Josephine Butler was one of the great social reformers of the nineteenth century. Although a deeply pious woman, she tirelessly campaigned for the welfare of prostitutes and led the campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1886.
Professor James Stuart said in his tribute to Josephine Butler, after her death, 'Mrs Butler was one of the great people of our world. In character, in work done, in influence on others, she was among that few great people who have moulded the course of things. The world is different because she lived...She was a great leader of men and women.'
Born in Northumberland in 1828, to wealthy landowners, John and Hannah Grey, Josephine and her nine siblings were raised with the staunch influence of her father's political views and activities and her mother's religious teachings in Christianity. John grey had high moral principles and a strong dislike for inequality and injustice. He was also an active member of the Anti-Slavery Society of Northumberland.
In 1852, Josephine married George Butler, an academic from Cambridge. It was around this time that Josephine became active in feminists movements. Both she and George shared a deep Christian faith and a strong commitment to liberal reforms.
It was after the tragic death of their five year old daughter, Eva, that Josephine stricken with grief and depression, plunged herself into her charity work. "I became possessed with an irresistible desire to go forth and find some pain keener than my own - to meet people more unhappy than myself," she later wrote.
In 1866, Josephine, George and their three sons moved to Liverpool, where George was to take a position as the new headmaster in Liverpool College. It was here at Brownlow Hill Workhouse, that Josephine had her first encounter with prostitutes. Women that were forced by lack of work into prostitution to feed their children, were rejected by society as 'ultimately bad.' Josephine always found them 'courteous and gentle,' Despite being of weak and frail health herself, she would sit on the damp bricks of the workhouse floor and join the women in their tedious work of picking oakum for caulking boats.
The abysmal treatment and suffering that prostitutes received in the workhouse led Josephine to open her own home to these poor unfortunate women, many of which were disease ridden and many were children. Even though accepting these women into his home was jeopardizing his career, George Butler shared Josephine's compassion and welcomed the women and children, whatever their circumstances.
Before long the Butler's beautiful, grand home was full. Josephine, anxious by the plight of the many female penitents being discharged from the workhouse into a life of homelessness, set about establishing her own refuge for female outcasts. In 1867, the Butlers secured a building near their own home which became known as the 'House of Rest.'
She would train the women for domestic service or prepare them for emigration. Women could earn a sixpence a day, with which they were 'delighted,' making clothes either from donated recycled garments or new cloth. She wrote, " I have expended a good deal in materials to make clothes for the poor and have got several women fitted out to return to their homes in Ireland or America, which they were prevented doing by nakedness."
Josephine also had a keen interest in women's education and in 1867, she joined Anne Jemima Clough in organizing courses of advanced study for women. Together they formed the North of England Council for promoting the Higher Education of Women, of which Josephine was appointed president. After campaigning to Cambridge University to provide more opportunities for women students, in 1869, The Cambridge Higher Examination for women over the age of eighteen was sanctioned.
The campaigning continued and spread across the continent, following a visit by the Butlers to Switzerland in the same year. This led to the formation of the International Women;s Association, which extended Josephine's influence across France, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. It was around this time that Josephine began her crusade against the Contagious Diseases Act, introduced in the 1860s and sought to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the armed forces by regular internal examinations of prostitutes. She objected to any laws applying only to women and this act was no exception.
Throughout her campaigning, she was often shunned and beset with 'violent and cruel' criticism, being referred to 'a woman who calls herself a lady.' The idea of a woman speaking about sexual matters in public was quite shocking, but still George continued to support his wife regardless. The Act was finally repealed in 1886.
Around 1885, Josephine came into contact with Florence Booth of the salvation Army, who shared Josephine's distress concerning the number of young child prostitutes 'walking our streets.' Girls as young as thirteen years of age were working in brothels on the continent.Under English law the seduction of a child aged thirteen and over was not a legal offence. This widespread organized trafficking of young girls was known as the White Slave Trade. Girls were misled to believe that they were going with a seemingly respectable foreign gentleman to Brussels, to a highly paid position or perhaps marriage. On arrival, the poor unfortunate girls would be handed over with false identifications to a terrible, cruel life in a Belgian brothel.
Together with William Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, Josephine and Florence set out to publicize this dreadful trade. With the help of a former brothel-keeper, Rebecca Jarrett, a thirteen year old girl called Eliza Armstrong was brought from her alcoholic mother for £5, to be transported to the continent. Eliza was in fact taken to Paris, where she was put to service with a good Christian family known to the Salvation Army. This exposure led to an uproar and the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen years.
After George Butler died in 1890, Josephine continued campaigning until the early 1900s, where in the last few years of her life she became a supporter of the National Union of Suffrage Societies. She died in 1906 at her son George's home in Northumberland.
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