Josephine Butler spent her life campaigning against the Contagious Diseases Acts, with relative success. A conservative Christian and a “lady,” in some respects she was the most radical feminist of them all.
The British government economized severely in maintaining its army under wretched conditions of living and harsh discipline; in the 1860s the average annual death rate from disease in the army was twice that for the civilian population of military age. One of the problems was that the prostitutes who made their living off the army were often carriers of venereal disease. These prostitutes could make only a small profit from each soldier and therefore needed many clients in order to support themselves; if diseased they had no choice but to retire to a workhouse or continue infecting those around them. Since liquor and women were the only solace of the soldiers’ impoverished existence, the government believed that outlawing or controlling prostitution would discourage the cheap recruits it needed. It therefore passed the Contagious Diseases Acts, designed to ensure that a supply of uninfected prostitutes would be available in towns where soldiers were quartered.
In 1864 the first of these Contagious Diseases Acts were passed. According to its provisions, which at first applied only to eleven military towns, the police were to inspect all women suspected of infection with a venereal disease and detain the infected ones for several months in government hospitals (“lock hospitals”). The act was passed quietly, in part because prostitution was not a subject for public discussion in the press. Obviously the provisions of the act would have been offensive to many religious sensibilities and those concerned for its victims, who were likely to be women of the lowest classes of society.
In 1866 the second Contagious Diseases Act required that prostitutes in garrison towns submit to medical examination at least once every twelve months. In addition, the act required women brought before magistrates to be examined, whatever the testimony regarding their personal character and reputation. A Consolidating Act of 1868 extended the maximum period of hospitalization to nine months and provided for the compulsory religious instruction of the women so confined. The Acts were apparently successful in reducing the rate of venereal diseases among soldiers, and an Association for the Promotion of the Extension of the Contagious Diseases Act was formed in 1866, with the object of extending the Acts to all of England. It was this threat which motivated Josephine Butler to launch a counter-campaign.
Supporters of the Acts argued in their defense the fact that venereal disease was not curable at the time (nor would be until after the turn of the century), and could cause death to the infected, and that statistics seemed to indicate that the Acts had some positive effect.
Some of the opponents of the Acts were motivated by prudery, shocked that illicit sexual activity should be countenanced, even actively encouraged by the state. But others argued against them on humanitarian, civil libertarian and feminist grounds.
Opponents of the Acts argued that:
1. The Acts were obviously constructed to maintain a client class of prostitutes for soldiers. Had their chief aim been the health of both sexes, soldiers would also have been examined. One infected soldier could deprive many women of their health and livelihood within a short period of time.
2. Women of the lower class were denied all political rights; after such an examination many were unable to regain any employment except as prostitutes. Many non-prostitutes were examined merely for walking down the street; in fact any unattended woman was likely to be apprehended. Yet the police needed no proof of irregular behavior--they could arrest on a malicious tip, a surreptitious note by an enemy, or from mere desire to arrest everyone within a given area.
3. The Paris Morals Police, the nearest analogue, were openly brutal, sadistic, and predatory in their treatment of women.
4. To someone with a Victorian upbringing [or anyone else, for that matter], the examination could be humiliating; many women complained that the examination itself was physically painful. The tone of examiners was also offensive; ribald jokes and comments were reportedly sometimes made to the examinees. To children of twelve and above (the age at which the law started to operate), the examination could be terrifying and mystifying.
5. The period of enforced incarceration in the hospital deprived women of their livelihood, and during this time they couldn't support their offspring. The hospitals were in fact similar to prisons; there were riots by the inmates over bad food and harsh treatment.
6. Most important, the government was creating a permanent class of prostitutes who could never change their way of life, degraded for the convenience of men.
Supporters of the Acts did sometimes assert that prostitutes were irreclaimable; for example, John Morley, humanitarian and editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, offered a general view: "To sacrifice the health and vigor of unborn creatures to the ‘rights' of harlotry to spread disease without interference is a doubtful contribution toward the progress of the race. This sentimental persistence in treating permanently brutalized natures as if they still retained infinite capacities for virtue is one of the worst faults of some of the best people now living." To such people the desire to reclaim prostitutes seemed perverse and naive.
Mrs. Butler's attack on the Contagious Diseases Act provoked personal abuse; Sir James Elphinstone, M. P. declared that she was "worse than the prostitutes," and in an editorial the London Daily News stated that "women like Mrs. Butler ‘are so discontented in their own homes that they have to find an outlet somewhere, they have to be noticed at all costs, and take pleasure in a hobby too nasty to mention." Another journalist described Mrs. Butler as "an indecent maenad, a shrieking sister, frenzied, unsexed, and utterly without shame."
Josephine Butler was able to survive these criticisms and gain a hearing to a degree unique for a Victorian woman in part because of her family status. A female Romney Leigh, she came of one of the most powerful and respectable Whig families in England, and in her personal life embodied many Victorian ideals. Deeply religious in an evangelical cast, she managed to be tolerant toward Catholics, Jews, Latitudinarians, and Quakers without stirring up charges of "free thinking." Considered strikingly beautiful, her only personal expense was maintaining an impeccably fashionable appearance.
Josephine Butler was reportedly extremely persuasive and socially pleasant in manner, fearless of speech, and a good orator before audiences of all social classes. She was unusually learned, and managed to be received at Oxford as such, despite the general ban on women. She was multilingual in English, French and Italian, and also had a working knowledge of German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and even a little Russian. She was an accomplished amateur musician who had studied music under what was then considered the greatest living English composer, Sterndale Bennett. By her husband's colleagues she was accorded the unique privilege for a woman of using the Bodleian and Queen's College Library.
She was born in 1828 on the Grey family's Northumberland estate. Her father was a powerful regional manager of the Whig Party and cousin of Earl Grey, the Whig Prime Minister. Her cousin Charles Grey, an Equerry to Prince Albert, was a personal friend of the Queen and Prince Albert, and his wife was a woman of the Bedchamber. Her aunt, Margaretta Grey, had dressed up as a man in order to attend Parliament when her brother was leader of the Whigs. Her father seems to have been an independent and liberal man; he was concerned with improvements in agricultural and estate management and educated his six daughters and two sons equally. Josephine was his seventh child and one of his favorites. In 1833 Mr. Grey was appointed to manage the extensive estates owned by Greenwich Hospital, and was visited by agriculturalists from Europe. Josephine was encouraged to meet and talk with these visitors, as well as with other political figures of the day.
Josephine's mother, Hannah Annett, came of a prosperous middle-class family of Hugenot descent, and was described as very religious and good-tempered. Josephine remembered at the age of five hearing Thomas Clarkson, who with William Wilberforce was the leader of the Anti-Slavery League, describing the horrors of the middle passage. In adolescence she became an excellent horsewoman, riding very fierce horses; she even learned to ride standing on the horse in imitation of a circus dancer. During this period she partied at country balls, and later described herself and her sister Harriet as "great belles in our showy book-muslin frocks, and natural flowers wreathed on our heads and waists."
During this period Josephine read about the harsh conditions for English workers and in government workhouses in parliamentary Blue Books, and she travelled with her father from estate to estate and therefore became familiar with agricultural poverty. She also experienced religious doubts of a kind unfamiliar to her parents; at seventeen she underwent a religious crisis which had a determining influence on her life, and engaged in the first of the several-month-long conversations with the deity which characterized her emotional life.
While riding in the forest she came across the body of a dead man hanging from a branch, a valet recently dismissed from a neighboring gentleman's house for fathering an illegitimate child, a scene she was never able to describe in detail until shortly before her death (28-29). Enormous intensity and sense of pain was needed to motivate the kind of life she led; the experience in the woods combined several of the causes of her anxieties and preoccupations--religious doubts of the goodness of God, a sense of social injustice, and a horror of death--and prompted her sense of mission.
Josephine Grey married George Butler in 1851, at the age of 22. Both Butlers were vigorous reformers, who aided each other in each of their many projects, though hers came to take predominance. Both worried constantly about her health, though ironically he predeceased her. In a letter written to her in 1856, five years after marriage, he speaks of helping her to carry out her plans with his greater physical strength (33).
Directly after their marriage they moved to Oxford University, where he became a teacher of geography, and both were depressed by the conservative academic hierarchy. Geography was a marginalized subject at the time; George Butler wrote his geography lectures and Butler helped him prepare the large-scale maps needed in his work, and remembered the senior lecturer in Biblical Studies asking her to show him the location of Egypt. As an Oxford don George Butler wholeheartedly supported his wife's notorious activities, thus providing a further respectable basis for her agitation. He also believed her work was a calling from God, and agreed to her long periods of absence from home and her undergoing of physical hardship in fulfilling her calling.
George Butler began lectures at the Taylorian Institute of the Fine Arts, an anomalous activity for an Oxford lecturer, and he and Josephine constructed a Turner bibliography with copies of each of Turner's drawings made by her. As a result she was invited by the authorities to assist her husband in preparing an edition of Chaucer from the Bodleian manuscripts and was granted permission to enter the Bodleian and Exeter College Library, the first woman granted such permission. She was shocked that it should have been such a debatable manner; though educated by her father in "social problems," she had never been in a society which exhibited routine discrimination against women (37, 38). She was also disconcerted that her husband's colleagues disapproved of Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth (1853), in which a minister and his sister protect a young woman who has been seduced and abandoned, though all are ostracized when the news is discovered, and Ruth dies.
Josephine Butler was unable to save a travelling circus girl who told her she was forced into prostitution and had tried to escape to Butler's house but was recaptured by thugs. She also took in a woman imprisoned for murdering an infant fathered by an Oxford professor. In 1857 George Butler became the Principal of Cheltenham College for boys (a secondary school); Cheltenham was an even worse environment for the Butlers politically since they were the only ones on the faculty who supported the Union rather than the Confederacy during the Civil War, and they had few friends. In 1863 George Butler wrote "Does the Bible Sanction Slavery?" containing the prefatory statement, "The Bible has been quoted in favour of every abomination that ever cursed the earth."
The greatest sorrow of Josephine Butler's life occurred at this time. The Butlers had three older sons, and a youngest child, a daughter Eva. One evening Josephine told her daughter to go away, for she was late to a tea; when the Butlers returned in the evening through the front door, Eva rushed out to the stairway landing to call to them, fell over the railing and plunged to her death. For the forty remaining years of her life Josephine Butler wished she herself had died instead, and blamed herself for rebuking the child. Soon afterwards her son Stanley had a near fatal attack of diphtheria, and while on a trip with her sister Harriet, on the way to Naples, Josephine experienced some kind of convulsive illness. In 1865 at the age of 37 she wrote, "I became possessed with an irresistible desire to go forth and find some pain keener than my own, to meet with people more unhappy than myself, and to say (as now I knew I could) to afflicted people, "I understand; I too have suffered."
In 1866 George Butler was appointed the Principal of Liverpool College, where he was able to put into practice his reformist educational views and to expand the traditional public school syllabus--for example, he introduced Hebrew into the curriculum for Jewish boys. This was the first time Josephine Butler had lived in a large industrial city. Around this time the diaries of her recently deceased aunt Margaretta Grey came into her possession, in which Margaretta advocated better education and social service careers for upper-class women, as she wrote: "Life is too often divested of any real and important purpose." At this point Butler began to visit Liverpool workhouses, which at the time contained 5000 women and girls on the female side, housed in appalling conditions (49-50). Here Butler taught Bible verses, talked to the workers, and peacefully quelled a riot.
Butler was especially moved by the dying, many of whom were victims of venereally-diseased unions. With the help of her sister Emily she acquired a house where these could await death in warmth and comfort. She also visited dock-side derelicts, whose gaiety, she commented, was "scarcely clouded by the frequent deaths which came generally as a happy and not unexpected release." She brought some of the more desperate cases home to a spare room in the Butler home, and later furnished a basement for them. Many unfortunates came to her home unsought, and others she invited home on sight. She managed to persuade groups of Liverpool merchants to subscribe to the purchase of a large house to serve as a home for prostitutes; there the girls received rewards for their labor and were trained in envelope-making, in the hope that they could be employed at something besides household drudgery, but unfortunately the envelope factory never broke even and the house ran at a heavy loss.
Josephine felt scorn for the two existing Liverpool refuges, the "Good Shepherd Convent" and a Church of England penitentiary, where inmates were assumed to be sinful and were to be purged of their degradation by hard discipline. The relation of her notions of religion to her sympathy for these women is indicated by her statement at this time: "[Jesus] never talked about love of souls, and never judged people as a class. He always took the man, the woman, or the child as a person. Jesus respected that sacred thing, Individuality. The making of prostitutes into a class has ruined all rescue work."
In 1866 she met Anne Clough, sister of the poet, who was eager to extend women's education, and both George and Josephine Butler became active in this work. Anne Clough wanted central schools to be established in all large towns where girls and teachers from the area could receive special instruction and hear lectures by university men. In this they broke with the educational reformer Emily Davies, who wanted nothing to compete with her project of founding the first women's college at Cambridge on an equal basis; Emily Davies eventually established Girton College while Anne Clough's University Extension Scheme later became Newnham College.
Of course Victorian notions of propriety demanded that men had to be teachers and give introductory and concluding statements for these courses. George Butler performed the role of giving such introductions, and in beginning a session for a course at Leeds, gave his view that "At all times, reforms in the social position of women have been brought about by efforts of their own, for their own sex, supported by men, but always coming in the first instance from themselves."
Josephine Butler gave a speech advocating a permanent lecture scheme, and became president of the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women, which administered the teaching of English, history, arithmetic, algebra, political economy, and astronomy (considered an uncontroversial scientific subject). She did considerable lobbying for her project and travelled to Cambridge; as a result of these efforts, in 1870 the University Extension Scheme was founded and women were permitted to take University examinations. Since personal interviews seemed her most effective method of campaigning, she was to use it all the rest of her life. She wrote a pamphlet "The Education and Employment of Women" in 1868, the first of her 86 publications, and George Butler published "The Higher Education of Women" in 1867. Clearly Butler had a broad range of interests in addition to her desire to end the sexual exploitation of women.
However her interests lay in the social conditions of women -- their education, work, health--rather than their legal rights (that is, the right to vote, the legal status of wives). After a rather pointed delay she met Emily Davies, the founder of Girton College, who disliked Butler for what she considered her hindrance of her own work. It was an unfriendly meeting, and Butler wrote of her, "These masculine-aiming women will fail, but I dread their failure because it clogs up the wheels and blocks up the path of us who are driving towards a different and higher goal. I pray for Miss Davies constantly, and for all like her, that a wise heart may be granted them in time, and that God may gently turn them back from error."
During this period her sister Hattie's daughter died, a child who had resembled Eva, and in 1868 her father also died. His agricultural reforms and fair treatment of farm workers was so well-known that later in life she was always able to obtain a respectful hearing from agricultural workers. At this time she fell into depression, but was roused by an angry letter from the influential journalist and labour spokesperson Frederick Harrison, opposing all employment and education for women. In response she wrote an introduction to a symposium, Woman's Work and Woman's Culture, in which she claimed that 9000 prostitutes in Liverpool alone were created by the lack of other occupations for them. In this she mentions in passing that "sanitary" measures (that is, the Contagious Diseases Acts) are not the solution; they merely enable the Army, Navy and other government bodies to encourage sin with impunity. Butler pointed out that another reason women needed access to jobs was their greater numbers, eliminating marriage as a viable solution for many. In fact the numerical inequality of the sexes was vast and increasing due to emigration and the Crimean War: in 1851 there were 2,765,000 unmarried adult females in Great Britain, and in 1871, 3,228,000.
In 1866 Butler read the record of a Parliamentary debate on the Contagious Diseases Acts, and felt horror at the thought that the French system of regulation might be applied to England. She had visited Paris frequently, and felt a presentiment that she was doomed to "enter into this cloud." Four years later in 1870 she passed through Dover and Maidstone, and witnessed the effects of the Acts on women and children of garrison towns. When asked to join in opposition to the Acts, she at first resisted (90). Her first public appearance on this issue was at Crewe Junction, where there was a large craft-union, which represented the class, newly enfranchised in part in 1867, on whose women the Contagious Diseases Acts fell most heavily. Characteristically she decided not to prepare in advance, but rely on the Holy Spirit; her talk was very successful, and thereafter she was given introductions to engineers all over Britain.
Butler drafted a "Declaration of Policy" against the Contagious Diseases Acts with eight points (93-94), and repeated these arguments in two longer statements, one a book, An Appeal to the People of England on the Recognition and Superintendence of Prostitution by Governments, 1870. She never granted any validity to the counter-arguments of her opponents, and was amusingly described by one German historian, Basserman, in 1967 as "the single individual most responsible for the spread of syphilis in Europe and perhaps the world." The national press refused to cover Josephine Butler's campaign, so the Abolitionists, as they were called, attempted to defeat Liberal candidates in local elections (a technique later used by suffragettes).
At Newark in 1870 the Liberal candidate was Sir Henry Storks, responsible for implementing the Contagious Diseases Acts in Malta, where he claimed he had completely wiped out venereal disease; his opponents were able to show that his statistics were inaccurate. This was an important test case, because if an enclosed area couldn't be cleansed, how could a metropolitan area be successfully freed of venereal disease? The Abolitionists were able to convince influential Storks supporters to withdraw, and Storks decided to "stand down" (withdraw his candidacy).
Then an Abolitionist introduced a bill to repeal the Acts in 1870, the first of many such attempts; the vote was dropped because they couldn't get a quorum to attend the chamber. Storks was again nominated as a Liberal candidate at Colchester, where a second by-election was pending, and the Abolitionists nominated a Dr. Langley; Josephine Butler and other abolitionists went to Colchester to campaign, bringing posters by Harriet Martineau and sympathetic pamphlets by J. S. Mill. A mob of attackers assembled outside of her hotel and besieged the hotel until at first the manager requested that she hide in the attic, and then the next day asked her to leave. She could find no other hotel to take her in, but fortunately was housed in the cottage of an elderly working man and his wife. Twenty-four strong men were summoned to escort her to her speech the next day, and instructed to bawl lustily in favor of the Contagious Diseases Act while screening her! So violent was the crowd of supporters of the Acts (many paid to heckle), that after the speech she was dropped out of a window behind the hall to avoid pursuers, and wandered until lost (103-104).
On this occasion the Abolitionists succeeded in splitting the Liberal vote, and the Tory candidate was elected and promised to support repeal. The press refused to cover the campaign. The Colchester election was however noticed by Gladstone, and though he himself favored the Acts, he appointed a committee to examine their operation. Josephine Butler drew up a memoradum for this committeee, determined to testify. The memorandum listed the victims of compulsory exmination; some of these instances were later discredited, but one well-verifed case of Caroline Wyburgh received publicity (105-7). Butler took her memorandum to London with 1000 signatures and visited Lord Granville (where she threatened a seige outside his door, but was given dinner). Twenty-three members were appointed to the Royal Commission on the Contagious Diseases Acts, including the scientist T. H. Huxley, one avowed Abolitionist and one anti-Abolitionist.
The evidence seemed to suggest that the Acts did lessen venereal disease but encouraged prostitution. Men felt much safer in protected districts, but women felt shame at undergoing the examination, and often became half-drunk before submitting to the ordeal. After twelve weeks Mrs. Butler testified, bringing letters from working men to the Commission. The Commission at length agreed that there should be regulation, but seducers should be punished; the age of consent was to be set at 12 for this purpose, and this one only (114, 115, 116). The Commission recommended a return to the first Contagious Diseases Act; no periodic enforced examination; and the placement of the police directly under the Home Office. The preamble of the report insisted on a distinction in the treatment of the sexes (117).
However Josephine was angered at the fact that the Commission refused to deal with the fact that women could still be reported on by others (117, 118). She began increasingly to see parallels between prostitution and the slave trade, viewing prostitution as a capitalist enterprise conducted for the benefit of middle- and upper-class males. In 1872 the government finally produced "A Bill to Repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts and for the Better Protection of Women," called Mr. Bruce's Bill. This bill caused division among the repealers, for some supported it, but Josephine Butler and others opposed it. The bill contained some obvious reforms, e. g. the age of consent was was to be raised to 14, the placing of girls under 16 as prostitutes was punishable by 6 months to 2 years imprisonment, and the obtaining possession of women by false pretences or keeping of a house of prostitution was also punishable by the same penalty. In other words, prostitution was at last minimally regulated.
But other clauses in the bill provided for a uniform inspection and hospitalization through the entire country. If a woman convicted of prostitution was found to be infected, she was to be detained until cured, or for 9 months, or until she convinced a judge that she would not return to prostitution. In Butler's view, this act would extend the Acts to the entire country, and was designed without regard for the health and safety of the prostitute and her future husband and children, but only that of her clients.
Most of the parliamentary repealers accepted Mr. Bruce’s Bill, and the Ladies’ Association was divided and demoralized. Butler wrote letters defending her position (122, 123). Perhaps her fears for the government’s intentions might have seemed exaggerated, but in introducing his Bill Mr. Bruce made a speech regretting the necessity of any retrenchment, which seemed to confirm her views of the government’s intentions. Finally the National and Ladies’ Association for Repeal voted to oppose the bill and Gladstone withdrew it.
In 1872 Josephine Butler published The New Era, the best presentation of her case, less sermonic and Biblical and more factual than many of her speeches and other writings. This examined the result of state regulation of prostitution in Germany, which according to her argument had never been able to limit either syphilis or prostitution. Interestingly she predicted that Prussian moral hypocrisy and faith in their police would eventually result in an international war. For first time in her writings she discussed whether morality could be legislated, deciding in the negative. The press’s response to her book was hostile; for example, the medical journal Lancet protested (128-29).
Her next political campaign was staged in Knottingley, against Hugh Childers, a very lukewarm supporter of the new Act. When the Repealers planned a meeting at the same time Childers was scheduled to speak, their opponents tried to announce erroneous times for the Repealers’ meeting, and Childers made an amusing statement on his refusal to discuss the Act (131); but the mass of people chose the Abolitionist meeting over that of his supporters. Butler recounted a physical assault on herself and her followers a few days before the election (132-34). The Repealers encouraged abstention, and in the election, the Liberal majority fell greatly without aid to the Tories, so clearly there were many abstentions as Josephine Butler had advocated. Childers was so shaken that he changed his position--advocating confining the regulations of the new Act to the thirteen areas where they were presently applied. He even stated in Parliament that the Acts treated the sexes unequally, and advocated penalizing men offenders. In 1886 he joined the majority who voted for repeal.
For the next two years Butler toured the country lecturing and debating, visiting “Lock” hospitals where she talked kindly to the inmates, and brothels, where she sat with men awaiting their turn and asked them about themselves. In Glasgow a meeting she addressed was broken up by medical students, who were charged by officers with “barking like dogs, mewing like cats, crowing like cocks, and whistling and rattling with their sticks.” Another attack, more serious, occurred in Manchester Theatre (138-39). Through all this the newspapers gave her little or hostile coverage (139).
In 1872 George addressed the meting of the Annual Church Congress advocating repeal, but was jeered and abused. He was increasingly given to understand that he would lose preferment in the Church if his wife continued her activities, but he seemed content with this. He described himself as wanting to be useful, and felt no endeavor more useful than that of a teacher. George Butler’s closest friend was J. A. Froude, the historian and biographer of Carlyle, and they spent part of summers together. The Butlers' was the reversal of the usual Victorian home, since he provided peace and security while she travelled, and he met her at the Liverpool station on her return, and he aided her in his free time.
The Butlers entertained Gladstone at their home, where Mrs. Butler refrained from arguing about the issue of Repeal, though she did argue with him at Downing Street. At this point Sir James Stansfield addressed an Abolitionist rally at Colston Hall, Bristol to announce his support; he had previously supported the Italian Republic, Mazzini and Garibaldi. In 1874 Josephine Butler relinguished the headship of the English campaign to Stansfield, the statesman eventually successful in obtaining repeal of the Acts, sacrificing his political career to do so.
In 1874 the Liberals suffered a landslide defeat at the polls; the Tories were of course not interested in repeal, and Mrs. Butler was very depressed. However, freed from duties to their party, several Liberals declared for repeal, including then-radical Joseph Chamberlain. Sir Harcourt Johnson presented a repeal bill in 1875, and even Gladstone voted for its second reading.
In 1880 Gladstone offered Stansfield a high cabinet post provided he would refrain from speaking on the Acts although he could vote for Repeal, but he refused. Stansfield’s decision marked the turning point in the struggle, and the battle now shifted to the House of Commons. Around this time the case of Mrs. Percy broke. Mrs. Butler had raised the destitute Jenny Percy until her marriage. A major protest rally was held with George Butler reading out a statement by Jenny Percy describing her arbitrary apprehension, and a bill for the extension of the Acts to major seaports was quietly dropped. After this the fight was for repeal, not against expansion--a major victory in itself.
In the meantime Josephine Butler began her second major campaign, against continental regulation. Continental regulation had existed for centuries, but in 1873 a report at the International Medical Congress suggested that an international law of regulation be established, and along with other evils, this prompted the fear that Britain might be eventually induced to join. Josephine Butler wrote all reformers on the continent whose names she could learn, and set off on a winter visit to France, Italy and Switzerland. She was able to set up deputy organizers in each country, including Yves Guyot in France, later a senior member of the French government, M. Humbert in rural France, and Guiseppe Nathan, a thirty-year old Italian politician who had supported Garibaldi, and who devoted the last six years of his life to this cause.
In Paris she met the director of the Police de Moeurs, M. Lecour (159,160). She learned of the demand that policemen fulfill quotas for arrests, and the pressures caused by the fact that they received below-subsistence pay (160-161) (162). Butler attempted to intervene in a case in which police were besieging the house of a seduced girl to force her to be registered. She visited Lecour, who was leering and flirtatious, and tried to assure her that he too was religious. (Butler always looked young; when she was almost 50 she was rounded up by a patrol to protect girls and young women from procurers at the railway station at Lausanne). Upon revisiting Paris she went to see the prison of St. Lazare, where conditions so depressed her that she could hardly speak of them (Guyot describes these, 180, 181). She had travelled from the beginning of December 1874 until the end of February 1875, and was forced to rest upon return. She felt worry that without her constant effort the continental effort would collapse, but it didn’t.
During this period she wrote The Hour Before the Dawn, 1876, an eloquent appeal against the double sexual standard, and in 1878, St. Catharine of Siena, a biography on a congenial subject. She and her husband took some holidays together in Switzerland and the islands off the British coast. In 1876 campaigning against regulation in the United States was begun, with two British Repealers travelling on a mission to the United States; Abolitionist machinery from previous efforts still remained and the campaign was successful. Regulation was abolished in St. Louis the next year, and police were required to have a warrant before they could take women to a police station. In Paris three horrifying arrests occurred (189,190). Guyot protested and was arrested, and Butler raised funds and she and George travelled to Paris. George was attacked in the English press for his speeches. Largely as a result of Guyot’s continued attacks the Bureau of Moeurs was closed in 1878, and one and a half years later the entire Police of Moeurs dismantled!
The International Congress for the Abolition of Regulation proposed a prohibitionist policy, i. e. advocating that prostitution should be subject to severe penalties. Josephine Butler always opposed prohibition as a violation of individual liberty which would prohibit rescue work (195), and she travelled to Switzerland for a meeting of the Congress in 1877. Her sentiments prevailed and the Congress adopted a liberal policy.
George Butler was overworked, among his other activities aiding in the founding of Liverpool University, and he was increasingly attacked for his wife’s activities and felt he should resign, but they had no other income since she had spent all of hers on rescue work; they faced genteel poverty until friends set up an annuity which would pay them two hundred pounds yearly. He resigned, but soon after was offered a canonry in Winchester Cathedral, which he accepted. Both enjoyed the pleasant, quiet atmosphere of Winchester.
In England yet another commission was set up to review the Acts, before which Josephine Butler testified for seven hours without notes. The majority report was disappointing to the repealers because it favored the Acts, although a minority including Stansfield opposed them. In 1883 Stanfield proposed the repeal of the 2nd Act, believing the other two would fall into disuse if compulsory examination were eliminated. In 1886 the vote carried by 182 to 110 at 1:30 a. m.
After this victory Butler turned her attention to publicizing the "white slave traffic," the buying or abducting of girls, and in some cases, exporting them to Brussels. She was allied in these efforts with W. P. Stead and a Quaker publisher, Alfred Dyrer, who visited Brussels to investigate and found many English girls in brothels. Josephine Butler wrote a letter on this subject to Shield, an abolitionist paper, pointing out the strange Victorian preference for deflowering children, the first time anyone had mentioned this in print. As part of a related investigation, she made depositions before a Liverpool magistrate about the abduction of minors. The investigation which resulted sent the Brussels chief of police to prison, along with eleven of the most celebrated Brussels brothel-owners. After this she continued travelling extensively on the continent in support of these causes.
Her most disturbing findings, however, were in London (248-249). As part of the campaign, W. T. Stead shocked everyone by procuring a girl of thirteen in order to prove that it could be done; he wanted an outright purchase, not just for one night, and was able to buy for 5 guineas one Eliza Armstrong, who was then taken to live for a few weeks with Mrs. Butler. Many members of the government were terrified at the revelations which might ensue from a widespread investigation of London brothels, and in part as a result of these revelations, Parliament hastily raised the age of consent to 16 by a vote of 179 to 71.
At this point George Butler's health rapidly deteriorated, and the doctors were convinced he was dying; he rallied, however, and Josephine spent the next two years with him. They travelled together and George even returned to art criticism, writing for the Contemporary Review. When he was clearly dying they hastened home, but before they could reach it he died in London in March, 1890. She lived on for 16 years after him, but put her furniture in storage and refused to set up another home without him. For the first five years she lived with her son George, but after his marriage she lived alone in bedsitters. She became involved in opposing regulation in India and in Genoa, Italy. She sat for her portrait by G. F. Watts, and the result appalled her, "she felt so sorry for her." She continued to write prolifically, and from 1897-1900 even produced a newsletter, the Stormbell, though it was rather rambling in content. She continued to be saddened by the death of friends, and mourned the death of her favorite sister Hattie in1900.
She felt pity at Oscar Wilde's conviction (1896), was angered by the Dreyfus affair (1898), and supported British action in South Africa in 1899, desiring the British to release the colored peoples from Afrikaner bondage. She felt Great Britain would be judged by its treatment of the black peoples under its control, and wrote Native Races and the War, whose anti-Boer sentiments shocked and angered all sides. Less controversially, she attacked with wrath the pogroms in Czarist Russia, and sent all the money she could to assist in the settlement of Jewish refugees in London.
Her sight began to fail, and arthritis made writing difficult. In 1903 she retired to the north, near the home of her eldest son and near her old family estates, and continued a fierce interest in world affairs until her death in 1906 at the age of 78. She was even delighted at the brief Russian Revolution of 1905. Before her death she requested that her friends and family do all in their power to prevent a biography; despite her wishes she has been the subject of at least two full-length biographies, but arguably her campaigns are a subject which could merit even further study.
Page numbers refer to Glen Petrie, A Singular Iniquity.
Statements by Josephine Butler, from Women's Work and Women's Culture (1869) and Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade (London: Horace Marshall and Son, 1896).
"I recall those years of painful thinking, and of questionings which seemed to receive no answer, and to be susceptible of no solution; those years in which I saw this great social iniquity (based on the shameful inequality of judgement concerning sexual sin in man and woman) devastating the world, contentedly acquiesced in, no great revolt proclaimed against it, a dead silence reigning concerning it, a voice feebly raised perhaps now and again, but quickly rebuked and silenced." (PRGC, 17,18)
January 1st, 1870, "Women's Protest": "We, the undersigned, enter our solemn protest against these Acts. 1st.--Because, involving as they do such a momentous change in the legal safeguards hitherto enjoyed . . . .", signed by, among others, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, Mary Carpenter, relatives of John Bright, women of the Society of Friends. (PRGC,18, 19)
Victor Hugo sent a letter of sympathy in 1870, lamenting "a detestable system, that, namely, of a police dealing with women as outlaws. . . . laws are still made by men in order to tyrannize over women." (PRGC, 25)
Mazzini also wrote, condemning the "moral iniquity" of the laws. "If you punish the accomplice, leaving the sinner untouched, you destroy, by arousing the sense of injustice, every beneficial result of punishment." (27); "Your claim to suffrage is identical with that of the working men." (PRGC, 28)
on the Royal Commission:
"They produced a Majority Report, which pronounced itself hostile to us, at the same time that it condemned the compulsory treatment of the persons of women, which is the centre and core of the whole system of State Regulation of vice." (PRGC, 33)
on equality of sexes:
"I never myself viewed this question as fundamentally any more a woman's question than it is a man's. The Legislation we opposed secured the enslavement of women and the increased immorality of men; and history and experience alike teach us that these two results are never separated." (PRGC, 73)
"Herein arises no question whether they are intellectually equal with the souls of men or not. Enough that they are intellectual; the conclusion follows that the intellect ought to be employed." (WWWC, 356)
"In some things even men's work is less perfect than it would be if they had women's work to compare with their own. For women, I again say, I do not call the same as men, but different--their complement, the necessary element to the completeness of human nature. Even in our highest public duties we should be incalculably helped by admitting the directness, the simplicity, the instinctive honesty of a woman's unperverted mind. (WWWC, 363)
on personal liberties, basis of her code, as exercised in past times:
"I contrast that loyalty and that love with the present prevailing loose notions concerning the worth of the individual, the sacredness of the human person, and of liberty." (74) "Without pausing to wrangle, as has been too much the case in modern times, over the idle controversy concerning woman's 'sphere,' they simply came forward at the call of duty, . . . and were able calmly and clearly to meet and confute all who endeavoured to violate the liberty of the subject . . . . There seemed to have been a retrogression in the public spirit of women since that time." (78)