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The Significance of the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon

Ann P. Robson, Victorian Periodicals Newsletter (1978)

In 1885 W. T. Stead intervened in the campaign against organized prostitution in England which Josephine Butler had been leading for fifteen years. The principle of legalized prostitution had been introduced into England, by the Contagious Diseases Acts (not concerned with animals), to give them their full title, passed without debate in 1864, 1866 and. 1868. Although they applied only to garrison towns and the attempt to extend them had failed, and although the second Act, which provided for the regular compulsory inspection of suspected women, had been repealed in 1883, nonetheless the reformers were far from placated. In spite of all their very considerable efforts, Acts giving state sanction to prostitution remained on the statute books; attempts to prosecute vice in the courts had shown that the judicial system of England was concerned with public nuisance not public virtue; and finally, to their unutterable disgust, the reformers found themselves powerless to persuade the House of Commons to protect even young girls by raising the age of consent from 13 to 16 or even 15.

In despair Benjamin Scott, Chamberlain of the City of London, a co-worker with Josephine Butler, appealed to William Thomas Stead, who had been the highly successful editor of the Pall Mall Gazette for the past two years. Stead, deeply moved, threw himself passionately and dramatically into the preparation and writing of "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon", a series of articles exposing the trade in vice which appeared on the 6, 7, 8 and 10 of July 1885. The result was cataclysmic. The Gazette's offices were attacked by eager news vendors, and the paper was sold out day after day. Before the year was out, the age of consent was raised to 16 and the next year the Contagious Diseases Acts were repealed. But if Stead's success was spectacular, so was the virulence which he aroused. During the series, irate letters cancelled subscriptions and distributors of the "obscene" paper were arrested by the authorities; shortly afterwards Stead was charged, tried and convicted on a technical charge of abduction and sentenced to three months in prison.

The vindictive reaction to Stead's series in the Pall Mall Gazette came not because his opponents were in favour of the buying and selling of underaged virgins (or at least very few of them were) but because they were in favour of the double sexual standard. I would argue, indeed I am arguing, that most Victorians throughout most of the Victorian period accepted as natural two moral standards: one for women and men of the lower classes and for all other men outside their homes; and one for women of the respectable classes and for their men within the home. (All generalizations of course need qualifications and there were also inconsistencies in the Victorian view.) Nor do I find hypocrisy in this attitude. They have been judged and found wanting by the standard of a later age but ironically that standard was the result of the much underestimated, if not ignored, work of the moral reformers of the nineteenth century. For the first half of this century public figures professed a single high standard of sexual behaviour for both women and men; in 1878 an archdeacon could, and did, say: "But you know it is absurd to suppose that the seventh commandment is binding on men as it is on women".[1]

Stead's series ended the conspiracy of silence which had protected the double standard, a conspiracy which had been acquiesced in by the majority of both sexes, because the double standard was an integral part of the relationship between the sexes and fundamental to the stability of the Victorian family. Furthermore, the crusade against sexual exploitation became a crusade against all exploitation. When, therefore, the Pall Mall Gazette (after warning its readers that parental discretion should be exercised) called a prostitute a prostitute and a lecher, a lecher, when it printed a recital of verifiable facts without euphemism or circumlocution, when it delivered with the tea and crumpets a description of money changing hands for the rape of unwitting and unwilling little victims, gave details of the medical examination performed to obtain a certificate of virginity to satisfy the purchaser, of leather straps, padded rooms and smothered screams, W. T. Stead was not simply exposing vice but challenging Victorian society.

Having stated my thesis, I must now present my justification. I shall look first at the ideas about women and progress which informed this challenge and then offer an explanation of the near hysteria with which its appearance in the Pall Mall Gazette was greeted.

By the early years of Victoria's reign, for reasons now becoming familiar to everyone, cultured, women of the respectable classes eschewed sex and vice versa. The angel in the home, sexless, self-effacing, seeking her own happiness in service to others, and her fulfilment in the "great duty of motherhood"[2] was the ideal preached by all the mentors of the young miss. This gospel is usually associated with conservative writers such as Sarah Stickney Ellis in her very-successful series of books Women of England, Wives of England and Daughters of England. Scientific backing was provided in the books of medical advice by Dr. William Acton, a staunch supporter incidentally, though not coincidentally, of the Contagious Diseases Acts. But in truth it lay deep in the consciousness of most Victorian reformers; John Stuart Mill in the Subjection of Women has, to say the least, an ambivalent attitude towards women's nature but sees it as elevated and inclined towards domesticity. The Pall Mall Gazette in admonishing its readers wrote: "We, moderns, here in England are fond of telling our women that their kingdom is the home; that, if they are true and good women, they will live by the heart, not by the head; that their children should be almost their only concern, save and except our noble selves; and from babyhood we train them so as, above all things, to develop their feelings".[3] Women were on a pedestal from which they should reach down, but never step down, to soften the harsher natures of men whose very nature kept them at the base. This commonplace view of womanhood was based on an assumption of a wide difference between the natures of men and women.

In the beginning, most men and women who accepted, indeed gloried in, women's moral superiority over men, believed it to be a fact of nature, a constant of the human race. But gradually evolutionary ideas mingling with the Bible for the conservative reformers and with Malthus for the radicals led them all to see progrsss in the past as the result of the slowly increasing dominance in man of the rational or higher over the instinctive or lower characteristics. It was the possession of reason, of control over instinct, which distinguished man from the animals; consequently the more reason prevailed, the higher the level of being, the higher the level of civilization. In particular, the sexual instinct, frequently referred to as animal lust, must gradually yield to the hegemony of reason. As one preacher quoted in the Gazette put it, the reformers must speak out "so that men should not be dragged down to the level of inferior animals and become slaves to their passions";[4] another referred to "men who are below the beasts in beastliness".[5] There was—one noble lord was reported to have assured his audience—of course, ever present hope: "By strict diet, discipline, and constant work, they could, however, conquer lust. His lordship then spoke very earnestly on the sin of swearing...".[6]

The commonly held view of the promiscuity of the lower classes reinforced this belief in purity and progress. The lower classes in general were observed to be less moral than their betters: "Of the forms of vice, which have more especially appropriated to themselves the name of 'immorality' the report [on the housing of the poor] has a good deal to say, but nothing that is not fairly familiar to all dwellers in large cities who keep their eyes open to what goes on around them".[7] The hierarchy of morality conformed to the hierarchy of the classes and confirmed the connection between purity and progress or purity and civilization.

It was a small step to measuring the height of civilization in inverse ratio to the level of the passions. Now since for the Victorians there was no doubt that animal lust was far weaker in women, if it existed at all in women of the respectable classes, female kind was in advance of male kind. The improvement of mankind (humankind?) was dependent on the improvement of men's moral natures. In the future all would be pure; men would equal women. "Terrible as is the exposure, the very horror of it is an inspiration. It speaks not of leaden despair, but with a joyful promise of better things to come... for surely these horrors, like others against which the conscience of mankind has revolted, are not eternal."[8]

It followed from this view that sex was degrading, especially for women. Perhaps a little inconsistently, the seeming low morality of working-class women and the passion of the prostitute did not stand in the way of this argument; they could be explained and men further damned in the process. The Gazette spoke of women who, "although social outcasts, are often immeasurably purer and nobler than the men to whose passions they are often the unwilling ministers".[9] It would appear moreover that the passion acknowledged to exist in the prostitute was not indigenous to the female nature: "they found that the innocent girl once outraged seemed to suffer a lasting blight of the moral sense. They never came to any good: the foul passion from the man seemed to enter into the helpless victim of his lust, and she never regained her pristine purity of soul".[10]

Man was the corrupter. In prostitution pure womanhood succumbed through poverty to men's lust; but were not all women subjected to the animal in man? "Such dreadful revelations... seem really to blast the male half of humanity with an everlasting stigma".[11] Consequently the fight against prostitution easily became a fight on behalf of all women. Stead was seen to be doing battle "on behalf of our poor, downtrodden and morally murdered sisters, and therefore on behalf of the whole of our sex".[12] "This new crusade was ... to rescue the holy shrine of womanhood from being trampled on and defiled".[13]

The exploitation involved in prostitution was generalized in another way also. Since women had no natural proclivity towards sexual indulgence, poor women fell "by the temptation which well-dressed vice can offer to the poor".[14] Stead's critics were angered by "the stress which we laid upon... the evidence ... of the extent to which wealth is used to corrupt, to demoralize, and to destroy the daughters of the poor".[15] Poverty, the continuing flagellant of the Victorian conscience, instead of being alleviated by the rich was being preyed upon by them to gratify their base desires. And the women of the upper classes were implicated in this crime because prostitution protected their virtue. This outlet for the "irregular indulgence of a natural impulse" to use the words of a Royal Commission in 1871 allowed the virtue of respectable women to remain inviolate. "And yet these victims are women as ourselves, and in the sight of God there are not ladies to be protected and poor women to be used anyhow. We are all children of one heavenly Father..."[16] Prostitution was the exploitation of one class by another and this class inequality was a legacy from the past, from a ruder undemocratic age. The fight against prostitution became a crusade against all inequality, a crusade under the banner of the future, against the corrupt forces of reaction. "If chivalry is extinct and Christianity is effete, there is still another great enthusiasm to which with confidence we may appeal. The future belongs to the combined forces of Democracy and Socialism, which when united are irresistible. Divided on many points they will combine in protesting against the continued immolation of the daughters of the people as a sacrifice to the vices of the rich. Of the two, it is Socialism which will find the most powerful stimulus in this revelation of the extent to which under our present social system the wealthy are able to exercise all the worst abuses of power which disgraced the feudalism of the Middle ages."[17]

All these elements combined to transform a movement to prevent legalized prostitution in England into a movement for moral equality between men and women and between class and class, a movement which demanded in effect a social revolution to replace the double standard in morality by a single standard and that the women's. The intense reaction to "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon" was to the demand for "equal justice—even-handed justice—administered to women and men"[18] and "the public recognition of one standard of purity for men and women alike, be their position and work in life what it may".[19]

The strength of the reaction to Stead's articles, however, was caused not only by the revolutionary implications of the arguments used by the reformers but also by the revolutionary implications of the method used—a method which reinforced the fears roused by the arguments.

The traditional way of bringing about reform in England had been to influence members of Parliament directly through personal contact and petitions. Pressure from without had been organized on a massive scale by the Ten-Hour Movement and the Anti-Corn Law League but although these movements aroused fears, they did not arouse panic as they were directed to influencing the vote in Parliament. (The Chartist movement was different, and so to a lesser degree was the Reform movement.) As long as the advocates of women's causes stayed within the accepted framework, they were not seen as a threat to the natural order. And as long as they were seeking to change only the laws, for the most part they had stayed, within.

Caroline Norton's effort in the 1830s to alter the law concerning custody of children fell within the acceptable tradition. So also did the early attempts to arouse interest in married women's property, women's education and. women's suffrage. (Although many men gave leadership and support, reform movements concerned with such issues were considered women's movements.) The advocates of these causes used personal influence, occasional articles in respectable journals and modest petitions presented through members of Parliament. The mores of society accepted by them made the mobilization of pressure from without impossibly unfeminine; they could not contemplate public appearances.

The approach was slightly broadened in the 1850s. Barbara Leigh Smith, later Bodichon, attended meetings of the Society for the Advancement of Social Science and presented papers in favour of reform of married women's property laws; speaking before such an audience was a breakthrough, although the meetings were not open to the public. And in the 1860s Emily Davies had seen the potential of the growing respectable popular press and had suggested a concerted attempt to use it in favour of women's suffrage. But for the most part the press demurred and the women concentrated their energies on drawing-room meetings. In the late sixties, with much trembling and palpitation, decorous public meetings with women speakers were organized by the suffrage societies. Although from that time on, women speaking in public became increasingly accepted, the meetings were relatively small, spoke largely to the converted and depended for what effect they had on public opinion on the eminent names, mostly male, who sat on the platform and secured discreet notice in a sympathetic journal.

Therefore, although controversy was often bitter and prolonged (the debate over the Divorce Act of 1857 stands out), it was controversy amongst the accepted leaders of society, that is within the walls of Parliament or other male-dominated institutions. It was men who were presenting the ladies' petitions and debating whether or not, usually the latter, to institute changes. The authority of the natural leaders was not being seriously questioned, and there was little emotional fear that the natural order of things was being overturned.

As long as women's causes were promoted in ways considered suitable to the female sex, they only minimally upset the Victorian sense of the fitness of things. Butler's campaign began as an effort to alter the law—to repeal the three Contagious Diseases Acts—and it started, in the traditional way: small meetings, petitions and personal influence, with one or two exceptions such as her interference in 1870 in the Colchester by-election, an exception which brought the disapproval of a considerable number of her supporters. Ladies should not make public spectacles of themselves and particularly with a subject which was unfit for public airing. Indeed there was not much public airing because the subject could be treated only in guarded language and most newspapers were not prepared to jeopardize their circulation by reporting on a subject which ought to, and did, bring a blush to virtuous cheeks.

As the campaign continued, its aim changed. It was no longer a campaign to repeal three laws, but to change the social mores. Butler realized, that the attitude of a nation could not be changed in private; she had threatened before a Royal Commission "to set a floodlight on your doings—I mean the immorality which exists among gentlemen of the upper classes!"[20] But she could not find the means to do it. James Stansfeld carried on the fight for repeal in the House of Commons, but the greater impact which Butler sought was denied her.

Then in the spring of 1885, driven by anger and frustration over their ineffectiveness to prevent the sacrifice (l use their language) of young girls to the double moral standard, the campaigners threw convention to the winds and approached William Thomas Stead, of the Pall Mall Gazette. Stead was an emotional, fiery, innovative editor of a prominent daily with a wide subscription. That he should take up the attack on the double standard on behalf of the women was as revolutionary as the cause itself. The effect as I said at the beginning was cataclysmic:

London is raging for the news and sends its regiments [to the offices of the Pall Mall Gazette] for the supply. And. so the crowd raged at the door under the summer sky—raged and wrestled, fought with fist and feet, with tooth and nail, clamouring for the sheets wet from the press, a sea of human faces, tossed, hither and thither by the resistless tide which swept from the Strand above... [This is Stead's own description; it is a good example of his style.] And the surging force grew in numbers and battled at the doors like troops of devils... [T]he howling vendors were passed in for fresh supplies by regiments of twelve. The process was too slow. At one the window smashing began. The windows of machine-room, the windows of publishing office fell...The strong arm of the law prevailed. The window smashing ceased...For three days—for thirty-six hours—the press has never ceased. All the afternoon of Wednesday the blue cordon kept back the crowd of hungry buyers. At five the street was cleared, first pavement, then roadway, then street...and so ended for the day a series of scenes unprecedented in the annals of a newspaper.[21] 

A truly staggering journalistic success.

On the 11th of July, W. T. Stead, wrote: "the exposure has been made and that it must tell in a revolutionary direction no human being can doubt".[22]

It did, both for morality and for the press.

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Copyright 1978. Ann P. Robson

Webmaster's Note... This paper was first presented at the Conference of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals in Chicago on November 19, 1977. My thanks to the author for permission to reproduce her work here.


1. Glen Petrie, A Singular Iniquity (London: Macmillan, 1971), p. 140.
2. Pall Mall Gazette, 22 May 1885.
3. Ibid., 3O April 1885.
4. Ibid., 30 October 1885.
5. Ibid., 5 July 1885.
6. Ibid., 10 October 1885.
7. Ibid., 9 May 1885.
8. Ibid., 9 July 1885.
9 Ibid., 11 July 1885.
10. Ibid., 8 July 1885.
11. Ibid., 11 July 1885.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid., 16 October 1885.
14. Ibid., 6 July 1885.
15. Ibid., 8 July 1885.
16. Ibid., 9 July 1885.
17. Ibid., 6 July 1885.
18. Ibid., 13 October 1885.
19. Ibid,
20. Petrie, p. 114.
21. Pall Mall Gazette, 9 July 1885.
22. Ibid., 11 July 1885.