Butler, Josephine

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BUTLER, JOSEPHINE (1828–1906), British feminist activist.

Josephine Butler was born on 13 April 1828 at Milfield Hill, Glendale, Northumberland, the fourth daughter and seventh of ten children of John Grey (1785–1868), an enlightened agricultural expert, and his wife Hannah Eliza (née Annett; 1794–1860). The Greys were a prominent but progressive family, connected to the Whig aristocracy of Georgian England. John embraced antislavery, the repeal of the Corn Laws, and philanthropic reforms and encouraged his children to take a lively interest in current affairs. The Greys nominally attended St. Andrew's Anglican Church, Corbridge, but family prayers and bible readings, influenced by Hannah's Moravian roots, were much more important.

In January 1852, Josephine married George Butler (1819–1890), a classicist at Durham University. They moved to Oxford, where George was appointed public examiner. The son of the dean of Peterborough, George shared his new wife's deep faith, and was ordained into the Anglican ministry in 1854 although he continued his academic career. Butler's first child, George, was born in October 1882, and the young family lived an enjoyable if financially restrained life, although Butler found some aspects of Oxford life repressive, particularly the lack of female companionship. In reaction to the misogyny she perceived around her, she took her first "rescue" case, offering a position to a young woman incarcerated in Newgate Gaol for infanticide.

In 1857, respiratory illness forced Butler to leave the damp Oxford air. George had failed to secure a university appointment, so he accepted the vice principalship of Cheltenham College and moved his wife and two sons there. Another son and a daughter Evangeline Mary (Eva) were born in Cheltenham, but the family's time there ended in tragedy when Eva died in a fall as she rushed to greet her parents on their return home. Devastated, George sought a new location for his wife and sons. The family moved to Liverpool in 1866, when George became headmaster of Liverpool College.

Butler, still deeply depressed, lost herself in the work of seeking "other hearts which ached night and day, and with more reason than mine" (1892, p. 182). Encouraged by a local radical Baptist minister Charles Birrell, she began visiting the city's notorious Brownlow Hill workhouse and talking and praying with the women who worked in its oakum sheds. She welcomed some of the more disadvantaged inmates into her home, which did little to endear the new headmaster's wife to many of the college's parents. Undaunted, Butler involved herself in a series of feminist campaigns alongside prominent northern radicals. At the invitation of Anne Clough (1820–1892), later the founder and first principal of Newnham College, she joined the North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women, becoming its president. Through the council, Butler met Elizabeth Wolstoneholme and joined with her and Lydia Ernestine Becker (1827–1890) to work in Manchester for the Married Women's Property Committee as well as the National Society for Women's Suffrage. Along with campaigning, Butler began to publish. The Education and Employment of Women appeared in 1868 followed by an edited collection, Woman's Work and Woman's Culture, in 1869.

The same year, Butler began the work for which she is best known, leading the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA). The acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869 outraged feminists. Aimed at curtailing venereal disease in the British armed forces, they applied only to women and permitted punitive measures against prostitutes. The campaign against the acts ended in victory in 1886 but at great personal cost to Butler, who had been virulently ridiculed and even physically attacked during her speaking tours.

Butler extended her concerns to child prostitution and toured Europe speaking and gathering information. Helped by W. T. Stead (1849–1912) of the Pall Mall Gazette, which ran a series of shocking articles on the procuration of young girls, she raised public awareness to the extent that the British Parliament raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. The indelicate nature of much of her work shocked certain sections of Victorian society and attracted heavy criticism to her husband. When George resigned in 1882 the couple faced an uncertain financial future, and were helped by an annuity fund established by friends who realized the sacrifices both the Butlers had made for Josephine's work.

George was appointed canon of Winchester, and Josephine spent much of the next decade nursing him through increasing ill health. After his death in 1890 she took on some public work and edited the paper The Storm Bell for the LNA. She died in 1906.

See alsoFeminism.


Primary Sources

Butler, Josephine. Recollections of George Butler. Bristol, U.K., 1892.

——. Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade. London, 1896.

Secondary Sources

Caine, Barbara. Victorian Feminists. Oxford, U.K., 1992.

Jordan, Jane. Josephine Butler. London, 2001.

Krista Cowman