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Cover of Women's History Review

Women's History Review

Volume 8, Issue 4, Dec 1999
Pages 625-653

  • DOI: 10.1080/09612029900200220
  • Print ISSN: 0961-2025
  • Online ISSN: 1747-583X

Physical purity feminism and state medicine in late nineteenth-century england

University of Bradford


Late nineteenth-century England saw the development of a number of campaigns and social movements which were connected by both a hostility towards the medical profession and by the use of discourses of purity and sanitary reform. This article explores the involvement of women within these movements, analysing their activism as an aspect of social purity feminism. It argues that many of these movements drew on widespread female anxiety regarding male violence – both physical and sexual – towards women. The anti-medical feminists claimed that some pieces of ‘sanitary’ legislation represented a state-sanctioned violation of the bodies of women and children. Finally, this article analyses the use made, by some of these activists, of the discourses of sanitary reform to challenge the gender ordering associated with the reason/nature dualism in Victorian society.