Butler, Josephine (1828–1906)

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Butler, Josephine (1828–1906)

President of the Ladies National Association who led a successful campaign to repeal the British Contagious Diseases Acts, which subjected women suspected of prostitution to enforced examination and imprisonment. Name variations: Josephine Grey. Born Josephine Elizabeth Grey on April 13, 1828, at Dilston, Northumberland, England; died on December 30, 1906, at Wooler, Northumberland; daughter of John and Hannah (Annett) Grey; educated at home and at Newcastle; married George Butler (a cleric), 1851; children: three sons and one daughter, Evange-line, who died in childhood.

Moved to husband's parish in Oxford (1851); drawn into education issues (1858); death of her daughter (1858); took up more social issues after move to Liverpool (1866); elected president of North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women (1867–73); made president of Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (1869-86); became founding member of National Vigilance Association (1885).

Selected publications:

The Education and Employment of Women (1868); On the Moral Reclaimability of Prostitutes (1870); Rebecca Jarrett (1886); Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade (1896).

In 1870, Catherine Pickles , a young girl of 16, was arrested by military police. Suspected of being a prostitute, she was taken to a hospital and forcibly examined by a doctor for venereal disease. Although Catherine protested, the law was on the side of the military. Six years previously the British government, alarmed by the rise in venereal disease among its armed forces, had passed the first of a series of Contagious Diseases Acts (CDA's), which applied to many garrison towns and naval ports of England. The first of these acts, passed in 1864, gave the police power to apprehend any woman suspected of being a "common prostitute." In the words of the bill: "If it is proved to the Satisfaction of such Justice that the Woman so brought before him is a common Prostitute, and at the time of her Arrest in a public Place … the Justice may order her to be taken to a Certified Hospital, there to remain until cured."

Once arrested, women were ordered to undergo an internal examination at a certified hospital. If they refused, they could be imprisoned for one month. The internal examinations, although rarely lasting more than a minute, were conducted by doctors who were neither gentle

nor particularly hygienic; one doctor at Plymouth apparently examined about 70 women a day. Catherine, like many falsely accused women, was found to be healthy and set free without an apology. But if she had been diseased, she could have been detained for treatment up to a period of three months or until she was pronounced cured. Treatment at the time was grim and generally ineffective. The only known medical remedy available was mercury, a highly toxic substance.

This punitive approach to treatment was considered justified because women, not men, were held responsible for the spread of syphilis and gonorrhea. Soldiers and sailors were never examined. Modern-day historians view the CDA's as consistent with a set of attitudes towards women, sexuality, and class that permeated Victorian society. Josephine Butler, dubbing the examinations like that endured by Catherine Pickles "instrumental rape," led a campaign to repeal the CDA's. Eventually modified, in 1866 and 1869, they remained in force, in essence, for 22 years.

It is injust 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.

—Josephine Butler

Josephine Grey Butler, was born on April 13, 1828, at Milfield Hill, Dilston, in the stunningly beautiful but windswept county of Northumberland, England, situated near the Scottish border. She was the fourth of six daughters in a family that also included three sons. Her mother Hannah Annett Grey was of humble birth, descended from silk weavers who had been driven out of France, but her father John Grey came from an aristocratic Liberal family. His cousin, Lord Grey, served as one of England's prime ministers.

By all accounts, Josephine had an idyllic childhood on her father's 34,356-acre farm. She was educated at first by a strict and uncompromising governess but later went to school in the nearby town of Newcastle-on-Tyne. Her most important educational influences were her mother and father. From her mother, Josephine learned moral behavior, religious commitment, and intellectual rigor. From an early age, her father taught her to care about social justice. A well-known social reformer, John Grey supported free trade, the abolition of slavery, and parliamentary reform. Josephine shared her father's interests and political fervor.

Josephine was aged 22, in 1851, when she married George Butler, a cleric of the Church of England. For the next five years, the couple lived in Oxford, enduring the damp lowland country of their surroundings and what they viewed as the narrow-mindedness of the dons. In 1857, when her husband was offered the post of vice-principal of Cheltenham College, Josephine Butler was relieved to exchange the university setting for the healthy atmosphere of a Cotswold spa town. For the first few years in their new home, she became absorbed in educational issues and the lives of her four children. When Dorothea Beale was appointed principal of Cheltenham Ladies College in 1858, education for women was placed firmly on the social agenda.

Butler had become committed to advancing educational opportunities for women when she experienced her greatest tragedy. The couple's youngest child and only daughter, Evangeline, had run to the top of the stairs, excited by her parents' return home. With her parents looking on, she tumbled over the banister onto the tiled floor below, and died a few hours later. Wrote Butler:

Never can I lose that memory—the fall, the sudden cry, and then the silence. It was pitiful to see her, helpless in her father's arms, her little drooping head resting on his shoulder and her beautiful golden hair, all stained with blood, falling over his arm.

Josephine Butler had never enjoyed robust health; a lesion on her lung had kept her fragile. After the shock of Eva's death, Butler became seriously ill, and she was never to recover fully from the loss of her daughter. When George was offered a job in Liverpool, he accepted it in hopes of helping his wife overcome her melancholy.

Liverpool was quite different from the genteel Cheltenham: it was a working port with a large number of desperate poor. Soon after her arrival, writes Butler, she became involved in philanthropic work, because she had "an irresistible desire to go forth and find some pain keener than my own—to meet with people more unhappy than myself…. I only knew that my heart ached night and day, and that the only solace would seem to be to find other hearts which ached night and day."

To secure the trust of the despondent women she found in the poverty-ridden port, Butler at first joined in picking oakum (unravelling old ropes) alongside the most destitute of women incarcerated in the Brownlow Hill workhouse. She brought many who were sick and dying to her home, where she nursed them until they regained health or else died. When her house could not accommodate any more people, she opened a "House of Rest" to look after women who had been discharged from hospital but were incurably ill and had no place else to go. Later, she established an industrial home where destitute young women were employed making envelopes in exchange for food and shelter. Many of those she helped were former prostitutes, forced to earn a living on the streets because of a lack of job opportunities, low pay, and poor self-esteem.

Butler also remained committed to educational reform. As an ardent supporter of women's rights, she advocated higher education for women. From 1867 to 1873, she was president of the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women, and in 1868 she published a pamphlet, Education and Employment of Women. She was also instrumental in the establishment of Newnham, the first women's college at Cambridge University. Like many English feminists, Josephine Butler advocated equal opportunities in work and politics and supported women's right to vote. In her opinion, prostitution, unemployment, and low pay were intimately connected.

In the meantime, the first of the Contagious Diseases Acts was passed in 1864. When the government extended these acts in 1869, a few middle-class women signed a petition and initiated a campaign to remove them from the statute books. As an eminently respectable, middle-aged married woman, Josephine Butler was the ideal figure to lead such a campaign. In conjunction with a group of other well-known feminists, she founded the Ladies National Association (LNA) to fight for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts.

In contrast to the view that the acts defended morality, Butler took the position that the acts supported immoral laws, which legalized prostitution and encouraged vice. In addition, she argued, it penalized women. The CDA's, she believed, reinforced the double standard that prevailed in Victorian England because women, not men, were held responsible for venereal disease. In The Shield, the journal of the LNA, Butler repeated statements that she herself had heard from prostitutes:

"It is men, men, only men, from the first to the last, that we have to do with! To please a man I did wrong at first, then I was flung about from man to man. Men police lay hands on us. By men we are examined, handled, doctored…. In the hospital it is a man again who makes prayers and reads the Bible for us. We are had up before magistrates who are men, and we never get out of the hands of men till we die!"

"It did seem hard, ma'am, that the Magistrate on the bench who gave the casting vote for my imprisonment had paid me several shillings, a day or two before, in the street, to go with him."

With the founding of the LNA, Butler's life became devoted to its cause. When the repeal movement ran short of money, she sold her jewels and donated what she could: at one time, a sixpence was all that remained in her bank account. In her first year, she traveled an exhausting 3,700 miles to 99 meetings to persuade others to publicize the repeal movement. She proved to be a brilliant speaker who captivated opponents with charisma and charm. Members of the group used petitions, deputations, lobbying, conferences, leaflets, and talks to rally support. In 1871, a petition signed by 250,000 women was presented to Parliament. In 1874, Butler was called upon to travel to France, Italy, and Switzerland to help reformers in these countries campaign for their own deregulation.

The campaign faced heavy criticism, however. On many occasions Butler and her colleagues were in physical danger. In Colchester, opponents threw mud, flour, refuse, and even furniture at the repealers, tore their clothes and threatened to burn down the hotel where Butler was staying. Women who supported repeal were accused of dabbling in filth because they discussed sexual issues, and one M.P. claimed that they were worse than prostitutes. At first, neither political party in Parliament advocated repeal of the CDA's; other issues such as England's relationship with Ireland, suffrage, imperialism, religion, urbanization, and education were considered far more urgent concerns of the government. By 1874, the LNA had gained the support of James Stansfeld, a leading Liberal M.P. With Stansfeld's parliamentary influence combined with Butler's persuasive campaigning outside the House of Commons, the Contagious Diseases Acts were finally repealed in 1886. When Butler received the news, she was in Italy.

My husband and I were at the time staying with my sister in Naples. It was a great joy to us to receive a telegram on April 16th, signed by Mr Stuart and Mr Stansfeld, saying; "The Royal Assent has this day been given to the Repeal Bill." I thanked God at that moment that Queen Victoria had washed her hands of a stain that she had unconsciously contracted in the first endorsement of this legislation.

Josephine Butler also became associated with campaigns to protect young people, sometimes as young as ten, who were sold into prostitution. Her son George had even found padded cells where children were tortured. One Harley Street doctor was said to have sold over 100 children to his patients. By publicizing these injustices, Butler hoped to shock the English out of their complacency. With the support of W.T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, Butler persuaded Rebecca Jarrett , a reformed brothel keeper, to pretend to purchase a child for immoral purposes. A young girl named Eliza Armstrong was duly bought for £5, tested for virginity, and taken to a brothel. When the story was published in Stead's paper, it caused a national sensation, and the publicity surrounding the case prompted passage of a Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885, which raised the age of consent from 12 to 16, introduced heavy penalties for child abuse, and gave police stronger powers to close brothels; unfortunately, it also made homosexuality illegal.

In the view of Josephine Butler, however, prostitution, white slavery, and child abuse would not be stopped by passing laws. To enforce the 1885 Act, she helped to found the National Vigilance Association (NVA) in the same year. This group sought the prosecution of men who had sexually abused girls under 16; campaigned to tighten up the CLAA further; and tried to stop pornography, indecent advertising, obscene literature and semi-nudity in music halls. Initially a feminist inspired organization, the NVA later became a repressive force in British pressure group politics, and in its latter stages, Butler withdrew her support.

When her husband died in London on March 14, 1890, Josephine Butler lost a dear friend and political ally. Despite her grief, she continued to help destitute women, carried on the fight against moral bigotry, and supported votes for women. When the British attempted to reintroduce compulsory examination of prostitutes in India, Butler criticized the government for imperialistic behavior. In January 1898, nearing the age of 70, she published the first edition of her monthly journal, the Storm Bell, where she recounted her experiences of rescue work and raised questions about ethical issues. To the end of her life, she remained committed to rescue work even though by 1900 it was heavily criticized.

I know it will be said, as it is often said: "But rescue work is such discouraging, such hopeless work. It is far better to act on public opinion, to elevate the morality of men, to educate the young in principles of justice and purity, to strike at the root, at the causes of prostitution. What you are counselling is but ambulance work for picking up and helping the wounded. Is it not far better to abolish war?" All this is quite true. Nevertheless, can we, in the name of pity, neglect our wounded and leave them to die?

When Josephine Butler died on December 30, 1906, at Wooler, in her home county of Northumberland, many people mourned the passing of one of England's greatest social agitators. In 1921, the Josephine Butler Memorial House was opened in Liverpool to train women in aspects of social welfare, and a commemorative window was eventually placed in the Lady Chapel of Liverpool Cathedral. In the calendar of the Church of England, December 30th is sanctified as Josephine Butler Day, in memory of her work.


Bartley, Paula, co-author and co-ed. "Women In History" series, Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, George and Lucy, eds. Josephine E. Butler: An Autobiographical Memoir, 1928.

Walkowitz, Judith. Prostitution and Victorian Society, 1980.

Paula Bartley , University of Wolverhampton, Dudley, United Kingdom, author and joint editor of "Women in History" series, Cambridge University Press

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