Josephine Butler – English Victorian feminist

Family life and childhood

Josephine Butler, 1829–1906, was born at Milfield House, in Northumberland, England, as the seventh child of John Grey. John was an internationally recognized agricultural expert and a cousin of the English Prime minister Charles Grey, who was mostly known for his reforms and abolishment of English slavery. Daddy john were later a name well recognized within the English banking society. Sadly, he lost most of his savings during a misfortune with New castle Bank. Josephine got married to the academic George Butler and gave birth to three boys and one girl. The Butler family hade strong radical sympathies and openly supported the union during the American civil war. Their only daughter died only five years old which had Josephine seeking comfort in helping others in need. Against her family and friends’ will she took off to the rough parts of Liverpool where she started working on helping prostitutes.

Active in feministic movements

Already in her 20s Josephine was active in feministic movements, but the death of her daughter was what triggered her work for female rights more seriously. Her husband was working as the Vice Principal at Cheltenham collage. When he got the job as appointed headmaster at Liverpool collage the family moved there. Now Josephine started working on female issues on a higher level. Together with her friend Anne Jemima Clough she worked for female rights of a higher education and they were both very active and contributed to the founding of” The North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women”. During that time her work for vulnerable women, mainly prostitutes increased. As the good Christian woman she was she had a hard time to accept sin but she saw it as more important to help the women away from men’s abuse. She strongly questioned and attacked the hypocrisy on the female degrading prostitution. When a campaign was started to raise alert on the act of diseases, she was the obvious choice to lead the work.  

Contagious Diseases Acts

CDA, the act of diseases, was presumed in the British parliament in 1864. The law was aiming on decreasing spreading of venereal diseases mainly in the British Army and the Royal Navy. This law gave rights to the British court to investigate the female genitals for signs of venereal diseases. On suspicion or symptoms women were imprisoned for three months for the disease to heal. If the woman denied the exam she was imprisoned right away. It was only needed one accusation against a woman on prostitution for the police to arrest her. It often led to the woman losing her social status and her economic supply and not rarely led to suicide. Butler described this examination as a surgical rape. The examination of these vulnerable women was often made in military cities and ports but during 1869 authorities started a campaign to make it national. This was met by resistance from feminists and Christians and led to the ”Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts”, an organisation lead by Josephine and managed, after hard work, repeal the law.

Josephine’s continued work

Josephine continued her work on helping the needing and on revealing child prostitution in London. When the work started in London she continued to the rest of Europe on her fight for women’s right to equal treatment.