Originally recorded on November 19th, 2023, Jessica’s Sealey’s lecture Monstrous Instruments: The Vaginal Speculum and the Contagious Diseases Acts Repeal Movement is now available for viewing on the Museum of Health Care’s YouTube Channel. You can also access the full manuscript of Jessica’s project on the Museum’s website.
This project considers the history of the vaginal speculum with a focus on its use and associated controversies both inside and outside the medical community. In the nineteenth century, the speculum became a tool of medical and police surveillance through the introduction of the Contagious Diseases Acts in Britain (1864-1886). These acts, which allowed for the compulsory medical examination of women who were accused of prostitution, inspired a feminist-driven repeal movement. These repealers rallied against the Acts’ forcible medical examinations, particularly targeting the use of the speculum in these exams. In their activism, the repealers were participating in a larger medico-moral debate around the efficacy and ethics of this tool in the burgeoning field of gynaecology. This project brings together a history of the object with examples drawn from the Museum of Health Care’s collection, alongside a critical examination of repealer writing on Contagious Diseases Acts’ medical examinations and the instrument of the speculum. The introduction of the speculum in Britain inspired questions related to bodily autonomy, medical and sexual consent, and women’s health care that would continue to polarize medical professionals, patients, and activists to this day.
Jessica Sealey is a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University. Jessica holds a Masters in the History of Art from the University of Western Ontario and has previously worked in the visual arts, tourism and heritage sectors as a curator and educator. Her doctoral research focuses on the Contagious Diseases Acts of Britain (1864-1886) and explores narratives of sexual immorality, public health, performance, and surveillance. Her research interests include the history of gender, sexuality, and medicine, as well as visual culture and museum studies.
Special thanks to Ian M. Fraser and Janine M. Schweitzer for their generous support of the fellowship this year.