Campaigning Against the Acts: Public Meeting of Women at York
The Shield (January 7, 1871)
A public meeting was held on Tuesday afternoon, the 13th ult., in the Merchants Hall, Fossgate, to advocate the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts.
Mrs. Henry Richardson was called upon to preside over the meeting, which was attended by many ladies of influence, and by a large number of the wives of respectable workingmen. The proceedings commenced by a few appropriate remarks from the President, explaining the object of the meeting, that it is one of the most painful that ever engaged the attention of women. Nothing but a strong sense of duty and an earnest desire to help an oppressed and grievously wronged portion of the common sisterhood could have induced her to occupy the position she now did; but she believed that no one who feels rightly on the subject of the Contagious Diseases Acts could forbear lending a helping hand, and if needs be even raising her voice in public against them, until the solemn cry for repeal is heard through the land; for when these Acts were passed the gravest wrong ever done to woman was inflicted upon her. They must not let the matter rest; their rulers and members of Parliament must have no respite from their appeal, memorials and petitions, until these Acts were swept away, and, sooner or later, though it would be a work of time, they would succeed; in the words of “The Ladies Protest”, they undertook the work under a deep sense of duty. They had not lightly entered upon it, and they should not lightly abandon it, because they believed that in its attainment were involved not only the personal rights of the sex, but also the morality of the nation.
Mrs. John Casson then read letters from various ladies who were unable to be present, expressing their regret and hearty sympathy with the objects of the meeting. Mrs. Casson next gave a summary of the work which has already been done by the York Branch of the Ladies’ National Association, stating that in the early part of the year, two meetings were held for ladies and working women, both of which were addressed by Mrs. Butler of Liverpool, that petitions containing 4051 signatures, of women only, had been sent to both Houses of Parliament, and letters forwarded to the members for the city and riding requesting their attendance in the House when Mr. Fowler brought forward his motion for repeal. And lastly, that an address had been sent to the ladies of York by the committee setting forth the grounds of their opposition to the Acts, and earnestly entreating their cooperation in seeking repeal.
Miss Wolstenholme of Congleton, then rose to move the first resolution, “That this meeting considers the Contagious Diseases Acts immoral, unjust, an outrage on all womanhood, a direct violation of the British constitution as regards the liberty of women; and that the working of these Acts is accompanied by great and unjustifiable cruelty. The meeting, therefore, solemnly pledges itself to seek by every legitimate means the destruction of such legislation throughout the British dominion.” Miss Wolstenholme explained the object of the Acts, their original enactment, and subsequent growth. She spoke with indignation of the system of introducing police spies into the subject towns to watch all the women. They dog the steps of poor women and girls who may be out late in the evening, and have been known to entrap them, by themselves making the first advances. The fallacy of the so-called voluntary submission was spoken of; the poor girls are terrified by threats into signing the hateful paper, the true meaning of which they are often quite ignorant. She urged upon all present to use their utmost endeavours to induce their husbands and brothers to make this an election question, and to refuse their votes to any man who supported legislation so terribly unjust to women.
Mrs. John Casson then read an address, in which she pleaded that the subject under the consideration of the meeting is essentially a woman’s question; it is the rights and liberties of women only that are assailed by these Acts; and therefore all women capable of forming a judgment should do so on this subject. That those whose position gives them influence should be willing to use that influence for the help of their degraded sisters. Mrs. Casson concluded by moving the second resolution – “That a memorial embodying this resolution just passed be signed by the President on behalf of this meeting, and forwarded to the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, M. P.”
The resolutions were passed unanimously.
A letter from the Secretary of the Ladies’ National Association was then read, requesting the committee of the York Branch to take immediate steps to obtain signatures for a monster petition from all the women of England, to be presented to Parliament early next session. The petition was agreed to and will shortly be sent round the city for signatures.