Victorian feminists faced a dilemma in their dealings with the state. This dilemma intensified in the years following the 1867 Reform Act. Radical feminist leaders [Fosephine Butler, Lydia Becker, Elizabeth Wolstenholme) eagerly adopted an ‘ equality before the law ’ stance in order to link women's credentials for citizenship with conventional principles of liberal individualism. Yet the same leaders were recurrently angered and frightened by the sex-insensitive uses to which male politicians were prepared to put state power, even while claiming to be defending and improving a liberal social order. This article traces feminist responses to the dilemma from the high point of libertarian individualism accompanying the 1870s campaigns against the Contagious Diseases Acts to the more complicated appraisals of the potential of state agency made during following decades. The democratization of English political life, it is argued, may ultimately have persuaded feminists of the worth of the state as a sponsor of social change; but the half-democratized form of politics characteristic of the later Victorian period left key feminists with an ideologically entrenched suspicion of state intervention which even mid-eighties repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts and ‘ maiden tribute ’ child prostitution revelations could not efface.