Josephine Butler

Josephine Butler

Josephine Butler, the daughter of John Grey and Hannah Annett, was born on 13th April 1828. Grey was a wealthy landowner and the cousin of Earl Grey, the British Prime Minister who led the Whig administration between 1830 and 1834. Her father was a strong advocate of social reform and played a significant role in the campaign for the 1832 Reform Act and the repeal of the Corn Laws. Josephine grew up to share her father's religious and moral principles and his strong dislike of inequality and injustice.

Josephine was an attractive woman and Prince Leopold claimed that she was "considered by many people to be the most beautiful woman in the world." In 1852 Josephine married George Butler, an examiner of schools in Oxford. In the first five years of marriage Josephine had four children. In 1857 the couple moved from Oxford after George Butler was appointed vice-principal of Cheltenham College. George and Josephine had similar political views and during the American Civil War they encountered a great deal of hostility in Cheltenham when they expressed their support for the anti-slavery movement.

In 1863, Eva, Josephine's only daughter, fell to her death in front of her. Josephine was devastated by the death of her six year-old daughter and was never to fully recover from this family tragedy. In an attempt to cope with her grief, Josephine Butler became involved in charity work. This involved Josephine visiting the local workhouse and rescuing young prostitutes from the streets.

Josephine also began to take a keen interest in women's education. In 1867 she joined Anne Jemima Clough in establishing courses of advanced study for women. Later that year Josephine Butler was appointed president of the North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women. The following year Josephine became involved in the campaign to persuade Cambridge University to provide more opportunities for women students. This campaign resulted in the provision of lectures for women and later the establishment of Newnham College.

In 1868 Josephine Butler published her book The Education and Employment of Women. In her pamphlet, she argued for improved educational and employment opportunities for single women. The following year she wrote Women's Work and Women's Culture, in which she argued that women should not "try to rival men since they had a different part to play in society". These views upset some feminists such as Emily Davies who wanted women to compete on the same terms as men. Butler believed that women should have the vote because they were different from men. She argued that women's special role was to protect and care for the weak and that women's suffrage was of vital importance to the morality and welfare of the nation.

In 1869 Josephine Butler began her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act. These acts had been introduced in the 1860s in an attempt to reduce venereal disease in the armed forces. Butler objected in principal to laws that only applied to women. Under the terms of these acts, the police could arrest women they believed were prostitutes and could then insist that they had a medical examination. Butler had considerable sympathy for the plight of prostitutes who she believed had been forced into this work by low earnings and unemployment.

Josephine Butler toured the country making speeches criticizing the Contagious Diseases Acts. Butler, who was an outstanding orator, attracted large audiences to hear her explain why these laws needed to be repealed. Many people were shocked by the idea of a woman speaking in public about sexual matters. George Butler, who was now principal of Liverpool College, was severely criticised for allowing his wife to become involved in this campaign. Butler continued to support his wife in her work despite the warnings that it would damage his academic career.

Josephine Butler
Josephine Butler

Butler also became involved in the campaign against child prostitution. In 1885 Butler joined together with Florence Booth of the Salvation Army and W. T. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, to expose what had become known as the white slave traffic. The group used the case of Eliza Armstrong, a thirteen year-old daughter of a chimney-sweep, who was bought for £5 by a woman working for a London brothel. As a result of the publicity that the Armstrong case generated, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act that raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen.

After the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1886, Josephine spent her time nursing her sick husband. After his death in 1890, Josephine wrote Recollections of George Butler (1892) and Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade (1896). In her last few years of her life, Josephine became a supporter of the National Union of Suffrage Societies. However, now in her seventies, Josephine was too old to take a prominent role in the movement's activities.

Josephine Butler died on 30th December 1906.

Primary Sources

(1) Josephine Butler's father, John Grey, was involved in the campaign against the slave trade. In her book An Autobiographical Memoir (1913). Josephine Butler describes her early memories of her father.

My father was a man with a deeply rooted, fiery hatred of all injustice… My father's connection with the great public movements of the day - the first Reform Bill, the Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery, and the Free Trade movement - gave me very early an interest in public questions and in the history of the country.

My father was a man with a deeply rooted, fiery hatred of all injustice… My father's connection with the great public movements of the day - the first Reform Bill, the Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery, and the Free Trade movement - gave me very early an interest in public questions and in the history of the country.

The love of justice was a passion with him. Probably I have inherited this passion. When my father spoke to us, his children, of the great wrong of slavery, I have felt his powerful frame tremble and his voice would break. He told us sad stories of the hideous wrong inflicted on negro men and women. I say women, for I think their lot was particularly horrible, for they were almost invariably forced to minister to the worst passions of their masters, or be persecuted and die.

(2) Josephine Butler was initially taught by her mother. She describes her early educational experiences in her book An Autobiographical Memoir.

In the pre-educational era (for women at least), we had none of the advantages which girls of the present day have. We owed much to our dear mother, who was very firm in requiring from us that whatever we did should be thoroughly done… This was a moral discipline, which perhaps compensated in value for the lack of a great store of knowledge. She would assemble us daily for the reading aloud of some solid book, and by a kind of examination following the reading assured herself that we had mastered the subject. She urged us to aim at excellence, if not perfection, in at least one thing… For two years my sister and I were together at a school in Newcastle. The lady at the school was not a good disciplinarian, and gave us much liberty, which we appreciated. In spite of the imperfectly learned lessons… the woman had a large heart and a ready sympathy.

(3) (3) Anne Clough approached Josephine and George Butler and asked them to help support her scheme to promote Higher Education for Women. In 1903, Anne Clough's sister wrote an account of how the Butler's responded to this idea.

The visit of Anne Clough to the Butlers in 1867 led to the formation of the 'North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education for Women', a body representing associations of school-mistresses in several large northern towns. Josephine Butler was President of this Council from 1867 to 1873, and Anne Clough was Secretary for the three first strenuous years of its existence. The first work of the Council was to organize lectures for women, which had already been begun by Mr. Stuart, to whose genius the inception of the University Extension Movement was due. Mr. Stuart's first course on astronomy was given, in the autumn of 1867, in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, and was attended together by 550 women. These lectures were followed by other similar courses organised by the Council, and the idea rapidly spread.

(4) In 1865 Josephine Butler and her husband moved to Liverpool. Soon afterwards she began visiting the local workhouse.

It was not difficult to find misery in Liverpool. There was an immense workhouse containing at that time, it was said, 5,000 persons - a little town in itself. There were extensive special wards, where unhappy girls drifted like autumn leaves when the winter approached, many of them to die of consumption.

On the ground floor a Bridewell for women, consisting of huge cellars, bare and unfurnished, with damp stone floors. These were called the "oakum sheds" where they came, driven by hunger, destitution or vice, begging for a few nights' shelter and a piece of bread, in return for which they picked their allotted portion of oakum…. I went down to the oakum sheds and begged admission. I was taken into an immense gloomy vault filled with women and girls - more than two hundred at that time. I sat on the floor among them and picked oakum… Many of them… earned a scanty living by selling sand in the streets (for cleaning floors).

A few months later, encouraged by the help offered by a certain number of generous Liverpool merchants and other friends, we took a very large and solid house, with some ground round it, to serve as an industrial home for the healthy and the active, the barefooted sand girls, and other friendless waifs and strays.

(5) George Lansbury, Looking Backwards and Forwards (1935)

Another very gentle and lovable woman was Mrs. Josephine Butler. Once, in the big St. Mary's schoolroom in Whitechapel, I listened to her with tears running down my cheeks as she told of the cruel and barbarous workings of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Mrs. Butler left a comfortable rectory to fight this fight on behalf of womanhood. She had to face tremendous opposition, gross distortion and misrepresentation. There was at the beginning no organisation, either of women or men, to stand with her. Nor did her own sex support her. But the unremitting toil of this fine Christian woman, not overblessed with physical strength, and not an orator in the accepted sense, at last won her victory, and the "C.D." Acts were repealed.