Body Politics

Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh

Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh

"When Bradlaugh Triumphs."
Lithograph. 25 x 19.5 cm.

Annie Besant is a memorable figure in Victorian history for her iconoclastic views and ways of life that underwent many incarnations. She met Charles Bradlaugh through the Secular Society and wrote for his paper, The National Reformer.

In the caricature at left, Bradlaugh and Besant dance in the streets in an imagined England in which birth control is practiced.
Fruits of Philosophy
Fruits of Philosophy, Charles Knowlton.
In 1877, the two published Fruits of Philosophy by an American doctor and fellow secularist, Charles Knowlton.

By way of the Obscene Publications Act, Besant and Bradlaugh were imprisoned for publishing the essay, whose topic was birth control and basic information about human sexuality. Both received six months; however, the sentence was overturned.

Birth control was a contentious topic that led to accusations of eugenics. At the same time, birth control was advocated as a way to relieve the crushing poverty of the lower class.

The received wisdom was that birth control was a threat to the family and the nation. The falling birth rate in the late 1800s combined with talk of contraception was thus seen as a threat to British sovereignty.

The birth control for which Knowlton advocated was the sponge, rather than the condom, though condoms were sold outright in the more licentious 1700s.

Both Knowlton and his detractors opposed condom use. Ironically, the refusal to condone condom usage by both factions contributed to some of the most contentious political acts of the era, the Contagious Diseases Acts.

The Contagious Diseases Acts

The London Lowlife Collection contains dozens of pamphlets from numerous authors arguing the Contagious Diseases Acts. One woman, Josephine Butler, came to represent the call for better treatment of prostitutes through her championing of their basic human rights. She noted the hypocrisy of these acts that exempted males from testing. The reasoning for such exemption was that the military, for instance, in which venereal disease was rampant, would be demoralized if subject to testing.

One unintended consequence of The Contagious Diseases Acts could be to force a woman into prostitution. Once she had been quarantined, even if innocent, her reputation and marital prospects were most likely ruined. Therefore, prostitution became one of the few remaining ways to survive.

Social Purity

Josephine Butler. From Social Purity:

"Our public appeal, and our open war against the Government establishment of vice, has been fruitful for social rousing and reform, as no movement which we know of in this direction has yet been...

It forced men once more to call things by their right names. The upholders of this law were obliged openly to declare as their belief, and as the basis of this legislation, the doctrine of the necessity of vice for man, and of the impossibility of self-restraint; and then was called forth the public denial of that doctrine.

For the first time in the world's history women came to the front in the controversy. The whole cruelty of the law falling on their own sex for the fancied preservation of the health of men, woke up the womanhood of this land, and now of the world, in a way which reminds us of the words of sacred prophecy, "When the enemy cometh in like a flood, the Spirit of the lord shall raise up a standard against him."

It is the weak hands of women which bear up this standard. Never till the woman's public defiance of this law, and of the Government which made it, was heard--never till this sacred cry of revolt was uttered aloud, did this war against impurity begin in earnest."

French Letters

Booksellers and publishers also did their part to educate the public about birth control, for whatever motives. The industrial revolution included the development of vulcanized rubber, which would eventually replace animal intestines as the material for condom manufacture.

Enterprising publishers marketed condoms available by post, as well as carrying cases for "French Letters" in effusive prose.
The advertisement below imagines the users of condoms are familiar with courtesans. Other advertisements, however, appealed to the middle class from a husband, or from a concerned citizen who wanted to help the poor reduce the size of their families.
The Genuine French Letter
"...As many of our encounters with the opposite sex are unexpected, it becomes any man, in consideration for his own health and happiness, never to be without these matchless Protections, for how often has years of misery, nay the bitterness of a whole life, ensued from the promiscuous intercourse with a Courtesan.

It then becomes a matter of the greatest importance to be always prepared, to have them in our possession; but hither to this has been found attended with considerable inconvenience, being liable to be pulled from the pocket with gloves, paper, etc; in fact, a thousand circumstances may occur to bring the articles in question unexpectedly to light.

In order to prevent these painful and unpleasant occurrences, W. Edwards has been induced to publish a small appropriate case, called "The Man of Pleasure's Pocket Book," containing a secret receptacle for "French Letters" with instruction for their use, etc, and every valuable information that the votary of Venus may require.

p.s. many gentlemen in the provinces find a difficulty, or feel a diffidence in getting their literary effusions printed, often proceeding from the fact that they do not wish their names known. Having printing materials this may at once be obviated by sending manuscripts to me, when for the ordinary fair printing price, I will produce them copies. Manuscripts returned, and the most inviolable secrecy depended upon." (excerpt from advertisement)

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