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Bold reformer’s long-term legacy

30 October 2020

Josephine Butler did not live to see the fruits of all her labours, writes Jane Robinson


Portrait of the young Josephine Butler (1851) by George Richmond (1809-96). The original is now in the National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of the young Josephine Butler (1851) by George Richmond (1809-96). The original is now in the National Portrait Gallery

JOSEPHINE BUTLER’s influence on her world was far-reaching. As one of the most famous women of her age, and a pioneer in multiple fields — spiritual, social, educational, and political — it would not be an exaggeration to say that she made an impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

It is difficult to think of any woman before her with such authority. Take spirituality first. Most middle-class parlours in the second half of the 19th century were adorned with elaborately decorated mottoes such as “Prepare to meet thy God,” “The meek shall inherit the earth,” “Watch and pray.”

While Josephine spent her whole life preparing to meet her God, she was not particularly interested in inheriting the earth or in watching and praying without doing.

Nor did she subscribe to the idiom of a spiritual hierarchy that imagined women demurely hesitant on the lower rungs of a ladder to heaven, while men, by divine right, shinned ahead. “The Church has always allowed herself to be bound, held back, dragged down, more or less, by the overpowering weight of unregenerate male feeling.”

This was a dangerously provocative thing to say. That is why she said it. After all, the best way to change public opinion is to challenge it.

Josephine refused to be labelled an Anglican, or anything else. Her idiosyncratic brand of Christianity was inclusive, socialist in its egalitarianism and forbearance (though she appeared far more ready to excuse wayward women than misguided men).

We are humans first, she said, men and women next, and our souls have identical value in the sight of the Lord, whether or not we are outwardly virtuous.

There is no place for a pecking order in a modern, enlightened religion. Pre-empting Mary Baker Eddy, who popularised the concept in Christian Science, Josephine even went so far as to speak of “the Great Father-Mother God”, implying that there was no place for gender discrimination, either.

One of Josephine’s greatest assets was her ability to discuss shocking subjects in a calm, persuasive way. That is how she was able to sustain such progressive arguments about personal morality without being dismissed (entirely) as subversive, a madwoman, or some kind of witch.

She had her enemies, who considered her blasphemous, and possibly dangerous, too, and who subscribed to the traditional adage that, for nice ladies, ignorance was bliss.

But the majority of her readers and listeners credited her, at the very least, with sincerity. She was so patently well-meaning. To a great extent, that overrode her unorthodoxy, and perhaps eased the way for other Nonconformists (in a general rather than a sectarian sense) to be given a fair hearing. She was tolerant, so evinced tolerance in others.


HER nephew Charles Grey was certain that, had Josephine chosen to convert to Roman Catholicism, “she would probably have been canonised, or sanctified, or whatever they call it . . . as St Josephine of Milfield.”

It was enough for her to claim Christ as a close and long-suffering friend who would welcome her into the Kingdom with a smile and quiet congratulations for having done her very best. She once said that the main object of her life had been to fight against injustice — job done.

Turning to social matters: that fight yielded practical as well as ideological results. Figures released shortly before the Second World War revealed that the incidence of VD in the British Army fell from 246 per 1000 during the operation of the CDAs [Contagious Diseases Acts] to nine per 1000 after their repeal.

Barry Hale for Barley StudioCentenary window and sculpture by Helen Whittaker in memory of Josephine Butler, in St Gregory’s, Kirknewton, Northumberland

Not only that; measures to mitigate “vice” — inspired by the LNA’s [Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts] campaign — had resulted in better recreational, educational, economic, and social conditions for everyone serving in His Majesty’s Forces, at home and overseas.

And the civil population benefited, too. Ministry of Health statistics published in 1933 showed a 24 per cent reduction in VD cases overall, and a 51 per cent drop in syphilis alone.

This was indirectly due to Josephine’s having the courage to articulate the problem in the first place (and so break the taboo), then campaigning for change and encouraging less judgemental, more humane clinical treatment for male “consumers” as well as women “providers”.

A raft of legislation developed in the wake of the LNA’s crusades against the CDAs and sex trafficking. Certain achievements stand out: raising the age of consent for girls and boys to 16; setting the age for marriage at 16, from 12 for girls and 14 for boys (staggeringly, this did not happen until 1929); and changing the law on the definition and implications of illegitimacy, reducing the inevitable stigma and economic disadvantages involved.

In 1933, Great Britain signed an international convention against sex trafficking, acting on a problem virtually hidden from public view before Josephine and William Stead placed it firmly in the limelight. Other legislation was put in place to tackle the social conditions forcing women on to the streets in the first place.

Josephine’s legacy as an educationalist was to encourage intellectual curiosity in respectable adult women through her support of the University Extension scheme; equip schoolgirls with a benchmark qualification for higher education by campaigning for nationwide examinations; and to help provide a safe space at Cambridge for female undergraduates to learn at the highest possible level. In so doing, she raised the expectations of teachers and students alike.

Finally, politics. She and her abolitionist colleagues were among the first in Europe to demonstrate that it was possible for women to organise themselves into an effective and well-administrated body. It was not customary, before this, for crowds of them to meet together with a common purpose in mind, to elect their own officers, write their own agendas, and minute their own conclusions.

This was democracy in the making. The LNA was arguably the first such body to effect political change, setting a crucial precedent for the success of the campaign for women’s suffrage. At the heart of all of Josephine’s activism was the necessity for women to find a voice and use it well. For voice, read vote.

It follows that she was the first female politician to take to a public platform as though it were her natural habitat, to perfect the art and science of public speaking and therefore to become a celebrity not because of who she was, but because of what she said.

At her best, she was a consummate performer, whose audiences spanned class, generation, gender, political allegiance, and religion.

Members of the LNA and subsequent women’s associations would be the first to admit that, collectively, they could not have accomplished what they did without sympathetic male champions, just as, individually, Josephine and other wives and mothers relied on the encouragement of their menfolk (thus turning upside down the trope of a wife sacrificing all for her husband).

Josephine never forgot the blessing that George gave her — “Go! And the Lord be with you” — when she first confessed to him the distasteful nature of her vocation in 1870. The campaign against the CDAs united men and women both practically and philosophically. Josephine invited the co-operation of all comers. She was keen to make the point that, like the fight for the vote, it was never about “them” and “us”.

It was not a war between the sexes, but a joint campaign against a common enemy: the state regulation of vice. This acknowledgement of male support did not prevent Josephine from pulling a few extremely hard-hitting feminist punches. She might not have been called a feminist then, of course; the term only came into common usage shortly before her death.

But we can recognise the signs. Quoting the political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, she wrote in 1874 that “nothing is more customary in man than to recognise superior wisdom in the person of his oppressor.” In other words, it is often easier to act as though one deserves discrimination than to challenge it.

De Tocqueville was talking about slaves, but Josephine made the point that he might just as well have been talking about women.

It was time to rise up against that oppressor (a patriarchal state) by shaming him into capitulation. Even more outrageous was her indictment of imperialism: “There is no creature in the world so ready as the Englishman to destroy, to enslave, to domineer, and to grow fat upon the destruction of the weaker human beings whom he has subjected to his bold and iron will.”

But it was no good bleating about it, Josephine advised; right-thinking women must somehow take charge of their own destiny. That right-thinking women had a destiny other than daughterhood followed by wifehood followed by motherhood followed by death was a revelation to many.

That was a stereotype she shattered herself, being both feminine and proactive; respectable and a rebel. She turned the domestic model inside out (literally), enjoying a higher public profile than her husband, and relying on him being at home for her to function in the world. She used a political voice that she was not supposed to have, to claim legal and human rights that she was not supposed to recognise.

She pioneered the concept of sisterly solidarity, of quiet deeds’ speaking louder than words, of changing the world one voice at a time. She opened the discussion on gender equality in the workplace, the church pew, the law court, and the marriage bed.

She claimed that there was no morality without personal freedom, and that morality itself should not be quantified as an economic but a spiritual imperative. In short, she challenged us to listen, unhindered, to our consciences, and make the world a kinder, fairer place for everyone.


This is an edited extract from Josephine Butler: A very brief history, by Jane Robinson, published by SPCK at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.99); 978-0-281-08062-5.

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