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But as medical knowledge advanced, early feminists began to challenge the law that detained and punished women for their illness. Words by Anna Faherty 20 July F itzrovia, As she lay in bed, limbs heavy and eyelids drooping, a throbbing pain seeped down her back. Her entire body was covered with small rose-coloured spots, physical signs that marked her out as both a sufferer of syphilis and a disreputable young woman.
About eight weeks before, she may have noticed a small pimple appear. When it grew to the size of a pea, rupturing to form an ulcer, it was the first sign she had contracted a condition the medical establishment claimed to be generated within the bodies of women. Official efforts to contain the disease in the s focused on controlling women — especially women like A G. These tactics were to have unintended consequences, as they sparked the emergence of the first wave of feminism.
Syphilis was first associated with prostitution and supposed depraved behaviour soon after it appeared in Europe at the end of the s. When it became apparent that it could be transmitted through sexual contact, it was interpreted as divine punishment for promiscuity. If the disease was a direct result of promiscuous intercourse, prostitutes were nothing less than a festering sore on society.
Like plague-infected rats or cholera-swamped sewers, women who made their living selling sex were a problem that had to be monitored and improved. The Contagious Diseases Acts, which were first implemented in England and Ireland in the s, provided a legal framework for keeping track of prostitutes and isolating those who were infected.
Despite the generic title, the Acts were designed specifically to reduce the impact of syphilis and gonorrhoea on men serving in the military. These women were then requested to submit to an internal medical examination. It must be acknowledged, in fact, that by this means alone can we hope to reduce the ever-growing number of cases of syphilis in women whose vice and poverty has set them outside society.