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 Josephine campaigned to get the Act repealed by writing to the press, starting petitions and by public speaking.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’.