Josephine Butler, 1828-1906

Josephine Butler was a social reformer with a broad feminist commitment, whose willingness to speak publicly on sexual issues distracted from her wider views.

Born in Northumberland on 13 April 1828, Josephine Elizabeth Grey was the 7th child of John Grey, a cousin of Earl Grey, the Prime Minister responsible for the 1832 Reform Act, and Hannah, née Annette. Josephine inherited her strongly religious inspiration from her mother and her commitment to social reform from her father’s anti-slavery activities and Liberal values. At 18 she discovered a lesion on her lung which had a lifelong limiting effect on her campaigning.

In 1852 Josephine married George Butler (1819-90), an Anglican clergyman and examiner at Oxford; they had three sons. In the predominantly masculine environment of the university, Josephine became very aware of the separate standards applied to male and female sexual sinners. In reaction, she began work rescuing ‘fallen women’.

In 1857, Josephine’s health forced the Butlers to leave Oxford; George became Vice Principal at Cheltenham College. After their only daughter’s accidental death in 1864, the family moved again, to Liverpool, where George was appointed headmaster of Liverpool College and Josephine threw herself deeper into rescue work, establishing a small factory to provide alternative employment. For a clergyman’s wife charitable activity was customary; What was unusual was the subject of her activity and its extension into politics.

Josephine Butler’s feminism was informed by the necessity of providing poorer women with economic alternatives to prostitution and providing young women of her own milieu with opportunities for university education and the protection of the law for any assets they possessed. She signed the 1866 petition for women’s suffrage; she was President of the North of England Council for Promoting Higher Education for Women (1867-73) and a committee member of the Married Women’s Property Committee (1868-82).

Prodded by the medical and military establishment, in 1864 Palmerston’s government passed the Contagious Diseases Act with little debate. Following the Crimean War there was grave concern over the quality of the British Army. Poorly paid, serving for life and only allowed to marry in exceptional circumstances, soldiering attracted only the desperate. Soldiers’ health was often poor and venereal disease commonplace. The Act, extended in 1864, 1866 and 1869, allowed the forced medical inspection of suspected prostitutes in military towns. Refusal to co-operate could result in imprisonment and those found to be diseased were confined to ‘lock’ hospitals.

Initially in the hands of men, the campaign against the Acts made little progress. In 1869, Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy invited Josephine Butler to act as honorary secretary to a new committee, the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Mrs Butler hesitated, writing to her husband for permission, which he gave. Her doubts, however, were justified. Sexual disease was not discussed in respectable households, much less on public platforms and George Butler’s career was damaged by his association with the campaign. Nevertheless, Josephine became the campaign’s figurehead, inspirational and charismatic, whether speaking publicly or engaging directly with prostitutes, treating them as equals, not merely sinners.

She opposed the Acts on the liberal grounds that they placed excessive power in police hands and that the medical inspections were a breach of privacy and an assault. She also argued that by regulating prostitution the state condoned it; and that the law applied solely to women, not to men, who were equally complicit in the sin and equally spread disease. This feminist line of argument baffled most MPs; she recalled an MP responding: ‘this is very awkward for us – this revolt of the women. It is quite a new thing; what are we to do with such an opposition as this?’

Campaigners were frustrated by the Gladstone government’s weak response – a dissent riven Royal Commission – and in the 1870 Colchester by-election put up a candidate against Sir Henry Storks, the Liberal ex-Governor of Malta and notorious supporter of the Acts. With Mrs Butler leading the way, they split the Liberal vote, allowing a Conservative victory. The tactic was repeated, though less successfully, in Pontefract in 1872. In each case, Liberal supporters physically attacked women campaigners, ensuring them publicity and sympathy. However the repealers’ strategy was counterproductive. Their parliamentary support came from Liberals and when Gladstone’s government fell in 1874, the campaign stalled.

Josephine Butler used the time to establish a Europe-wide crusade against the state regulation of prostitution. Progress came with Gladstone’s returned to power in 1880. Using James Stansfeld, a former local government minister, as parliamentary spokesman, and his utilitarian arguments on the ineffectiveness of the Acts, Butler’s workers secured a resolution suspending the Acts in 1883.

In 1882 Gladstone appointed George Butler a cannon at Winchester, from where Josephine cooperated with W.T. Stead’s ‘The maiden tribute of modern Babylon’ press stunt, which transformed the moral climate. Following campaigners’ investigations into the trafficking of young British girls to Brussels brothels, Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, arranged the purchase and transport of a thirteen-year-old to the continent for supposed immoral purposes. Though no harm came to the girl, Stead’s exposé resulted in his imprisonment. The scandal resulted in a Criminal Law Amendment Act which raised the age of consent to sixteen and paved the way for Stansfeld to secure the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, a precondition of his joining Gladstone’s 1886 government.

In her later years, Josephine Butler campaigned against the regulation of prostitution in India, but she disassociated herself from the National Vigilance Association’s puritanical campaigns and the repressive climate that ended the careers of Dilke, Parnell and Oscar Wilde.

George Butler died in 1890. Josephine survived until 30 December 1906. She is buried at Kirknewton, Northumberland.

Butler has several modern biographies; Jane Jordan’s Josephine Butler (2001) is a good starting point. She wrote ninety books and pamphlets, including her memoirs, Personal Memoirs of a Great Crusade (1896) and An Autobiographical Memoir (edited G.W. Johnson and L.A. Johnson, 1909, reprint 2009).