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Fighting for women on the margin of society

by
18 August 2009

An excellent short guide to the life of Josephine Butler, says Penny Seabrook


Josephine Butler: A guide to her life, faith and social action
Rod Garner

Darton, Longman & Todd £6.95 (978-0-232-52747-6)
Church Times Bookshop £6.25

LYTTON STRACHEY, writing Eminent Victorians in 1918, deemed it impossible to write a history of the Victorian Age because “we know too much about it.” So he adopted the subtler strategy of “dipping a little bucket into the great ocean of material, to bring up to the light of day, some characteristic specimen of the era”.

His sampling yielded biographies of Cardinal Manning, Dr Arnold, General Gordon, and Florence Night­ingale; but this slim guide to Josephine Butler’s life reminds us that she, too, would have served his purpose.

Born eight years later than the Lady with the Lamp, Butler cast the light of her faith on the experience of the poor and destitute, and cam­paigned tirelessly for women who were marginalised by respectable society.

Taking prostitutes into her own home, she fought to restore their dignity by persuading Parliament to repeal the infamous Contagious Diseases Act of 1864. This was a politically and physically exhaust-

ing exercise, which exposed the double standards of the era, and the exist­ence of a flourishing sexual white-slave trade that supplied foreign brothels with young British virgins.

Revealing that the King of Belgium alone was responsible for buying 100 of these girls each year, Butler marshalled public opinion in favour of the Criminal Law Amend­ment Act, which raised the age of consent from 13 to 16, and made it a crime to procure girls for prostitu­tion by threat, fraud, or the admin­istration of drugs.

Rod Garner charts Butler’s his-tory with affection and admiration. He does not document his sources, but there is enough detail here to make the book useful for house-group dis­cussions. Each chapter ends with material for reflection, pondering, and prayer. This is prompted by Josephine Butler’s experience, but it leads to some heart-searching questions on the subject of truth, commit­ment, and social responsibil­ity.

It would be good to see other “Eminent Christians” profiled in the same way, especially since there are few books that fill the gap between the brief biographies used liturgic­ally, and heavyweight academic studies of the saints.

The Revd Penny Seabrook is Associate Vicar of All Saints’, Fulham, in west London.

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