Josephine Butler Championed Women

May 03, 2010
Josephine Butler Championed Women

"Six-year-old Eva Butler was excited. Mom and dad were home. She rushed to the staircase to greet her parents--and lost her footing. In front of her mother's horrified eyes, she fell over the bannister onto the hard tile floor to her death. Josephine would never erase that haunting sight from her memory. "It was pitiful to see her, helpless in her father's arms, her little drooping head resting on his shoulder and her beautiful golden hair all stained with blood, falling over his arm!" But rather than retire into a half-mad world of grief and nostalgia, she turned her attention outward. "[I] became possessed with an irresistible urge to go forth and find some pain keener than my own, to meet with people more unhappy than myself."

She started to work with the prostitutes of Liverpool. Many had become street women out of desperation. Josephine was a beautiful upper-class woman, well-to-do with many connections. She opened a home to reclaim lost women. As she learned more about their condition, she became increasingly indignant at the unfair laws of a system that refused women the right to vote. Women should not be denied the vote because they are different than men, she argued. They should be given the vote precisely for that reason, because their needs are different. She became a champion for women.

Josephine, who had undergone a strong conversion experience as a teenager, needed the strength of faith in her lifelong battle for laws favorable to women. She took on the Contagious Diseases Acts that aimed to stop the spread of venereal disease. Under these laws, any woman in designated military towns could be forcibly inspected for venereal disease. The law was completely unfair. Men were not examined. Any woman, however pure, could be denounced to the authorities and forced to get a certificate. Her reputation ruined, the woman might actually be forced into the sex trade. "This legalization of vice, which is the endorsement of the 'necessity' of impurity for man and the institution of slavery of woman, is the most open denial which modern times have seen of the principle of the sacredness of the individual being," Josephine declared. She warned that if a woman's rights could be stolen, so could anyone's.

When she stood up to speak against outrageous practices, Josephine was slandered. Her enemies heckled and harassed her. They smeared her with dung. A mob smashed the windows of a hotel where she was staying, trying to get at her and threatening to set it on fire. She fled through unfamiliar streets and hid behind piles of soap and candles in a shop. Another time, she hid in a hayloft while her opponents lit a fire to smoke her out. Her husband's college job was threatened but he encouraged her on. When his wife sheltered fallen women in their home, he treated them like high society ladies.

Far from retreating, Josephine expanded her activities. "...I felt very weak and lonely," she admitted. "But there was One who stood by me." She fought similar laws in Europe. In an age that tried to cover up sexual problems, she had the courage to address them openly. She fought against forced prostitution and appealed to governments not to license whorehouses. A government should never be in the sin business, she said.

While fighting government-sponsored prostitution, she always stood beside the prostitutes. If Christ forgave such women, so should we, she argued. Josephine succeeded in getting some hateful laws repealed and helped rouse public sentiment to pass a bill that raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. However, she was largely forgotten when she died on this day, December 30, 1906.


  1. Butler, Josephine. "Some Thoughts on the Present Aspect of the Crusade Against the State Regulation of Vice." thoughts.html
  2. Fisher, Trevor. "Josephine Butler, Feminism's Neglected Pioneer." 18381679/p1/article.jhtml?term=w.t.stead
  3. Hay-Cooper, L. Josephine Butler and Her Work for Social Purity. London: Society for promoting religious knowledge, 1922.
  4. "Josephine Butler." Britannica. Britannica, 1967.
  5. "Josephine Butler."
  6. "Josephine Butler." Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  7. "Josephine Butler." Sunshine for Women. butler2.html
  8. Wilson, A.N. Eminent Victorians. London: BBC Books, 1989.

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