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Josephine Butler: A very brief history, by Jane Robinson

18 December 2020

A rousing biography of Josephine Butler, says Sarah C. Williams

THE social historian Jane Robinson ends her brief history of Josephine Butler with a dramatic scene of mutual solidarity taken from a letter written in 1888: “They listen spellbound to what she [Josephine Butler, 1828-1906] has to say about the brutal treatment inflicted on women by the operation of the Contagious Diseases Acts — women she has met and can name. When she has finished her speech, all passion spent, there is silence. Then, at first one by one and then in a crowd, every woman in the hall stands up and silently raises her right fist.”

This scene is one of many examples through which Robinson brings the radical message of first-wave Christian feminism to life for a 21st-century audience (Features, 30 October). Butler’s stand against evil and injustice is as relevant now as it ever was, and Robinson issues an unambiguous challenge: Will we live up to Butler’s legacy today?

Many books have been written about Butler — books that place her shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce — but this extraordinary Christian leader still remains far less familiar to us than she should be. Robinson’s accessible, concise, and highly readable history is, therefore, much needed. It opens Butler’s life to those who know little or nothing of her profound historical significance.

Butler’s pivotal place in the British women’s movement is demonstrated, her vital work to raise public and parliamentary awareness of the plight of destitute women is carefully drawn, and her bold and controversial leadership of the 16-year campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts is reconstructed with just the right balance of historical and biographical detail.

Robinson does a fine job of tracing Butler’s emergence as an influential public figure from the late 1860s to the mid-1880s, and, at the same time, showing the great personal cost involved in laying aside a privileged background to take up the cause of the “outcast woman” as her own.

It was Butler’s courageous refusal to live by the stereotypical definitions of femininity prevalent in 19th-century culture that, Robinson suggests, was key. “Life might have been blissfully easy for her,” Robinson writes, “had she only behaved as she should.” At every turn, Robinson presents Butler standing with women from diverse backgrounds, teaching them to resist oppressive categories of power, introducing them to the possibility of redemption in Jesus Christ, and challenging conventional images of womanhood.

This is a rousing book that tells the story of a truly inspiring woman who navigated the challenges of her culture with sincerity.


Dr Sarah C. Williams is Research Professor in the History of Christianity at Regent College, Vancouver.


Josephine Butler: A very brief history
Jane Robinson
SPCK £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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