Josephine Butler is little known nowadays, but in Victorian Britain she was a powerful force for social change, particularly for women. She is best known for her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, which allowed for the ill treatment of women who were suspected prostitutes. Josephine fought tirelessly for the equal treatment of men and women, and her personal life also reflected her compassion for destitute women as she took them into her home to care for them. Her achievements were considerable and she played an important role in the journey towards equality for women.
Josephine’s early life
Josephine Elizabeth Grey was born in Northumberland on 13th April 1828, and was one of ten children. The Grey family were well known and prominent in the area. Her father, John Grey, was a supporter of social reform with strong religious and moral principles, and he encouraged his family to engage in the political events of the day. He had a strong influence over Josephine’s Christian faith and keen sense of justice. Josephine and her sisters were treated as intellectual equals to their father and brothers. In 1847 Josephine visited Ireland, at the height of the potato famine, and witnessed painful suffering amongst the poor for the first time.
Josephine married George Butler sin 1852, and they lived initially in Oxford, and then Cheltenham. They had four children: three boys and then a girl, Eva, born in 1859. Sadly Eva died at the age of five after falling from a balcony in the family’s home. This devastated Josephine for many years, and she became deeply depressed, but the event was also a catalyst for her to seek out those who were suffering, who she felt she could identify with. She wrote: ‘I only knew that my heart ached night and day, and that the only solace possible would be to find other hearts which ached night and day, and with more reason than mine. I had no clear idea beyond that, no plan for helping others; my sole wish was to plunge into the heart of some human misery, and to say (as I now knew I could) to afflicted people, “I understand. I, too, have suffered.”’
The beginnings of her ministry
Josephine began visiting women in the workhouse in Liverpool, where the family had now moved so that George could take up the post of headmaster at Liverpool College. The women of the workhouse were regarded as the lowest of the low, with no hope of restitution. To their amusement, Josephine joined with them in their arduous and physically demanding work. This was a dramatic gesture for a woman like Josephine, but she defied convention in order to show kindness and compassion to those who had no other source. This led to a mission among the prostitutes of Liverpool, and after a while Josephine began taking destitute women into the family home to care for them. She then established a refuge for women, where they could earn sixpence a day making clothes. Josephine also began to write about women’s education and work, and had the first of her books published in 1868, The Education and Employment of Women.
The Contagious Diseases Acts
In the late 1860s Josephine began to get involved in political campaigning for the rights of women. The first of the Contagious Diseases Acts was passed in 1864. The aim of the Act was to limit the spread of venereal disease, which was a problem particularly among men in the army and navy. Under the Act, women believed to be prostitutes and found in proximity to an army camp or navy port, could be arrested, forced to undergo an internal examination, and then detained if they were found to have a disease. In 1869 a third Act was passed, extending the legislation to cover 18 towns and to allow detention of infected women for up to nine months.
Josephine was appalled by the Act. She believed that it was a gross inequality, which allowed men to act with impunity whilst criminalising women, Women were arrested by plain clothes policemen, and were treated with no respect. The police frequently arrested those who were not prostitutes: the Act made no specific distinction but simply applied to any women suspected of prostitution. Arrested women had to sign a Voluntary Submission Form to allow the physical examination to take place, and if they did not, they faced imprisonment. Many poor women were illiterate and it was not explained to them what they were signing. They would then be subjected to a violent and degrading physical examination, carried out by a man, and often resulting in health problems. Many preferred to refuse the examination in favour of several months in prison.
Josephine became the leader of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1869, and with a number of other women, a campaign was launched. Josephine was not a confident public speaker, and it was not usual at the time for women to be in the public eye, but her anger and sense of injustice over the treatment of these women drove her to action. Meetings were held, petitions signed and letters written. A number of men were in support of the campaign as well. After much debate and discussion, along with changes of government, in April 1883 a majority in the House of Commons backed the motion that ‘This House disapproves of the compulsory examination of women under the Contagious Diseases Act’. Josephine watched the debate and the final vote from the Ladies’ Gallery. The laws were finally repealed in 1886, and similar laws were also repealed in other countries in Europe where Josephine had visited and had some influence.
In 1885, Josephine turned her attention towards the issue of child prostitution. A trip to Europe in 1884-85 had highlighted to her the problem of child abduction and forced prostitution in continental brothels. The low age of consent in England – just 13 years of age – accounted for the demand for English girls. There was an organised trade in child prostitutes, and Josephine assisted in the campaign to prove this as well as to get the age of consent raised from 13 to 16.
Josephine’s work was affected considerably by health problems. She suffered periods of depression as well as a number of physical health problems, but often concealed these from her family in order to continue with her travelling and campaigning. Her husband George had a high regard for Josephine and respected her opinion. He was extremely supportive of her and used his own networks and contacts to further her campaigns. He also suffered with health problems, and died in March 1890, when Josephine was 62 years old. She died in December 1906, aged 78. A college was later founded in her memory in Liverpool, providing training to social workers. The college closed in 1972 and the funds invested to form the Josephine Butler Memorial Trust, which seeks to award grants to projects in accordance with Josephine’s aims and ideals.
Josephine Butler’s determination to change the treatment of women grew from her compassion for the poor and suffering, and this was perhaps prompted by her own experience of grief. The message she has passed on to the generations that followed is that it is possible to achieve change and that injustice should be addressed and fought. She had a strong faith in God and a sense of mission, which kept her focused on her campaigns. She took action despite the limitations of the social norms of the time. It is impossible to say how many lives were affected by her work but certainly hundreds of Victorian women were directly impacted by her actions.
It is remarkable to reflect on the fact that forced prostitution and trafficking are still huge issues, over a
century later. Women are still working as prostitutes – not all out of choice - and suffer enormous abuses as a result. Women and girls are still trafficked around the UK and abroad, and forced into labour or sex work. Whilst there has been huge progress politically, and women have long been able to vote and become MPs, there are still inequalities in the numbers of women involved in politics, business and public life. If we were to take a leaf from Josephine’s book, how would we respond to these issues? What actions can we take to begin to address some of these inequalities?
Josephine Butler by Jane Jordan (John Murray, 2001).
The Josephine Butler Memorial Trust: www.josephinebutler.org.uk
‘A heroine for our age’, Julie Bindel in the Guardian, 21st September 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2006/sep/21/art1
Further resources/information on prostitution and trafficking:
Stop the Traffik: www.stopthetraffik.org
Hope for Justice: www.hopeforjustice.org.uk
Beyond the Streets: www.beyondthestreets.org.uk
By Stephanie Smith.