Heroine who fought hypocrisy and raised the 'fallen'

Josephine Butler
March 1, 2002

Josephine Butler (1828-1906) was "that dreadful woman" to Henry Parry Liddon, canon of St Pauls, and was criticised by Benjamin Jowett for caring about prostitutes, "a class of sinners whom she had better have left to themselves". She forced respectable Victorian opinion to face disgraceful truths about their society and courageously placed herself in the firing-line of public hostility.

As a Christian and feminist, she was horrified by the British Contagious Diseases Acts, passed in the 1860s, that aimed to protect prostitutes' male clients from venereal disease. The police in garrison and port towns could detain any woman suspected of prostitution, force her to submit to an internal examination and, if she was diseased, detain her in a lock hospital. Butler spoke out against the double standard that punished the women, denying their civil rights, while male use of prostitutes was exonerated and regulated by the state.

Butler was an impressive public speaker and a voracious writer who churned out articles passionately stating her case. By the time the acts were repealed in 1886, she had extended her campaigns to the European continent and was involved in exposing child prostitution. As Jane Jordan shows in this biography, she played a crucial role in Parliament's decision, in 1885, to raise the age of consent to 16, by supplying evidence about the sexual exploitation of child virgins in London to "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon" campaign. Jordan's tone in this, the most graphic section, is cool and unsensational, and the quotations from Butler's own sometimes lurid accounts are judicious.

The Butler archive is almost overwhelming in extent, and Jordan is to be congratulated on being the first biographer (or, indeed, historian) to attempt to research its entirety. Considering the research potential, there have been surprisingly few studies of Butler, and Jordan's is the first full-length biography to appear since 1962. The availability of these sources, however, as Jordan acknowledges, presents the danger of telling the story entirely from Butler's point of view. Jordan is not always sufficiently critical in her use of the sources, even though the literal truth of some of Butler's highly coloured, emotive and propagandist prose must be questionable.

Jordan aims to present "the real woman", quoting Butler's fear that a biography would tell the story of her public life "and nothing else". Butler came from a landed Northumberland family with passionate liberal and anti-slavery sympathies, and made a happy marriage to an Anglican clergyman who became the headmaster of Liverpool College. Untypically for his time, he believed in equality between men and women and supported his wife's campaigns. Both were devastated by the death of their five-year-old daughter Eva, in a fall from banisters at their home. Butler's almost demented grief drove her to seek "some pain keener than my own", to a ministry among the women picking oakum in Liverpool Workhouse, and thence to the establishment of a "House of Rest" for them - her first public work on behalf of "fallen" women.

Butler was a passionate Evangelical, whose feminism derived from her conviction that, before God, men and women were of equal value. Jordan acknowledges this without analysing her beliefs in sufficient detail. She does, however, quote liberally from Butler's many references to Christian doctrine and rationale, in contrast to some feminist historians who have either almost ignored her Christianity or sought to denigrate it.

Butler was an instinctive politician, who succeeded in changing the law even though she had no vote. This biography does justice to her achievements and, in marshalling and organising her material in such an exemplary way, Jordan has done an invaluable service to all students of Butler, present and future.

In Paris, Butler went to visit the notorious St Lazare prison where women were kept for months at the behest of the medical authorities. Children were imprisoned there, too, because, she was told, "our society is very corrupt and men require variety in their vice". Butler denounced these attitudes ceaselessly. She is, or should be, one of our national heroines.

Helen Mathers is a research fellow, University of Sheffield.

Josephine Butler

Author - Jane Jordan
ISBN - 0 7195 5584 1
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £22.50
Pages - 368

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