginning of a change in the way women viewed themselves, their relationships, and their life choices.

Along with the vote, women gained a new sense of empowerment, purpose, and even the beginnings of sexual liberation.

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