Josephine Butler: Patron Saint of Prostitutes — Dr Helen Mathers — 13th June 2016.

Josephine Butler (nee Grey) was born in Northumberland in 1828.

Her father, John Grey, a land man­ager and farm reformer, was an anti-slavery cam­paigner. Josephine was brought up in an atmo­sphere com­mit­ted to cam­paign­ing against slavery.

In 1852 she mar­ried George Butler, who was a head teacher in a school for boys. He believed in equal­ity of hus­band and wife and Josephine had always believed that women should not be sub­or­din­ate to men.

They had four chil­dren but the young­est, a girl called Eva, died at the age of five after a fall from stairs. The family moved to Liverpool, where, to cover her grief, Josephine went out to find some human misery equal to her own. She vis­ited a Liverpool work­house at Bridewell where ‘fallen’ women were incar­cer­ated.

Josephine had been inspired by her Bible stud­ies of the way Jesus treated fallen women and she estab­lished friend­ships with the women in the work­house. She took a Mary Lomax into her home in 1866 and con­tin­ued to take in des­ti­tute women and filled her home.

She real­ised that most of the women went into pros­ti­tu­tion because, as they were unskilled, that was the only way they could make enough money to live on. She saw a great need for a house of help where the women could go to learn work skills that would enable them to earn a dif­fer­ent living.

At that time, the Government was very con­cerned about the spread of sexu­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases amongst sol­diers and sail­ors. The Contagious Diseases Act allowed the police to round up women sus­pec­ted of pros­ti­tu­tion and force them to be examined by a doctor. Women who were found to have a dis­ease were isol­ated and kept in a ‘lock hos­pital’ for three months. Although men could also trans­mit the dis­eases they were not sub­ject to the Act. Josephine cam­paigned to get the Act repealed by writ­ing to the press, start­ing peti­tions and by public speak­ing. Josephine became known in the public sphere, which caused anim­os­ity because women were not sup­posed to be in an area usu­ally reserved for men.

Josephine also became involved with women’s employ­ment and suf­frage and met Anne Clough, who was pas­sion­ate about improv­ing girls’ edu­ca­tion. They wrote pamph­lets and made speeches. They became very unpop­u­lar and were attacked in many ways. In Pontefract, they could not find a venue so held a meet­ing in a hayloft. During the meet­ing, the hay was set on fire and a gang of men invaded through the trap­door. People were so hor­ri­fied by this that they began to sup­port the repeal.

James Stansfield, (a Liberal M.P.) took up the cause in the House. He put up a Repeal Bill every year for ten years to get rid of the Act. The police and M.P.s said that the Act had reduced sexu­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases in the mil­it­ary but Stansfield proved that doc­tors were not count­ing patients who were rein­fec­ted.

When the Liberals came back to power more sup­port was build ing. Josephine spoke in the House and Parliament voted to repeal the Act in 1885.

Anne Clough foun­ded Newnham College (the first women’s col­lege) in Cambridge. She and Josephine set up the North of England Council for Promoting Higher Education for Women with branches in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield. They employed University Extension Lecturers to hold lec­tures for women in these cities. It is thought that this may have been the birth of ‘red brick uni­ver­sit­ies’.