Who was Josephine Butler?
Josephine Elizabeth Butler was a 19th century British social reformer and feminist who campaigned for the education and betterment of prostitutes and socially deprived women of her era. She was born into a very respectable and prosperous family and had a pretty luxurious and fulfilling childhood. Her father, John Grey, was an expert agriculturist and the cousin of Britain's former Prime Minister Charles Grey and her mother, Hannah Eliza Annett, was the source of Josephine's early education. The Grey family were staunch supporters of the anti-slavery campaigns and through John, the kids learnt about the tortures and atrocities levied upon the humans who were sold as slaves. Josephine was particularly appalled by the stories of female slaves who were impregnated by their masters and then left to survive on their own. Taking forward her family's existent passion for reform, she took up campaigning and writing letters and pamphlets to generate awareness. She married George Butler and the couple complemented each other in every possible way. George was a tutor at Oxford and a firm believer in equal rights for men and women and the abolishment of slavery. The couple had four kids, and the loss of their youngest kid spurred Josephine into becoming an active social reformer
Childhood & Early Life
Josephine was born on April 13, 1828 in Millfield, Northumberland and was the seventh child of John Grey and his wife Hannah Annett.
John Grey was an agricultural expert and the cousin of reformist British Prime Minister Charles Grey, 2nd of Earl Grey. The Grey family was a member of the Church of England and strong supporters of the anti-slavery campaign.
Her childhood passed blissfully at a countryside home in Dilston. Home-schooled by her mother, she grew up to be a wonderful writer and proficient speaker of both French and Italian.
While the children lived with freedom and zest, they also learnt through their father about the terrible fate and the mistreatment of the people who had been sold as slaves.
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Josephine married George Butler in 1852. George was a tutor at Oxford and shared her views regarding abolishment of slavery, equal rights for men and women, need for social reform and concern for the social outcasts.
The couple had four children. But her yet-so-perfect life was struck by tragedy when her youngest child, Eva, died in 1863 after falling from the top of the stairs in the house. This was the time when Josephine became an active social campaigner; believing that her loss had made her capable of empathizing with other suffering women.
At the time of Eva's death George was the vice principal at Cheltenham College. To help her wife recover from the loss of their child, the family shifted to Liverpool in 1866 and he was appointed as the headmaster of Liverpool College.
Josephine visited Liverpool's Brownlow Hill workhouse and was appalled by the living conditions of the residing women. She ended up taking them to her own home or succeeded in finding them a safer one.
Most of the rescued women were prostitutes and in order to provide them with better means of income, Josephine opened a House of Rest and an Industrial home. George helped in the establishment and maintenance of the two.
In 1866, she co-founded (with Anne Jemima Clough) and became the President of the North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women. Soon she accompanied her husband in delivering lectures for the adults which led to the founding of a university.
The Contagious Diseases Acts (C.D. Acts) of the 1860s allowed any police officer to arrest prostitutes and then subject them to compulsory physical checks for venereal diseases. If found positive, the women would be confined to a hospital for several months. But, there were no such laws to regulate men who frequented prostitutes.
Josephine Butler believed that women, who were already exploited victims of male oppression with no knowledge of their legal rights, were now further being subjugated to a 'surgical rape'. She further questioned the Victorian double standards of sexual morality.
From 1869 onwards she dedicated herself to the women’s campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts. In the 1870s she led a national campaign that threatened her respectability and that of her family. However, George remained a thorough companion and after 16 years of hard work marred with humiliation and threats, the Act was finally repealed in 1886.
Her hard work and determination paid off with the establishment of The British and Continental Federation for the Abolition of Government Regulation of Prostitution in 1875, with her as the joint secretary.
In 1885, she associated herself with the campaign of William Thomas Stead, the editor of the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’, against child prostitution in London. The campaign was successful and soon the age of content was raised from 13 to 16 in United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
After making sure that the British citizens were not blind to the problems faced by the socially deprived women co-existing amongst them, she went to Switzerland and the French Third Republic to promote international awareness.
Her international awareness efforts resulted in the formation of many organizations that targeted the state regulation of prostitution and child trafficking. She herself founded the International Abolitionist Federation in Geneva in 1877.
The Butlers moved to Winchester in 1882 where George became a Canon of Winchester Cathedral after retiring from the Liverpool College and Josephine continued campaigning for various causes.
Josephine Butler’s biggest achievement as a reformer was her success in getting the Contagious Diseases Act of the 1860s repealed. The act allowed any police officer to arrest prostitutes and then subject them to compulsory degrading physical examination for venereal diseases. If declared positive, the woman would be confined to a hospital for several months and if she refused to undergo the tests, she would be locked up.
Personal Life & Legacy
Josephine Butler married George in 1852 and together they had four kids; George, Arthur Stanley, Charles Augustine Vaughan and Evangeline Mary.
She passed away at Wooler, Northumberland on December 30, 1906.