Josephine Butler (1828-1907) was largely responsible for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1886 because she was outraged at the painful and humiliating examinations that prostitutes were subjected to, while the men who used their services got off scot free.
These Acts were intended to control the spread of syphilis in Britain’s armed forces. The vagueness of the Act meant that any women living remotely near an army garrison were potential subjects for examination or even imprisonment. In fact, such was the horror of these intimate examinations, that some women resorted to going to prison rather than endure any more. Josephine campaigned for 16 years to end the degradation imposed upon women. She saw it as her calling from God to take up this cause, viewing it as her ‘great crusade.’
But this cause, perhaps the one for which she is best known, was not the only contribution she made to British society and social reform. The education of women, suffrage, the gender pay gap, the abolition of slavery, the plight of working women, the trafficking of children to foreign brothels, and female education were other causes that she espoused. She was one of the 1,500 women who signed the first petition to Parliament in 1866 in favour of women’s suffrage. She was a published author, editing a collection called Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture. She reached out to writers on women’s issues across Europe and even in Russia, and was instrumental in setting up an International Federation. Her concerns extended to the territories of the British Empire.
A counter-cultural woman
Josephine Butler was a Victorian woman and was stigmatised for talking about such ‘indecent’ subjects in polite company. No doubt she shocked her neighbours when she gave refuge to prostitutes, taking them into her home. She was very modern in her approach, and set up her own women’s refuge, offering training and employment, as well as shelter, food and clothing. Above all she offered the opportunity to hear about Christ’s atoning work.
She wanted to deliver the women from the ‘hell’ of the oakum sheds. These were sheds where women unpicked fibres from old ropes that had been used in shipping. It was degrading work, and often meted out as punishment to prostitutes or unmarried mothers. It was a place of shame.
A woman of faith
Inspired by her Christian faith, Josephine’s motivation came from the view that men and women were created equally in the sight of God and made in his image. She learned of the Lord from her mother, and she said of herself that she was a Wesleyan. Some likened her style of public speaking to Methodist preaching. She was taken to meetings during times of revivalist interest. It was when she was about 19 years of age that she records a deep spiritual experience – a ‘travail of soul.’ She would sometimes spend a whole night in prayer in her deep desire to know God and be in a right relationship with him.
Josephine’s father was an influence and an example to her. He was involved in politics; a free churchman who was also concerned for abolition and with a great passion for justice. He spoke passionately to his children about anti-slavery, and particularly the fate of female slaves.
Her father’s accounts of slavery and her own witnessing of the misery of the Irish Potato Famine and people’s ‘uncovered skeleton limbs protruding everywhere from their wretched clothing’ began to awaken her social conscience which she attributed to the purpose that God had for her.
She saw her husband George, who came from a well-educated family and was a classics lecturer and headmaster, as a partner and supporter of her work. He acted like a chaplain to the destitute women whom Josephine brought into their home. He was as politically active as his wife and supported women campaigning for women’s issues, such as women’s education.
Rather than continuing a narrative of her life, I would like to draw lessons from Josephine’s life and reflect upon the challenges she brings to our generation.
- For Josephine, her own suffering (the death of her young daughter) helped her to enter into the experience of the suffering of others. She prayed for opportunities to reach out to others, even finding her grief and depression motivating factors. She saw her suffering as giving her a unique position to understand others who suffered. This reminds me of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, ‘the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.’
- She viewed the women she helped with dignity, never looking down on them or disparaging them. This draws me to the family tree of our dear Lord Jesus, who was a descendent of women with a sexual past (Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba) and reminds me that in Christ, no matter what our past, we are redeemed.
- Josephine began her ministry by getting down and dirty with the women she started to reach. She sat among the oakum pickers in the workhouse in Liverpool and picked with them, talking as she did. Many of these women were prostitutes. This reminds me that Jesus was not the one to condemn and revile the woman at the well, he pointed her to himself, the Messiah.
- Her ministry was gospel-centred. The women she sought to reach acknowledged that Josephine wanted them to love God as she did. This reminds me that though Jesus healed the sick and fed the multitudes his mission was to proclaim the good news of God (Mark 1:14). Our deeds of mercy are empty without this.
- She showed simple kindness to those women whom society had rejected. This reminds me that kindness is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It seems to be in short supply in our busy times, but it costs nothing.
- She was not afraid to band together with other women in righting social wrongs and becoming politically active. She soon became the Hon. Secretary of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act. This reminds me to pray for Christian women in politics and to see the value of women’s organisations.
- In her campaigning work, Josephine did not simply appeal to the heart, she used such statistical and other information as was available to her to plead her causes. This reminds me to appeal to head and heart in the concerns and the causes that I espouse.
- She backed her own cause, selling her jewellery to fund her campaign. This reminds me that following the Lord involves personal sacrifice. Any wealth we may have is not our own. It reminds me of the women in the gospels who funded the daily needs of Jesus and his disciples in their itinerant ministry.
- She drew strength for her work, which she herself describes as exhausting, from ‘even one hour in the presence of God, with every voice silenced except his.’ We too need to re-charge our spiritual batteries through prayer and communion with God.
- She continued her work in her widowhood. This reminds me of the ministry of widows in the early church. No matter what our status, God has work for us to do.
- Josephine wrote of her utter consecration to God. What a challenge!
- She would pray for the coming of Christ, so that it would bring relief to the suffering of others. How often is that great and glorious day on our lips in prayer?
Josephine is commemorated in a stained glass window in St. Olave’s Church in London and in the Lady Chapel of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral.
The author of this article is indebted to the work of The Christian Institute and author Jane Jordan for their work on the life of Josephine Butler.