Genealogy: Josephine Butler (13 April 1828 – 30 December 1906)

Genealogy: Josephine Butler, feminist social reformer

"God and one woman make a majority" - Josephine Butler
A Victorian era feminist, writer, activist and Christian, Josephine Butler suffered public vilification for her main cause: the welfare of prostitutes, both women and children, held in contempt by unjust laws.

The intriguing thing about Josephine Butler is her quite unique philosophy of which Roderick Moore, in his essay for the UK Libertarian Alliance, notes:

It is part of our modern conventional wisdom that the hypocrisy of Victorian times and the cynical moral relativism of today are the only possible attitudes to sex and no alternatives exist. Josephine Butler’s career stands as proof that this is not the case.

Her father, John Grey, was a strong social reformer and campaigner against the slave trade who encouraged his children to take an interest in current affairs. His cousin was Earl Grey, British prime minister between 1830 and 1834.

At the age of 17, Josephine Butler committed herself to Christianity, but her feminist and political awakening didn't come to fruition until she accompanied her husband, George Butler, whom she married in 1952, to Oxford University where he had been appointed Examiner of Schools. She found the culture to be deeply misogynistic, in contrast to her inclusive and politically vibrant upbringing.

After she discovered that a local girl had been sent to goal for infanticide on account of a don from Balliol College who had got her pregnant and abandoned her, she began to sympathise more strongly with the plight of women affected by double standards in morality.

"It is dangerous to arouse a sleeping lion," she was told by the master of the college when she dared question the injustice. With her husband's support, she gave the girl a job as a housemaid when she came out of jail.

Butler became involved in the promotion of women's higher education with her husband's appointment first as the vice principal of Cheltenham College and then as headmaster of Liverpool College. But in the interim the couple suffered a terrible tragedy: their daughter Eva died aged six when she fell down a flight of stairs at their home. Of the time she said she wanted to, "Find some pain worse than my own – to meet with people more unhappy than myself."

She threw herself into charity work on arrival at Liverpool College, joining the Christian mission to the Brownlow Hill Workhouse where many of the inmates had been prostitutes. She saw the relationship between poverty and prostitution first-hand and raised money to set up a women's refuge and a workshop where they could make envelopes, which in turn funded the hostel.

With Anne Jemima Clough, who later became the principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, Josephine helped to establish the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women and became its first president. They organised courses of public lectures and petitioned Cambridge to admit women to its Higher Local Examinations.

In a pamphlet titled Education and the Employment of Women, which she wrote in 1868, she set out her manifesto. She explained that girls from poor families were disadvantaged as they could not complete apprenticeships, let alone higher education, thereby forcing them into unskilled work with low wages or alternatively compelling them into prostitution with the promise of a higher income.

The next year she published Woman's Work and Woman's Culture in which contributors called for equal rights for women in education, property and the vote, though she maintained deep sympathies for men owing to her father and husband's congenial influence. In 1869 she wrote:

“I wish it were felt that women who are labouring especially for women are not one-sided or selfish. We are human first; women secondarily. We care about the evils affecting women most of all because they react upon the whole of society, and abstract from the common good. Women are not men’s rivals, but their helpers. There can be no antagonism that is not injurious to both.”

A turning point in her public and political life came with the passing of the first Contagious Diseases Act in 1864. The Act, which followed a Royal Commission on the Health of the Army, was passed to contain the cases of venereal disease in servicemen concentrated around the barracks and naval dockyards.

The men felt that regular examinations of their private parts offended their self-respect, and the doctors believed it offended their gentlemanly sensibility, and so magistrates were given the power to order prostitutes to undergo examinations of their sexual organs for symptoms instead of the servicemen.

Under the Contagious Diseases Act, magistrates were given the power to order prostitutes to undergo examination by a doctor (usually a man) for symptoms of VD. If she was found to be infected, she could be detained in a special hospital for up to three months. If she refused, she could be imprisoned, though the examinations were "voluntary".

Policemen were entitled to determine whether a woman was a "common prostitute", thereby putting the burden of proof on the woman to defend herself. With the second passing of the Act, a special police force was set up to administer the law and with the third passing, in 1869, a woman could be detained in hospital for nine months.

In October 1869, a group of libertarian activists, including doctors, academics and feminists held their first meeting in Bristol during a Social Science Congress, and a National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act was established. Though at first reluctant to be involved, Butler was urged to join at the request of Elizabeth Wolstenholme, who she knew through the women's education movement.

The feminists set up an independent organisation, the Ladies' National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, and they published their first manifesto in the national press, signed by 124 women, including Butler and Florence Nightingale, condemning the Acts on eight grounds.

Acknowledging that the Acts themselves supported the notion that men thought it "necessary and venial" to have sex with prostitutes, they reasoned: 

“So far as women are concerned, (the Acts) remove every guarantee of personal security which the law has established and held sacred, and put their reputation, their freedom and their persons absolutely in the power of the police... It is unjust to punish the sex who are the victims of a vice, and leave unpunished the sex who are the main cause both of the vice and its dreaded consequences; and we consider that liability to arrest, forced surgical examination, or (where this is resisted) imprisonment with hard labour, to which these Acts subject women, are punishments of the most degrading kind.”

Josephine's thoughts regarding the work of prostitutes and their position in society is complex but were undergirded by Christian values, the women with whom she came into contact and her knowledge of the state political apparatus. She railed against the hypocrisy that posited prostitutes as the instigators of "vice" leaving the men with no moral obligation at all.

These women were not treated as human beings but as meat, and the Contagious Diseases Acts further entrenched this mentality. In one speech to men in Manchester, she is quoted as saying, "Two pence, gentlemen, is the price in England of a poor girl’s honour (yet with the CDA these girls) are to be no longer women, but only bits of numbered, inspected, and ticketed human flesh, flung by government into the public market."

She saw it as her role to help bring down the powerful men who had vested interests in protecting prostitution rings. "When a host of salaried, permanent officials is once established, the system to which they belong must be perpetuated for their sakes," she wrote. She also aimed to win over the medical profession who supported the Acts on the grounds of prevention, and to educate women of the upper classes about the debasement of their lower-class sisters.

It was to be a long and arduous political and social campaign facing vehement opposition, and even her own convictions were sometimes at odds with her fellow Contagious Disease Acts "repealers'".

Butler went on to write many pamphlets setting out the Ladies' Association's case and took up a public speaking role. In a tactical campaign, the repeal campaigners targeted Major-General Henry Storks, who had introduced state control of prostitution in Malta where he was Governor. A soldier, Storks believed prostitution to be a necessity and was up for election in Newark.

The repeal campaigners mounted their case and he withdrew from the election. When the government tried to get Storks into the House of Commons at a Colchester by-election, the repealers put forth their own candidate, Dr Baxter Langley. Josephine Butler entered the town to show her support and was accosted by a gang of hooligans.

After the Quaker William Fowler put up a Bill to repeal the Acts and was defeated, the government agreed to set up a Royal Commission. During the Commission of 1871, Butler was a key figure giving evidence. The regulationists believed that the Acts achieved their end of reducing the VD rate, thereby justifying the means. The repealers' case was about principle.

The Commission conceded some of the repealers' points, but the resulting report was contradictory and inconsistent. Nevertheless, the Home Secretary introduced a repeal Bill in February 1872 but it presented a watered-down system of state regulation, and failed in the House of Commons. Butler and the Ladies' Association wanted total abolition of the Acts. 

Butler  did not accept that it was impossible for men to control themselves and live by Christian moral standards, nor that men were entitled to violate the rights of women to satisfy their carnal instincts without risk of disease. She wrote in 1879:

"What we have to do seems to me now to be this: to form a nation within the nations—a nation which will recognise the supremacy of the moral law, and which will contend for the dignity and autonomy of the individual, against the socialism (whether represented by imperialism or democracy) which takes too little account of the individual, and is too ready to coerce, oppress or destroy the human being in the supposed interests of an aggregate of human beings which it calls ‘Society’ or ‘The State’. The soul of each human being was created free and responsible before God; and every human law which has in it any of the divine character of his law recognises the inviolability of the individual.

This legalisation of vice, which is the endorsement of the ‘necessity’ of impurity for men, and the institution of the slavery of women, is the most open denial which modern times have seen of the principle of the sacredness of the individual human being. It is the embodiment of socialism in its worst form. An English high-class journal confessed this, when it dared to demand that women who are unchaste shall henceforth be dealt with ‘not as human beings, but as foul sewers’ or some such ‘material nuisance’, without souls, without rights, and without responsibility."

Butler argued that if the state really believed prostitution to be a necessity, it would be "grateful and tender" towards prostitutes and not oppress them. She said that the notion that men having their carnal needs met by prostitutes was degrading to men ("hopelessly the slaves of their own passions") and an incentive to increased immorality. She believed the gratification of the body (materialism) was being put above the soul.

The Ladies' National Association was denounced in the press for even daring to mention prostitution and Butler was ostracised in polite society. Better to sweep the whole matter under the carpet and turn a blind eye to the plight of prostitutes. Only she couldn't.

Many doctors were to play a significant part in the repealers' campaign, though there was also opposition from within the medical community. "Our profession and our profession alone has a right to dictate," wrote F.C. Skye, the Chairman of the 1864 Committee on the Acts, in a letter to the Times in 1872. Though members of the medical profession argued that the rates of VD were declining, they continued to decline after the Acts were eventually repealed.    

The Special Police in charge of implementing the Acts relied on rumour and gossip to identify prostitutes – anonymous accusations could be made for malicious reasons and poor women were more easily targeted than those from the gentry. Corrupt officers could also use the law to carry out their own private business.

Those women brought before the court, even if innocent, usually had their reputations slandered. Butler knew that many girls from poor families drifted in and out of prostitution, but the Acts had a stigmatising effect on them, making it impossible for them to escape from the life and find other work.

The repealers' strategy included the publishing of journals and pamphlets, holding public meetings, petitioning Parliament and lobbying MPs and by-election candidates. They also persuaded sympathetic MPs to introduce repeal Bills into Parliament for publicity purposes, as they had no hope in success.

After the 1874 general election, when the Liberal Party was defeated and the Conservatives under Disraeli came to power, the repealers suffered a major setback. Butler turned her attention overseas. In December 1874, Butler embarked on a three-month tour of France, Italy and Switzerland accompanied by her son Stanley to rally public opinion against regulation.

In a speech in Paris in 1875, she spoke out about the hypocrisy of the regulationists: “If prostitution is an institution of public safety such as should be organised by governments, even the Ministers, the Prefect of Police, the high functionaries, and the doctors who defend it, fail in their duty if they do not consecrate to it their own daughters.”

The French system for state-regulated prostitution was abhorrent. In the 1870s, registered prostitutes were forbidden to go out of doors except between 7 and 11pm. The police who enforced the system, and had to meet their quotas to make wages, regularly took bribes, blackmailed or sexually abused the girls, who were also falsely accused or set up.

Butler appealed to the public's compassion by publicising cases of injustice. One involved a woman and her 16-year-old daughter who were falsely accused of prostitution by the Special Police. The woman's reputation tarnished, she was unable to find employment and drowned herself in despair. The repealers set up a fund to care for the three children she left behind and Butler took in the 16-year-old as a guest in her home.

As the tide of public opinion turned with publicity, the repealers gained favour and in 1879 the Conservative government agreed to set up a new Select Committee on the Acts. Its proceedings were slow but a Liberal victory in the 1880 general election helped to propel things along. Five regulationist MPs lost their seats. In April 1883, the House of Commons passed a motion for repeal. A month later the government suspended the Acts; in 1886 they were finally repealed. Victory.

Butler then set her sights on child prostitution and trafficking after hearing of one teenager who had been lured to Brussels by a pimp. She was aware that there were rich and powerful men involved in patronising the industry. It was she who had persuaded Parliament to raise the age of consent in 1875, and she later recalled that the Bill to change the law had been delayed by, “The passionate remonstrances of some gentlemen against any attempt being made to raise the age even to thirteen, on the ground that their sons would be placed at a great disadvantage.

In 1881, the government set up a Select Committee of the House of Lords to inquire into the protection of young girls against recruitment into prostitution. The Metropolitan Police made it clear the most serious problem was not in the trafficking of girls to the continent but child prostitution within Britain itself.

The law protecting girls against sexual abuse at that time was inadequate; the age of consent was just 13. The passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, introduced in 1883 and again in 1884, would be held up by those with vested interests in protecting their own sexual activities or those of their sons. But the campaign gained momentum when the Salvation Army came on board.

In 1885 the campaigners were given further ammunition. A woman named Mary Jeffries who was running a high-class brothel in Chelsea was charged with the common-law offence of keeping a disorderly house after investigations by a former Metropolitan Police inspector found some extremely terrible things were permitted within the brothel, including the rape and flogging of a 13-year-old girl. Mrs Jeffries was escorted to the trial by a group of rich young army officers and pleaded guilty by pre-arrangement with the judge. She was let off with a fine of 200 pounds, paid by her rich customers.

It was the press, more particularly the Pall Mall Gazette edited by W.T. Stead who were to play a significant part in the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill. Stead had supported the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts since the 1870s, had socialist values and practised a sensational style of journalism. Butler had reservations about engaging his support but his determination to see an end to child prostitution won the repealers public support.

While his intentions were good, his "Secret Commission" tactics were unsavoury. He commissioned a Pall Mall Gazette employee and Salvation Army girl to pose as prostitutes who infiltrated the brothels. Furthermore, he arranged to buy a 13-year-old girl named Eliza from her mother for £5 to show how easily it could be done, sending her to a refuge in Winchester set up by Rebecca Jarrett, a former brothel keeper and Christian convert.

On July 6, 1885 the Pall Mall Gazette published the first of its Secret Commission findings under the headline "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon". Other papers condemned Stead for both the lurid style of the articles and for daring to publish such unsavoury material. The public has incensed and rallied in Hyde Park.

The Criminal Law Amendment Bill was passed on August 14 raising the age of consent to 16, making a child's evidence admissible in court and imposing new penalties for using drugs to commit rape or procure a girl into prostitution in Britain or overseas. While Stead and Mrs Jarrett were later given jail sentences for abduction, the public had made Stead a national hero. He launched a new organisation called the National Vigilance Association (NVA) to campaign for higher standards of sexual morality.

Butler removed herself from association with the NVA. While she believed in protecting women and children against coercion, she also believed in the separation between the law and the conscience of the individual in matters of private morality. She felt that pressure for moral responsibility weighed heavily, if not exclusively, on women from external sources, and that human beings could not be obliged to be moral by force. The historian Edward Bristow has called her a "non-repressive puritan".

Furthermore, Moore notes that while it is fashionable to depict women who are against sexual permissiveness as ugly, sexually frustrated or both, Butler was described by her contemporaries as attractive and by all accounts her marriage was happy.

While Moore notes that by some standards her Christian values were repressive, and that she wasn't herself free of vice, given over to vanities and snobbery by virtue of her good looks, charisma and social status and hypochondria on account of her work, it was the repression of those who didn't know their rights and who were exploited that she campaigned for.

She demonstrated compassion and care privately, particularly with the setting up of shelters for women and taking them into her own home, as well as courage through her work in risking her own and her family's reputation in campaigning for the rights of those in the most "unsavoury" of professions by Victorian standards.

"I look upon these women who have taken up this matter as worse than the prostitutes," one condescending MP had said. It was such opinions and Victorian double standards that propelled her towards exposing hypocrisy. Her most well-read publication, Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade, was written in 1896.

She died on 30 December 1906. An obituary in The Times described her as ‘an almost ideal woman; a devoted wife, exquisitely human and feminine, with no touch in her of the “woman of the platform” though with a great gift of pleading speech, with a powerful mind, and a soul purged through fire’.

Part of her enduring influence is Josephine Butler College at Durham University opened in 2006 and the Josephine Butler Memorial Trust, which grants awards for study and research into the interrelation of theology and the social sciences and for projects focused on outreach to the disadvantaged and marginalised.

Josephine Butler (1828-1906): Feminist, Christian and Libertarian by Roderick Moore, Libertarian Alliance, 1993.
Josephine Butler profile at Herstoria magazine
Woman of Change, Josephine Butler at Spotlight Radio
Josephine Butler at Wikipedia

Girl With a Satchel


Scarlett Harris @ The Early Bird Catches the Worm said...

Great post! I hope to see more articles like this one :)