Josephine Butler: Pioneering feminist activist

Josephine Butler was a pioneering Victorian feminist who was famous for her activism against the sex trade and the punitive, sexist laws known as the Contagious Diseases Acts. This article provides a brief outline of her political awakening, her involvement in the campaign for women’s suffrage, education and employment, and her leadership of the ultimately successful campaign to overturn the Contagious Diseases Acts.

This article draws heavily on Jane Jordan’s excellent biography, ‘Josephine Butler.’ Except where stated otherwise, all quotations are from this book.

Josephine Elizabeth Grey was born into a liberal landowning family in Northumberland on 13 April 1828. She was the seventh of ten children.

As a child Josephine was influenced by her father, John Grey, and his support for the anti-slavery movement. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which abolished slavery in the British Empire, was passed five years after her birth, when John Grey’s first cousin, Earl Grey, was prime minister.

John Grey was shocked that the original bill made provision to compensate slave owners but not former slaves, who would even have to pay for the freedom of their children. He wrote to his cousin expressing his disapproval. Perhaps partly in response, the bill was revised, but although improved, it remained far from perfect.

The Irish Famine: Man-made catastrophe

In the autumn of 1847, when she was 19, Josephine visited her brother in Ireland. It was the height of the Great Famine that followed an epidemic of potato blight that ruined the entire potato crop. Witnessing the starvation and destitution of the peasants had a profound impact on her. She described her experiences in a pamphlet she wrote in support of Home Rule for Ireland 40 years later:

I can recollect being awakened in the early morning by a strange sound like the croaking or chattering of many birds. Some of the voices were hoarse and almost extinguished by the faintness of famine; and on looking out of my window I recollect seeing the garden and fields in front of the house completely darkened with a population of men, women, and children, squatting, in rags; uncovered skeleton limbs protruding everywhere from their wretched clothing, and clamorous, though faint voices uplifted for food…

I recollect, too, when walking through lanes and villages, the strange morbid famine smell in the air, the sign of approaching death even in those who were still dragging out a wretched existence. Nor can I forget the occasional shrill wail which was sighed out by some poor creature sending her last cry of despair to heaven before falling down in a state of collapse by the wayside.” [Josephine, quoted on page 18]

Starving peasants in Skibbereen, West Cork, by James Mahone, 1847

The potato blight devastated potato crops throughout Europe, but it was only in Ireland that the consequences were so catastrophic. In the five years from 1846, out of a total population of about 8.4 million, approximately one million people died of starvation or related illnesses, and another million emigrated.

Ireland was under British colonial rule, and most of the country was under the control of parasitic absentee English and Anglo-Irish landlords whose chief concern was maximising rents. As a result many peasants were totally dependent on potatoes, because it was the only crop that produced a yield high enough to feed their families on their tiny plots of land. So when the blight struck, the majority of the peasants had little, if anything else to fall back on.

Lord Palmerston, British Foreign Secretary & absentee Irish landlord, evicted 2,000 tenants

Britain failed to take effective measures to ameliorate the suffering: It didn’t stop the export of food products, such as beef and butter, from Ireland, even though the food exported would have been sufficient to sustain all those who died; It did nothing to stop the brutal evictions of peasants who couldn’t pay their rent; And it didn’t provide anything near adequate emergency relief.

At least some of this would have been clear to Josephine at the time, not least because she was well fed while there, and her father had tried in vain to raise the alarm about the situation in Ireland over the preceding years.

Josephine’s distress at such brutality, along with her growing awareness of the inequalities between the sexes, provoked a spiritual crisis, as she describes in a letter she wrote in 1905:

There were extensive and pathless woods near the house. So great was the burden on my soul about the inequalities and injustices and cruelties in the world that I used to run away into these far woods, where no one followed me, and kneeling on the ground, for hours, I used to shriek to God to come and deliver!” [Josephine, quoted on page 18]

Marriage and family tragedy

Josephine Butler, 1869

But Josephine’s life also had a lighter side. She was an accomplished horse rider and pianist, and she enjoyed dancing. At the age of 24 she married George Butler, who had enlightened views on marriage and women’s rights. Josephine gave birth to three sons and one daughter, Eva, in fairly quick succession.

On 20 August 1864, at the age of five, Eva fell while playing on a wobbly bannister, and died three hours later. There are conflicting accounts of the accident, perhaps suggesting guilt that the bannister hadn’t been fixed and the child was unsupervised.

After Eva’s death, Josephine was distraught with grief and became ill. She was sent to convalesce in Italy, where one of her sisters lived.

Destitute women in Liverpool

In January 1866 the family moved to Liverpool, on George’s appointment as headmaster of a boys’ school, Liverpool College. The boys attended the school with their father. Finding herself alone in the house all day, Josephine missed Eva’s companionship acutely. She was depressed and couldn’t concentrate on anything.

I came possessed by an irresistible desire to go forth and find some pain keener than my own – to meet with people more unhappy than myself (for I knew there were thousands of such). I did not exaggerate my own trial; I only knew that my heart ached night and day, and that the only solace possible would seem to be to find other hearts which ached night and day, and with more reason than mine.” [Josephine, quoted on pages 66-67]

With the help of Charles Birrell, a Baptist minister, she started visiting the Brownlow Hill Workhouse. Workhouses were public institutions that provided destitute people with basic board and lodging in return for work. Invariably they were cruel and harsh. Brownlow Hill was the largest workhouse in the country, housing up to 5,000.

Women picking oakum in a workhouse

Josephine visited the cellars where women picked oakum. This involved teasing out the fibres from old ropes so the fibres could be sold for caulking ships. It was hard and painful on the fingers and was punishment for unmarried mothers, women involved in prostitution, and other women who were considered beyond redemption.

There were 300 women locked in the oakum cellars, including some who were in the county jail awaiting trial for the murder of the previous matron. After Josephine entered, the new matron locked the door and left. The women circled Josephine menacingly. In a letter to her sister, she described what happened next:

[I] sat on the floor among them and picked oakum. They laughed at me, and told me my fingers were of no use for that work; which was true. But while we laughed we became friends.’ [Josephine, quoted on page 68]

She then knelt and prayed, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ The women joined her, letting out a great wailing and moaning – the archetypal expression of women’s anguish.

As a modern secular feminist, this emphasis on ‘sin’ and forgiveness is not entirely comfortable, but it needs to be understood in the context of the time. Josephine attended services at the Anglican Church (the church of the British establishment) out of loyalty to her husband, but her real allegiance was to Methodism.

Methodism was a working class movement, based on Christian principles, discipline, education, and democratic organisation. That Josephine, who was born into a minor branch of an aristocratic family, favoured Methodism over the established church shows that she was someone who aligned herself with ordinary people and thought for herself rather than going along with the allegiances of her class.

Brownlow Hill Workhouse

Josephine made many visits to the workhouse, and also to the poorest neighbourhoods and hospitals. This brought her into contact with countless women who were destitute and often in very poor health, sometimes in the last stages of TB or syphilis and close to death. Many were involved in prostitution, and many were refugees from the Irish famine.

There was an acute shortage of refuges and hostels for women leaving the workhouse and hospitals, with the result that many had no choice but to enter the brothels.

Josephine met a young woman with advanced TB in the workhouse infirmary. Her name was Mary Lomax and her story was a common one:

She was born near Matlock in Derbyshire to a farming family, and had been working as an under-maid in a well-to-do house. She was ‘not fifteen when the gentleman sent her up to his room to fetch a cigar case, and followed her, and shut the door… There followed childbearing, shame, concealment, in which the parents, strong in north country virtue, treated their child with a harshness of which they afterwards bitterly repented.’

Mary then came to Liverpool seeking another situation. […] She was ‘literally kidnapped’ by a Mrs Mandeville, the brothel keeper of one of the more ‘select’ brothels in Liverpool ‘who goes about covered in diamonds and has 50 or 60 girls in her house.’” [Page 70]

On a sudden impulse, Josephine invited Mary to stay in her house. The next day, Josephine hired a cab and picked her up from the workhouse. George was waiting and when the cab pulled up outside the house, he gave her his arm and led her in and up to the room that had been prepared for her.

More girls who were sick or desperate to escape the life of prostitution, and who had no place to go, followed Mary, until every available room in the house was taken. The women and girls were not confined to their rooms or segregated from the family.

It is impossible to over-emphasise the boldness, courage and generosity of taking these women into her house. It defied all the social norms of the era and could have ruined her husband’s career, and the health and standing of the whole family, including the servants.

The House of Rest and the Industrial Home

Realising the need was far greater than she could accommodate in her own home, Josephine set up a ‘House of Rest.’ Unable to get official funding, the Butlers took on the financial risk themselves, and Josephine approached rich Liverpool men for donations. The refuge was run on liberal lines, very different from the punitive regimes in most refuges run by religious institutions. However, there was an emphasis on saving the souls of the women, which might feel uncomfortable for the modern secular reader.

Those who view prostitution as regular work or labour often criticise Josephine Butler, seeing her work as part of a ‘moral purity’ movement, and as middle class do-gooding that was demeaning and intrinsically viewed prostitutes as fallen women in need of rescue.

But the evidence is that Josephine was responding to severe distress – women who were destitute, undernourished, and often severely sick and even dying, and who had no one to turn to. She saw them as equals who had fallen on hard times.

Although her early writings in particular are framed in terms of Christianity, her political consciousness and analysis developed rapidly. This contact with destitute women and the challenges they faced informed her developing political activism, making it deeper and wiser than many of the suffrage campaigners who stayed on safer territory.

Josephine was one of the 1,500 signatories to the first petition calling for women’s suffrage, which John Stuart Mill presented to Parliament on 6 June 1866. Perhaps as a result of this, she was invited to meet women, such as Lydia Becker and Mrs Glayn, who were involved in the suffrage movement in Manchester.

It was a significant meeting, a turning point, because it demonstrated to Josephine, for the first time, what social reforms could be achieved if women would combine to work together and form local committees, which might develop into national movements.” [Page 75]

Josephine went into brothels to talk to the women. She didn’t ask the names of their clients but realised she might know some of them and it angered her that their reputations were unblemished while the women were branded.

Charles Birrell alerted her to the whereabouts of impoverished women, who she would visit. She became well known among the destitute women of Liverpool, who respected her for picking oakum with prostitutes and thieves, and for opening up her home to homeless women.

In Liverpool at that time, women outnumbered men and an unusually large proportion had to support themselves financially, but most paid work was heavy labour in the docks and there were very few industrial openings for women. Many of the women were so poor they couldn’t even emigrate because they were dressed in rags and had no proper clothes.

The building that had housed one of the homes shortly before its demolition in 2009

Josephine set up a second, larger, refuge, the Industrial Home, where destitute women could learn skills and gain a reference that would enable them to obtain secure paid employment. She persuaded the workhouse committee to fund it, with the aid of donations from local merchants.

The campaign for women’s higher education

George Butler believed that female school teachers should have equal pay with male teachers. However, he realised that this would be hard to justify while women were systematically excluded from higher education and so were less qualified than male teachers. This led him to support the campaign for higher education for women, but he thought that women should lead the campaign.

In the spring of 1867, Anne Clough, who would later become the first principle of Newnham College, Cambridge, called on the Butlers to sound them out for support for fighting for women’s access to higher education. As a result, both Josephine and George got involved in the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women, and Josephine became its first elected president.

When Anne Clough invited Josephine to involve herself in the North of England Council she opened up a new world of possibilities for her, introducing her to wholly new circles of principled men and women who understood how to organise committees and how to put pressure on government.” [Page 88]

The campaign for married women’s rights

While maintaining her involvement in the higher education campaign and the Home of Rest and the Industrial Home, Josephine also became involved in the campaign demanding protection for married women’s property. She became the joint secretary of the Married Women’s Property Committee.

When a woman got married at that time, any money and property that she owned became the property of her husband, and from then on any wages or other money she received automatically became his. This meant that her legal identity was absorbed into his and they became one person under the law (him). This was called couverture.

It wasn’t until the Married Women’s Property Act 1884 that married women gained similar property rights to men and were released from couverture.

The Education and Employment of Women

At the request of the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, Josephine wrote her first published article in 1868. It was a 28-page pamphlet entitled, The Education and Employment of Women.

Josephine made impressive use of statistics compiled from the census returns of 1851 and 1861, and information gathered from societies such as the Governesses’ Institution and the Schoolmistresses’ Association in order to break the ‘conspiracy of silence’ which kept society in ignorance of the economic position of women. The facts were sad and shocking: 500 applicants answered an advertisement for a situation as a governess at just £20 a year, a sum regarded as so paltry that women willing to accept such wages were refused registration by the governesses’ institutions; another advertisement for an unpaid nursery governess was answered by 300…” [Page 92 – emphasis added]

She quoted anonymous women, such as a school teacher who tied a band round her waist before she went to bed to help her bear the hunger pangs that assailed her every night. She explained women’s unquenched thirst for knowledge, and their hunger in the midst of plenty.

Josephine’s concerns were wider than just the higher education of middle-class women. She understood the issues facing women across the classes.

She was becoming increasingly well-known and received some vile responses, including from Frederic Harrison, a fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, who was very influential in reformist circles. Harrison thought that women should never do paid work of any kind. Josephine correctly understood that he was effectively arguing for polygamy and mass prostitution.

She wrote back to him, explaining that the reality was that there were two and a half million spinsters and widows in the country, whose options in the absence of paid work were effectively starvation or prostitution – and this applied to women across the classes.

The ignorance well-educated men had about the reality of women’s lives was shocking and the exchange with Harrison in particular had a profound impact on Josephine’s health. However, this didn’t stop her going to Cambridge to canvas support. She met a lot of dons and found that the older ones in particular were quite sympathetic and she delivered a petition with a large number of signatures to the University Senate. Signatories included Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, Mrs Tennyson, Mrs Gladstone, and a number of titled women.

The following year, 1869, the Cambridge Higher Examination for women over 18 was introduced. Although many other women had been involved, including Anne Clough, Josephine had undoubtedly played an important role, particularly in making the issues easy to understand.

At the same time, Emily Davies, was pursuing a different course – campaigning for a separate university college for women at Cambridge. There was disagreement between the two camps regarding tactics and goals.

Women’s Work and Women’s Culture

Josephine became more and more preoccupied by the concerns she’d laid out in The Education and Employment of Women, and she edited a collection of essays called Women’s Work and Women’s Culture. She negotiated a publishing deal with Macmillan and it was published within a couple of weeks of John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women.

But whereas Mill’s book was entirely focused on middle and upper class women, Josephine’s book covered much of the same ground (women’s education and suffrage) but articulated issues that affected working class women as well. Josephine argued that women of all social classes would be vulnerable to a life in prostitution so long as all other options for earning a living were withheld, and that it was utter hypocrisy for men to insist in the face of this reality, that women’s sphere was the home.

It is no accident that Mill’s book is widely known all this time later, while Josephine’s more radical one is not. In Women of Ideas and What Men have Done to Them, Dale Spender documents how women’s intellectual work, particularly the most radical, gets erased from the cultural canon, because men have controlled the cultural institutions (and still do in practice) and decide what is of value within a system in which men are born to a monopoly of privilege and women’s work and analysis is defined as unimportant and irrelevant.

After the book was published, Josephine set about gathering information from around Europe with a view to establishing a Europe-wide organisation for women’s rights.

The Contagious Diseases Acts

In the summer of 1869, the Butlers went to Switzerland. Although it was a holiday, Josephine attended some women’s meetings, with the aim of strengthening the network of support for women’s higher education on the continent.

In Geneva, she met with women from six European countries who were concerned about the regulated system of prostitution that existed throughout most of Europe, with bureaucracy for arresting, registering, and examining the women involved. At their request, Josephine gave a talk against this system, making the point that any advance in the status of women would be impossible while such regulation existed, because it enshrines men’s entitlement to sexual access to women in law.

When the Butlers arrived back in Dover, there was a letter explaining that the European system was in fact already in existence in England through the Contagious Diseases Acts (‘the CDAs’). Jane Jordan explains how these were introduced:

The first Contagious Diseases (Women) Act was passed in Britain [in 1864], which was modelled to a degree on the European system of regulated prostitution, and which, within a radius of 11 army camps and naval ports, sought to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the army and navy by the forcible registration and regular internal examination of women who were believed to be prostitutes. Those found to be diseased were detained for periods of up to three months. It was a temporary piece of legislation with a shelf life of three years, and was replaced with a new Act in 1866 which added Chatham and Windsor to the number of subjected towns, and introduced the enforcement of fortnightly examinations of prostitutes.” [Page 107]

The third Act, passed while Josephine was away, extended the provisions to a total of 18 towns and the maximum detention period to nine months.

Although a few doctors argued against the CDAs, far more supported them, including the Lancet, and many wanted them extended to the whole country and for a European-style system of licensed prostitution to be implemented.

There was no requirement for proof that the woman was in fact involved in prostitution, so the plainclothes policemen who enforced the CDAs would harass poor and working class women as they went about their daily lives – tyrannising them and subjecting them to constant surveillance and threat. Unsurprisingly these policemen were hated – as were the lock hospitals where women who were infected were detained. Being detained under the CDAs did permanent damage to women’s reputations such that it made it practically impossible to subsequently escape from prostitution.

Josephine was urged to lead a national campaign both by doctors who opposed the CDAs and by Elizabeth Wolstoneholme who had set up the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (‘the National Association’) in September that year.

Josephine said nothing about this to her husband for three months while she wrestled with herself. She understood that while her work with destitute women fell under the umbrella of relief work, which was deemed acceptable for upper class women, leading a political campaign against laws on prostitution would be completely different.

It is now many weeks since I knew that Parliament had sanctioned this great wickedness, and I have not yet put on my armour, nor am I yet ready. Nothing so wears me out, body and soul, as anger, fruitless anger; and this thing fills me with such an anger, and even hatred, that I fear to face it…” [Josephine, quoted on page 109]

Eventually she came to the conclusion that she must channel her anger into work to end this state-sanctioned injustice and tyranny against women. She plucked up courage to tell George and after a delay of a few days while he also struggled with himself and the implications for the family, he offered her his blessing and he maintained unwavering support for her until he died – even though she met relentless criticism and abuse, including from the floor of the House of Commons and in the newspapers.

The ladies’ campaign against the CDAs

Josephine addressing a public meeting

The newly formed National Association’s membership was only open to men, so at the end of 1869, Josephine and some Quaker women founded the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act (‘the Ladies National Association’), with Josephine as its head. The initial members included four sisters – Elizabeth Bright, Margaret Tanner, Anna Maria Priestman, and Mary Priestman – who became Josephine’s most trusted colleagues and intimate friends, and whose love and support were fundamental to her ability to withstand the attacks and opposition that she faced throughout the campaign.

Josephine embarked on a speaking tour of a succession of Northern cities and towns – speaking to male mechanics, foundry workers, and other industrial workers – many of them recently enfranchised under the 1867 Reform Act. This took extraordinary courage – at the time it was more or less unknown for women to address public meetings, let alone on such a taboo subject.

She gave a different speech every time and had an extraordinary aptitude for explaining the issues, and capturing hearts and minds. To those who would write off the women involved in prostitution as irredeemable, she insisted on their humanity. She understood through her earlier work that most of them had no alternative for survival because women were systematically excluded from most decent paid work and the utter hypocrisy that the CDAs should punish them for the consequences of a system over which they had no control, while letting the men off scot free – when it was men who had real choices and it was men who created and controlled the whole system.

Some of the men in the audience at Crewe confirmed the truth of what she was saying because they had seen for themselves the devastating social effects of the system of regulated prostitution in Paris when they had served apprenticeships there.

Her frequent public speaking over the next few years helped the gradual acceptance of women speaking on public platforms – and this played a key role in the progress towards women’s suffrage. However, it rattled those in power who had never before witnessed women rebelling in this way and who were terrified at its prospects.

Josephine saw the CDA campaign as a logical extension of previous liberal reforms, including the abolition of slavery, the ongoing campaigns for men’s universal suffrage, and for universal education. She explicitly compared prostitution and the trafficking of women and girls (then known as the ‘white slave trade’) with slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. More people began to accept this analysis and campaigners against the CDAs began referring to themselves as ‘abolitionists’ because they weren’t just seeking the repeal of the CDAs but also the end of the entire system of prostitution, and the inequality of women, on which it is based.

Tour of the Kent garrison towns

In the spring of 1870 Josephine toured the Kent garrison towns, where the CDAs were in force. She visited brothels and talked to women who had been through the examinations and some who were in prison for refusing to submit to them. These women described how the doctors (always male at that time of course) would deliberately hurt and humiliate them during the examinations, using both their hands and instruments, twisting and turning them, forcefully inserting them many times – leaving the women in considerable pain and many bleeding badly.

One of the women told Josephine that the magistrate who sentenced her had paid her “to go with him” only a few days earlier. This wasn’t an unusual or isolated case and it illustrates the utter hypocrisy and double standard at the heart of the issue. Josephine warned the Kent magistrates that she’d be happy to speak to them about such behaviour and that she would not rest until she had obtained:

An equal code of morality, one standard for men and for women alike, equal laws based upon an equal standard.” [Josephine, quoted on page 118]

She met with the young soldiers whose health was the purported justification for the CDAs. Some of them told her how they were provided with no form of recreation other than the brothels. This supports the late Cynthia Cockburn’s thesis that militarism requires men to develop extreme masculine attitudes and behaviour, and that the authorities encourage this through the provision of prostitution and tacit tolerance of male sexual violence.

Pamphlets and public meetings

In May 1870, Josephine addressed a National Association conference in London and was part of a deputation to the Home Secretary to deliver her report about what she’d seen in Kent.

In addition to distributing literature and holding public meetings, the Ladies National Association set up an Aid and Defence Association to provide legal representation to women caught under the CDAs and support for their children while they were locked up.

Colchester barracks, 1856

Campaigners asked every parliamentary candidate for their position on the CDAs and ran a campaign against Liberal candidates who didn’t express firm opposition. In the autumn of 1870, there was a by-election in the garrison town of Colchester. Sir Henry Storks was the official Liberal candidate, and a keen supporter of the CDAs, having implemented similar legislation in Malta when he was governor there.

The National Association put up a radical lawyer, Dr J Baxter Langley, as a rival Liberal candidate with the aim of splitting the Liberal vote. An alliance of government supporters and brothel keepers did their best to stop him. He received many personal threats and his speech at a public event was drowned out by opponents, who threw rotten vegetables, lumps of mortar, and even chairs at him.

Josephine stayed in the town for two weeks to help the campaign and have meetings with local women. She was also attacked and had to adopt a disguise when going about in public.

Although Dr Langley was not elected, he did successfully split the vote and the Conservative candidate won. Even the London papers were clear that it was the presence of Josephine and other women of the Ladies National Association that made the difference rather than Dr Langley himself. This gave the women courage and hope that they would eventually prevail.

When Josephine got home, she worked on a book for the campaign. She realised quickly that the medical and sanitary issues would always be open to debate and different interpretation and that they should root their campaign in the constitutional issues. In her book, The Constitution Violated, she argued powerfully that in violating the constitutional liberties of women, the CDAs risked everyone’s rights.

For example, the CDAs implicitly framed the impact of its provisions on women as trivial – but she showed that the impact on women was lifelong and made any hope of acquiring any occupation other than prostitution an impossibility. She compared this to lifelong imprisonment and asked how this could be considered minor when the Magna Carta promised:

No freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned… unless by the lawful judgement of his peers.” [Page 125]

Her other arguments centred around the lack of any attempt at a definition of ‘common prostitute’ which led to the CDAs being used against any working class woman, and that women had to sign “Voluntary Submission Forms” on pain of being locked up for refusing – which is an oxymoron if ever there was one. She argued that women needed political representation.

The 1871 Royal Commission

Now that they had succeeded in raising awareness of the issue, the focus of the campaign moved towards getting Parliament to repeal the CDAs. The National Association had a Parliamentary representative, William Fowler, who introduced a Private Member’s Bill for their repeal. The Bill did not pass, but the government responded by setting up a Royal Commission to consider the matter. All evidence was taken in private.

Even though Josephine was called to give evidence, the Ladies National Association had no confidence in the commission and they organised a ‘monster petition’ that was signed by more than a quarter of a million people. This was delivered to Parliament on 30 March 1871. Eyewitnesses reported that the MPs laughed as it was carried in.

The Royal Commission published its findings in July in one majority report and several minority ones. The majority report claimed the CDAs had reduced the number of cases of syphilis, and criticised the women campaigners heavily for their language (i.e. for describing the reality of the internal examinations and the impact of the measures on women) and for their manner (i.e. for expressing indignation at the injustice and inequality of the Acts), and concluded that the CDAs were not an infringement of constitutional principles.

Even some of Josephine’s male supporters remonstrated with her for her unladylike behaviour – which is painfully familiar. Even today women are likely to be described as harridans and unfeminine or man-haters whenever they fight for their rights and describe the reality of their oppression and inequality. And many men still do not question their patriarchal right to criticise any woman who does not willingly submit to her subordinate status.

The Prevention of Contagious Diseases and the Better Protection of Women Bill 1872

In 1872 the Liberal government introduced a new bill purportedly to repeal the CDAs and to give greater protection to women and girls – while in practice it would have extended equivalent powers to the whole country.

The movement was split – with the Ladies National Association being firmly against it, while the National Association backed it. Josephine felt the pain of what she considered “defections in our own ranks” and the exhaustion of the struggle, but she was determined not to accept anything less than total repeal of the Acts.

Fortunately, Gladstone (the Prime Minister) recognised that the Bill didn’t satisfy either side, and he withdrew it in early July.

This experience strengthened Josephine’s understanding of the importance of women’s suffrage.

I feel more keenly than I ever did the great importance of our having votes, as a means of self-preservation. We cannot always depend on the self-sacrificing efforts of noble men to right our wrongs. If we become (though more than half the nation) the one unrepresented section under a Government which will become more and more extended, more popular, more democratic, and yet wholly masculine, woe is me! That people cannot see it!” [Josephine, quoted on page 137]

And so the campaign went on.

The Pontefract by-election

In August the same year, abolitionists campaigned in the Pontefract by-election against Hugh Childers, the Liberal candidate, who had been instrumental in extending the CDAs to the naval ports of Portsmouth and Plymouth.

They had difficulty finding a venue to hold a woman’s meeting and eventually held one in a hayloft. The meeting was attacked by men, who set fire to bales of straw below and blocked the only exit – a small trapdoor. It must have been terrifying for the women trapped in the loft as the smoke wafted upwards. The attackers threw stones against the windows so that shattered glass flew everywhere.

The police eventually arrived but soon withdrew without making any attempt to rescue the women or challenge the men. In the end, the women did manage to escape safely. Several of the attackers were later identified as members of Childers’ committee.

Even though Childers was elected, it was with a reduced majority, and the campaigners had achieved some success in raising awareness of the issues.

Tour of France, Italy and Switzerland

Detail from the Pont Neuf, Paris, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1872)

There was a general election in 1874, which the Conservatives under Benjamin Disraeli won, and at which Fowler, the National Association’s representative in Parliament, lost his seat.

Josephine was disheartened – as if all the work they’d done building links with the Liberals had been for nothing. The task felt hopeless and the number of supporters too small to bring about the change for women that she longed for.

In June that year, representatives of the various associations campaigning for the repeal of the CDAs met in York to discuss future strategy. Rev C S Collingwood made an impassioned speech about how it was not just a British problem and they needed to look to building a European movement.

As a result, in December Josephine embarked on a three-month tour of France, Italy and Switzerland. The Butler’s personal finances were tight and the tour was funded by small donations from supporters. She stayed in cheap hotels and suffered many hardships during what was an exceptionally cold winter.

She was unrelenting in her quest to see and understand the reality of the regulated European systems, however awful and distressing. While in Paris she was under constant police surveillance, but still managed to visit brothels, prisons, and shelters for women and girls – including one in Paris that housed 400 girls aged 5 – 11 years who’d been rescued from prostitution. When she challenged the authorities about the involvement of children, she was told that “men require variety.”

A Tunisian man who’d travelled the world told her that he’d never seen anything as disturbing as the sex trade in Paris. But when she got to Geneva, she found the women were treated even more cruelly.

She spoke at many meetings in all three countries and inspired feminist resistance. She described one meeting in Paris – a mixed meeting of mostly middle- and upper-class people. After she had finished her speech, a man who disagreed spoke, saying:

“‘all the untrue and cowardly things which men generally say when defending the enslavement of women.’ He was not allowed to speak for long. The women began to hiss and then to shout him down […] ‘Their indignation and right judgement, and the sharp questions they flung at him, delighted me.’” [Page 162]

After her return to England, the British, Continental and General Federation (‘the International Federation’) was formed and it held its inaugural meeting in March 1875.

Despair and disagreement

The latter part of the 1870s were a lean period for the movement. Josephine was ill much of the time, partly at least due to the stress of the campaign, the attacks from opponents, and dismay and despair not only at the enormity of the task but also at defections, and disagreements with those who ostensibly supported the campaign. Many of the disagreements around ethics echo those that we struggle with today.

Basingstoke Canal

On Easter Sunday 1875 the body of a 36-year old middle-class widow, Mrs Jane Percy, was found floating in the Basingstoke Canal. She was a professional singer and actress who’d lived in Aldershot (an army town that came under the CDAs) for 20 years. She had a daughter of 16 and two younger sons. Her husband had died the previous year and since then she’d been under continuous surveillance by the police – and because of their actions, and the resulting implication that she was involved in prostitution, she was unable to obtain employment as she had previously done, and so was unable to provide for her three children. She had ended her own life in utter despair.

It was clear to Josephine that Mrs Percy’s case was important, not least because there was no evidence that she was actually involved in prostitution and it illustrated how the CDAs could be used against any woman. However, Josephine was uncomfortable with how the National Association milked it in a disrespectful way and to the detriment of the bigger picture, and she was appalled that they collected money from the public ostensibly for the support of Mrs Percy’s children but in fact most of it went into the National Association’s coffers.

There were other conflicts. She embraced diversity and sought to work with all, regardless of sex, class, culture and nationality – while the National Association was much more insular and even objected to working class men setting up their own branch. She saw the limitations of basing the arguments on statistics and medical facts and wanted to keep the focus on the injustice and inequality – which she accurately described as the ‘double standard’ – one rule for men and a different, punitive, one for women.

Similar conflicts arose in the International Federation. At its 1877 Congress, there was a prohibitionist motion calling for all prostitution to be made illegal under the threat of punitive criminal sanctions. Josephine vehemently opposed this approach, knowing that it would give the police even more powers over women. Fortunately the motion was rejected and the Congress ended well – with delegates calling for abolition rather than prohibition, and for equality for women under the law and economically.

The lucrative trade in girls

During her European tour, Josephine had seen irrefutable evidence of the mass involvement of children in the legal brothels. Afterwards she’d been reluctant to publicise this, because she was worried people wouldn’t believe her and that might work against the campaign.

However, she was personally convinced that sadistic sexual crimes against children were directly linked to the state regulation of prostitution. She argued that when prostitution is tolerated by the state, it gives men implicit permission to seek the stimulation of rape and violence without a care for the victim:

The younger, the more tender and innocent, the more helpless and terrified the victims, the greater their value.” [Josephine, quoted on page 189]

Girls were in high demand in the Belgium brothels but under Belgian law women had to be at least 21 to be registered. The age of consent laws were much laxer in England:

Under English law, the seduction of a child under 12 years of age was a felony; between the ages of 12 and 13 it was a misdemeanour; yet above the age of 13 it was not a legal offence.” [Page 189]

As a result, there was a thriving trade in girls tricked and abducted from the streets of London and sold into slavery in the legal brothels in Europe.

Five years after her European tour, she joined with others who had formed the London Committee for the Exposure and Suppression of the Traffic in English, Scotch and Irish Girls for the Purposes of Foreign Prostitution. They compiled a large amount of evidence, including of police complicity and corruption, and they rescued a number of girls whose stories were harrowing.

[The girls] were advertised to brothel keepers as colis (parcels) together with descriptions of physical features, real age, plus the age which could be credibly given to a client seeking a child, colouring and so on.” [Page 199]

They uncovered ample proof that there was a systematic traffic in British girls to the brothels on the continent. Josephine organised a petition to the Foreign Secretary signed by 1,000 women, including Florence Nightingale and a number of other high-profile women.

The result was a House of Lords select committee inquiry, which reported in July 1882. There was little in the recommendations that would make much positive difference – other than a proposal to raise the age of consent to 16. However, it led to a Bill that passed through the Lords but was shelved by the Commons – because the MPs (who of course were all men at that time) didn’t think it important.

Move to Winchester

Children playing in a Winchester street

George Butler’s retirement from Liverpool College in 1882 brought the family’s precarious financial position to the surface. They hadn’t managed to save any money over the years, not least because so much of the family resources had gone on the expenses of Josephine’s campaigns and financially supporting the Home of Rest.

George hadn’t been offered any of the posts in the church or academia that a man of his stature might expect – no doubt because of his support for Josephine and the campaign against the CDAs.

Josephine’s campaigning certainly didn’t make either of them rich – just as few of the women who campaign against the sex trade now gain financially – even though those who promote the full decriminalisation of the sex trade often accuse of us of being motivated by financial gain.

Fortunately, George was offered a canonship in Winchester, which would give them an income. Moving to Winchester made it easier for Josephine to get to London where much of the campaign was now focused.

Small steps forward in Parliament

A House of Commons select committee had started an inquiry into the operation of the CDAs in 1880, but took three years to complete.

Josephine was called to give evidence and by all accounts she was brilliant. They challenged her that the CDAs didn’t impact her personally and there was no evidence she had visited a garrison town for many years. (Reading this was another déjà vu moment for me, because it so exactly parallels the argument so beloved of sex trade apologists today that only women who are currently involved in prostitution have a right to speak about the issue.)

She reminded the committee that the men in Parliament had abolished slavery in the British Empire even though most of them had never met a plantation slave.

The majority report of the committee did not recommend the repeal of the CDAs – which was hardly surprising given that the committee was entirely composed of men, at least some of whom were almost certainly enthusiastic frequenters of brothels themselves.

The Ladies Gallery in the House of Commons.

The temptation to despair must have been great, but Josephine redoubled efforts and set up a committee dedicated to influencing Parliament. An MP, Charles Hopwood, managed to get a debate tabled in the House of Commons for 27 February 1883 on a resolution condemning the compulsory examinations of women.

Josephine worked hard preparing for this, organising prayer meetings, sending messages to MPs, fighting for women to be able to watch the debate from the Ladies Gallery. She went to Parliament in advance of the debate and talked to MPs in the refreshment hall. Many of them told her that they had received hundreds of letters condemning the CDAs – a clear reflection of the size and energy of the campaign. Unfortunately, the debate didn’t happen because it was crowded out by other business.

However, James Stansfeld, the Liberal MP for Halifax, got another debate tabled for 20 April 1883. This time it went ahead and Stansfeld brilliantly demolished the arguments put forward in the select committee’s report and showed that the CDAs had failed to eliminate syphilis. There was a vote on the motion that “This House disapproves of the compulsory examination of women under the Contagious Diseases Acts.” The motion was carried with a majority of 72.

This meant an immediate suspension of examinations of women. It was a huge victory and was announced in the newspapers as the ‘death-blow’ to the CDAs. When she returned to Winchester, which as a garrison town fell under the CDAs, Josephine faced rage and fury from the brothel keepers.

In response to the motion, the Government prepared a Bill, known as Hartington’s Bill. But it changed little other than to make the examinations voluntary. Josephine immediately saw it as a trap and she argued vehemently against it.

Again, there was massive division within the movement, with the majority arguing it was a step in the right direction and should be supported. Josephine steadfastly maintained her opposition – but in the end, the Government dropped the Bill.

Child prostitution

King Leopold II

Josephine had growing evidence that large numbers of girls of 12 and 13 and even younger were being prostituted in England, and she was worried that this would be used as justification for the reintroduction of the CDAs.

In May 1885 Mrs Jeffries, a Chelsea brothel keeper, was prosecuted for “keeping a bad house.” During the trial King Leopold II, the king of Belgium, was exposed as a purchaser and sex trafficker of young girls. He had a particular taste for virgins and as England had the lowest age of consent in Europe, he frequently came here to buy them – as many as 100 a year. It is not a coincidence that he was also one of the most vilely brutal of the European Victorian colonialists in Africa – in a very crowded field.

Many of Mrs Jeffries’ other clients were prominent members of Parliament and the British and European aristocracy and royal families. Just as evidence of their identities was about to be revealed in court, the case was abruptly stopped. Mrs Jeffries pleaded guilty and walked free with a £200 fine, just a quarter of the annual fee the court heard she received from King Leopold.

Josephine was furious that the press didn’t name Mrs Jeffries’ high ranking clients and didn’t question the sudden termination of the case. She knew it would be unlikely there would be an investigation into the realities of the booming brothels and widespread prostitution of children, much less the introduction of effective measures against them, while the rich and powerful had such impunity.

So, it is no surprise to learn that within a couple of weeks of the termination of the case, a Criminal Law Amendment Bill that proposed raising the age of consent to 15 was “talked out” in the House of Commons and then adjourned.

Determined to expose the reality and extent of child prostitution, and the complacency of Parliament, Josephine decided to collaborate with William Stead, the flamboyant editor of The Pall Mall Gazette, who had tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to let him do an article on the prostitution of children she’d witnessed on her earlier European tour.

Since then she had come to see that it would take desperate action to break through the culture that placed all the blame on the women and girls as ‘temptresses’ while exonerating the rich and powerful men, who were committing grave crimes against poor women and girls. Victim blaming is not a new phenomenon! It is baked into European culture – and it is hard to see through. But Josephine saw past it with utter clarity.

To run an exposé in his paper, Stead needed proof that would hold up in court that children could be procured from their mothers, that these children were examined to prove they were virgins and were supplied with drugs to make them more docile while being raped, and that there was extensive trafficking of girls to Europe’s legal brothels. He needed Josephine’s help to gain such proof.

Josephine introduced Stead to Rebecca Jarrett, who, with Josephine’s support, was rebuilding her life in Winchester away from her past as a procurer of virgins in London – having herself been pimped out by her destitute mother from the age of about 12. Josephine was subsequently blamed for what followed – but there is evidence that she was not party to the details of what Stead was planning and that he had prevented Rebecca contacting her for advice.

From 6 July 1885, The Pall Mall Gazette ran a series of explosive articles showing that child prostitution existed on an unimaginable scale in England. With Rebecca’s assistance he had arranged for the purchase of a 13 year old girl from her mother, her examination by a ‘midwife’ and attempts to drug her, giving a man the opportunity to rape her (while ensuring he didn’t) and her subsequent transfer to Paris, where rather than being placed in a brothel, she was found work in a supportive family’s home.

The ordinary working-class people responded to the articles with outrage. They quickly organised large open-air meetings calling for justice for working class children and the raising of the age of consent to 21. This, and the implicit threat of being outed, concentrated the MPs minds and they passed the second reading of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill that had been adjourned in May.

It subsequently passed into law on 10 August 1885. It raised the age of consent to 16 – although inadequately because it retained the distinction between a child under 13 and an older one. When the child was older, the defendant could claim that he didn’t know how young she was – a distinction that persists in English law to this day and that ensures that successful prosecutions are rare and men’s impunity is maintained.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act also had a number of measures against procuring and abducting children, and for summary proceedings against brothels. While representing a small step forward for women and girls, it was a step backwards for gay men, because it criminalised “gross indecency between males.”

Josephine could clearly see the imperfections in the Act, and expressed the wish that some wise women had been involved in drafting it. She saw the urgency of women’s suffrage more clearly than ever.

Millbank Prison

Rebecca returned to Winchester, hoping to resume her life there. Unfortunately, but perhaps not unexpectedly, she was followed by a variety of pimps and procurers, who, furious at the disruption of their gravy train, tormented her and threatened her life for weeks.

Not long afterwards Rebecca, along with Stead and others, were charged under the new Criminal Law Amendment Act with the abduction of a child and various other charges. Rebecca got six months, whereas Stead only got three months, quickly reduced to two. The hypocrisy was brought into even further relief by Stead serving his sentence in a warm, carpeted, book-lined room in Holloway, whereas Rebecca served hers in a cold, bare stone cell in Millbank Prison. And of course, Josephine was somehow held responsible.

This illustrates how complicated it can be advocating for rights for women from a position of systematic exclusion from the control of the key public institutions – including the mainstream media and the legislative bodies. It can be more or less impossible to succeed if you only collaborate with like-minded people, but if you collaborate with a wider group who agree on some but not all issues, you risk inadvertent involvement in things you disagree with. And the association with people and organisations with very different ethical and political positions can damage your reputation. The current generation of feminist activists are familiar with this tension.

The passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 was followed in early 1886 with the final repeal of the CDAs – more than 16 long years since the campaign began. The public response to Stead’s exposé had also played a part.


Following the repeal of the CDAs, Josephine was determined that the Ladies National Association wouldn’t turn into a rescue society or become absorbed into the growing ‘purity’ movement. She proposed that it should now focus on campaigning against equivalent laws that British colonial governments had introduced in India and the Crown Colonies.

She challenged the widespread notion that the British were introducing Christian civilisation to the colonies and she showed that they were in fact introducing the most vile and systematic oppression of women and despotic rule. Rather than the sun never setting on the glorious British empire, the reality was, she said, that the sun never set “on legalised impunity under British rule.”

Josephine’s own health was fragile and her husband was chronically ill, so she was unable to travel to India herself. However, the publisher, Alfred Dyer, and his wife went out to India to conduct a campaign there. Josephine was quickly dismayed by his judgemental and moralistic attitude towards the women.

Dr Kate Bushnell

However, Dyer did manage to intercept a telegram that showed that the official British denials of the operation of the CDAs in India were nonsense. The British colonial government in India had in fact actively sought to supply women, particularly young and attractive ones, for the use of the British troops. The Government was eventually forced to confess that this was true.

A motion to repeal the CDA laws in India was passed in the Westminster Parliament, but the British colonial government in India refused to comply, and instead extended the laws.

Josephine then helped two American women, Dr Kate Bushnell and Elizabeth Andrews, to undertake a tour of India in 1891 to gather evidence. They were thorough and ultimately successful – the registration and periodic examination of suspected prostitutes was finally prohibited in India in 1895.

Widowhood and old age

Josephine Butler by George Watts, 1894

George died in March 1890 after several years of decline and chronic illness, during which Josephine gave up much of her campaign work in order to nurse him.

After his death she lived more quietly, but was still involved in campaigning, including an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to end the regulation of brothels in Switzerland. She wrote a biography of George, which was partly autobiographical, and later a book about the abolition movement, Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade.

She was disturbed that many supporters of the campaign against the CDAs were now involved in the burgeoning ‘purity’ movement. Her analysis had always been the essential feminist one – that prostitution is a result of the unequal legal, political, social and economic position of women and that it could not effectively be resolved by punishment and repression, but only by seismic social change. It must have felt like a betrayal, that many of those who had campaigned with her for many years were now turning their attentions to a repressive crusade that would cause further harm to individual women and women collectively.

There was also a large-scale defection from the founding principles of the International Federation with many of its members now calling for regulation, compulsory examinations and penal measures against women who didn’t comply. She was further dismayed by the movement being taken over by upper-class women recommending legislation that would never be targeted at themselves – only at poor women.

But there was public acknowledgement of her extraordinary work. In 1894 George Frederick Watts painted her portrait as part of a series of people who had “made the century,” Josephine being the only woman chosen. All of the major national newspapers carried obituaries after her death on 30 December 1906, recognising her extraordinary achievements and that her activism and single-minded determination had changed the course of history.

Some modern abolitionists suggest that she was not a proper abolitionist because she didn’t support the criminalisation of buying sex. This is a bit like criticising her for not using Twitter effectively – when it didn’t exist at the time, even as an idea. In fact the Nordic Model can be viewed as a logical extension of her analysis. Under the Nordic Model, the penalties for buying sex are not overly punitive – they are similar to parking fines and have the similar aim, not of incarcerating large numbers of men, but of changing their behaviour. I believe that Josephine Butler would passionately support the Nordic Model if she were alive today.


It is fashionable in certain strands of academia to write off Josephine Butler and her fellow campaigners as middle- and upper-class do-gooders and the campaign itself as a ‘moral panic.’ For example, in 2014 sociologists at Dundee University describe Josephine as a “social purity activist” and say of the campaign:

Prostitution was not seen just as a matter of private sexual conduct; it was symbolic of social evil.”

This judgement is so far from the truth it is almost risible. It suggests the academics have little knowledge of the reality under discussion, no empathy for the victims and no analysis of the structural systems involved.

These attitudes that are still promoted in sociology departments and in modern social worker training were a factor in social workers considering sexually exploited girls in Rotherham and elsewhere to be making a ‘lifestyle choice’ and not recognising that they are in fact victims of a human rights abuse and systemic and interlocking oppressions.

Josephine’s critique of the system of prostitution was based on her extensive work with women and girls involved in it and a lifetime of research into the systemic disadvantages that were the reality of women and girls’ lives.

She had widespread support from women who were impacted by the CDAs – including those who were then engaged in prostitution – most of whom had no or extremely limited resources for organised resistance. Without her intelligence, passion, resources and leadership it is quite possible we would now have a legalised system of prostitution in the UK like they have in Germany. What we have is flawed and dreadful in many ways, but at least we don’t have multi-storey brothels operating openly in every city centre and out of town industrial park like they do in Germany.

Academics who write her off as a middle-class do-gooder (and who similarly trash us) fail to understand prostitution as an institution of male dominance that subordinates all women – women as a collective or class – and that to bring about change requires collective resistance. Women currently involved in prostitution, women who have escaped the trade, working class, middle class, and upper-class women all have a stake in this fight.

Anna Fisher

10 thoughts on “Josephine Butler: Pioneering feminist activist

  1. Hi im looking to quote ‘setting fire to bales of straw below and blocked the only exit- a small trapdoor’ in one of my essays, please could you tell me the publisher so i am able to give credit. thanks

  2. My name is Josephine Grey (UK citizen in Canada) and I am a human rights defender and organizer, widowed mother of 4 (nana of 5) who came from a middle class childhood, but has lived in poverty in adulthood-fighting for the rights of poor and racialized women and families (Low Income Families Together-LIFT, FoodShare Toronto etc). I was looking myself up on the web and stunned to find out Josephine Butler was Josephine Grey before her marriage and how similar our work has been in many ways – especially in confronting governments for systemic change (sometimes successfully) on behalf the dignity and self determination of all women, mothers, girls and exploited peoples, while also working/living closely with the most oppressed, speaking in public a lot, and refusing to accept also helped build housing for women survivors of domestic violence (i was one). This article was so illuminating and profound for me… may she rest in peace knowing another Josephine Grey has taken up the cause in much the same way…Thank you Anna!

    1. Hi..I’m trying to locate the conflicting accounts of Eva’s death you refer to – would be most grateful for sources please. Thanks

  3. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.

    Joseph Butler
    If you have to act as a revisionist and apologize for Josephine Butler’s faith why take on the project? The power and perseverance of Great Reformers flows from their faith!

  4. Hey! I love this article. Do you have the citing reference for the image of Josephine Butler giving a speech to men please?

    1. The image in question is in the book (image 22). The reference says “Josephine Butler addressing a crowded meeting”. Apologies we have no further information about it.

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