In 1927 Millicent Fawcett, leader of the British suffragist movement, called Josephine Butler “the most distinguished woman of the nineteenth century.” 1 Among the first feminist activists, Butler had raised public awareness of the plight of destitute women, worked to address human trafficking, and led a vigorous campaign to secure equal rights for women.
Over the last two years I have been studying this woman’s life, and I have been deeply impacted by her faith. Josephine Butler (1828–1908) lived a life immersed in prayer. Prayer emerges in her writing as an intimate dialogue with Christ but also as the pivotal dynamic in a radical social and political vision. It was in prayer that Butler reimagined her world and enabled others to do the same. Crucially, it was in prayer that Butler reimagined the figure of the prostitute – the object of fear, hatred, and lust – as a human being with dignity, voice, and equal worth before the law.
As a child, Josephine’s imagination was captured by Christ as she listened to the Bible read aloud in her home. Her father, John Grey of Dilston, was an important landowner in Northumberland and, in keeping with tradition, the family attended the local Anglican church. But as a teen Josephine was drawn to lively evening gatherings at a small Methodist church. She traveled to these meetings with a servant in the Dilston household, the two of them riding in the back of a cart, sitting on piles of sacking. It was during these years that she developed a lifelong habit of prayer. Reflecting back on this period Butler writes:
I spoke to Him in solitude as a person who could answer. I sometimes gave whole nights to prayer, because the day was not sufficiently my own. Do not imagine that on these occasions I worked myself up into any excitement: there was much pain in such an effort, and dogged determination required, nor was it devotional sentiment which urged me on. It was a desire to know God and my relation to Him.2
In 1852 Josephine married George Butler, a classics tutor at Oxford University. When Josephine first arrived at Oxford she was delighted by the place. Coming from a wealthy and liberal-minded family, she was no stranger to learning. But, when a highly controversial novel appeared in the bookshops, Josephine’s delight in the culture of Oxford gave way to disillusionment. Written in 1853 by Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth told the story of a young woman seduced by a wealthy gentleman, abandoned by her lover, pregnant, thrown from her workplace without a reference, shunned by her family and by society. Butler was captivated by the story. At the next Oxford dinner party, she sat in stunned silence listening to the learned men of the city scorn the book. There, around the table, Butler saw displayed the same attitudes she had read about in the novel. During the same period of time, Butler also began to meet young women on the streets of Oxford, some of them little more than children, who had been brought to the city to feed the sexual appetites of the male establishment. For the first time in her life, Butler encountered the underworld of Victorian prostitution.
“I spoke to Him in solitude as a person who could answer. I sometimes gave whole nights to prayer, because the day was not sufficiently my own.”
The plight of one woman in particular haunted Butler. Barely eighteen and left to face a pregnancy alone, in her distress she killed her infant at birth. The scandalous case of infanticide was reported in the press; the woman was depicted as the essence of sin and thrown into prison at hard labor. Butler also saw the crime which was never spoken of: the infant’s father sitting at a dinner party pontificating about Gaskell’s novel before going on his regular visit to the other side of town. The public face and the private life, protected by the safe wall of male privilege!
When the same woman was released from prison, the Butlers brought her to live in their home right in the middle of Oxford. It was a public participation in this woman’s pain, and an indictment. The doors of Oxford closed on the Butlers and the couple found themselves on the other side of a wall of prejudice.
Years later, now forty-two and a busy headmaster’s wife and homemaker, Josephine Butler found herself on a damp stone floor in a large cellar under the Brownlow workhouse in the port of Liverpool. The family had moved to Liverpool from Cheltenham, where George Butler worked as a schoolteacher after leaving his position at Oxford. The bare cellar was an “oakum shed.” Here, in exchange for bread and a few nights’ shelter, women, most of them otherwise engaged in penny prostitution, separated the loose fibers of old rope to be used for caulking wooden ships. “I went down to the oakum sheds,” Butler writes, “and begged admission.”
I was taken into an immense gloomy vault filled with women and girls – more than two hundred probably at that time. I sat on the floor among them and picked oakum. They laughed at me and told me my fingers were of no use for that work, which was true. But while they laughed we became friends.3
In the months following this first visit, Butler taught these Liverpool women to pray. She recalls one of these visits vividly in her memoir:
I recollect a tall, dark, handsome girl standing up in our midst, among the damp refuse and lumps of tarred rope and repeating … the words of Jesus all through ending with, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give unto you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” She had selected it herself, and they listened in perfect silence – this audience, wretched, bedraggled, ignorant, criminal some, and wild and defiant others.… I said, “Let us kneel and cry to that same Jesus who spoke these words.” And down on their knees they fell every one of them, reverently on that damp stone floor, some saying the words after me, others moaning and weeping. It was a strange sound that united wail – continuous, pitiful, strong – like a great sigh or murmur of vague desire and hope, issuing from the heart of despair, piercing the gloom and murky atmosphere of that vaulted room and reaching to the heart of God.4
What these women in the oakum shed did not know at the time was the extent of Butler’s personal grief at this point in her life. The Butlers had four children, three boys and one girl. Two years before the scene depicted here, in August 1864, the Butlers’ daughter, Eva, fell from the banisters in the family home onto the tiled hallway below. Eva died in agony after every attempt to save her failed. “Never can I lose that memory,” Butler wrote years later, “the fall, the sudden cry, and then the silence. She was our only daughter, the light and joy of our lives.”5
For two years after Eva’s death, Butler wrestled with depression and despair. It was during this time that she first visited the oakum sheds. “I had no clear idea beyond that,” she writes, “no plan for helping others; my sole wish was to plunge into the heart of some human misery and to say (as I then knew I could) to afflicted people, I understand: I too have suffered.”6
In the mid-nineteenth century there was nothing unusual in middle-class women doing “rescue work” among prostitutes or “fallen women,” as they were known. But Butler refused to call her visits to the Brownlow workhouse rescue work; instead, she talked about individual women with names, faces, and histories – women who were her friends. She refused to use the term “prostitute” or “fallen woman” and instead adopted the word “outcast” to describe the lives of these women.
For two years Butler continued to visit her friends. When some of the women became too ill to work, she invited them to live with her family in her home. Later, she set up small houses of rest in which women who had formerly eked out an existence on the streets could find refuge and employment.
In a unique way, Butler connected the experience of personal grief with the corporate grief of womankind. She understood her vocation as an act of intercession in which she entered into the experience of the outcast woman. There is an intrinsic link in Butler’s writing between anguish and the facility to perceive and name injustice. Personal pain becomes political pain, which in turn becomes the seedbed for lasting cultural change.
At every point, Butler contrasts the observance of religious codes by pious and respectable people with the desperate cry of the outcast and her simple longing for God. It is the outcast who is heard by God when she prays. Christ, Butler insists, not only welcomes the outcast, he became the outcast, submitting to the shame of exclusion in order to overthrow existing categories and definitions of power. God does not preside in judgment but rather enters in, like Butler, as a friend who suffers with.
While butler continued to visit these women in Liverpool, Parliament passed a series of laws known as the Contagious Diseases Acts. Instituted in 1864 and extended in 1867 and 1869, these laws were passed to deal with the rapid spread of venereal disease among the armed forces in Britain. Under the terms of the Acts, any woman residing in a garrison town or port and suspected of prostitution could be detained by the police and subjected to a fortnightly medical examination. If the woman was found to be suffering from venereal disease, she could be kept in a locked hospital unit for a period of up to nine months. At the end of this period, the woman was given a certificate to prove to future male clientele that her body was free from contamination. If a woman refused compulsory examination, she was brought before the magistrate where she bore sole responsibility to prove her virtue.
If one hoped to reconfigure social and political realities, Butler believed, one had to start with personal prayer.
The Acts were understood as sanitary expedients. It was generally believed that forced examination was the only way to deal with what was an epidemic of venereal disease. But Butler saw these Acts through the eyes of her friends in Liverpool. For her, the Acts were a concrete symbol of an invidious sexual double standard that caused untold suffering and grief. A woman, once compromised sexually, had no way back, and yet society turned a blind eye to men’s so-called “natural proclivities.”
In 1869 a small Ladies National Association formed to oppose the bill. Butler was asked to lead. Her decision to oppose the Acts caused an outcry among affluent, intellectual women of her own social circle. To take up such a cause was to waste one’s talents on a futile and morally dubious enterprise. It was one thing to rescue individual women from lives of prostitution, but quite another to address the systemic issues of sexual injustice.
On January 1, 1870, under Butler’s leadership, the Ladies National Association issued a sharply worded eight-point manifesto denouncing the Contagious Diseases Acts as a blatant example of class and sex discrimination. The Acts, it argued, were unconstitutional and deprived disadvantaged women of their legal rights. To detain an individual without evidence or trial, and to force her to submit to a degrading examination, was a travesty of the rule of law. Moreover, by placing culpability singularly on women, the Acts sanctioned discrimination. As Butler wrote in an influential 1871 essay: “The danger of the whole community is imminent when the safeguards of law and constitutional right are swept away from any portion of the community.”7 All future reform would be impossible, she argued, while some humans were set aside to be bought and sold as chattel for the purpose of illicit pleasure that was then excused and hidden by polite society, and endorsed by the state.
Butler had issued her challenge. Yet, what seemed self-evidently right to her did not to those who benefited in one way or another from the existing order of things. It took sixteen years of tireless work before the Contagious Diseases Acts were finally removed from the statute books. During this time, Butler was physically assaulted on many occasions. Her family was subject to repeated death threats and several arson attacks. Butler was pelted with excrement when she stood up to speak, and on one occasion it took fourteen bodyguards to protect her from a violent mob as she moved from a train carriage to address an audience at a town hall.
Throughout the campaign, Butler prayed with women on the streets, and taught others to do the same. She prayed with leaders from every political party and every religious denomination. She formed networks of prayer that connected those who lacked social and political agency with those who held great power. The relational encounters she facilitated between different groups and social classes challenged existing cultural and political categories. Crossing class, educational, and religious divides, the Ladies National Association grew over time into the backbone of an emergent women’s movement.
This group worked among registered prostitutes, gathering evidence, hearing testimonies, and collecting statistics. Its members visited working-class families the length and breadth of Britain and, after 1874, across continental Europe. They introduced local educational and employment reforms, gave legal aid where there was none, encouraged women to resist the legal requirements of the Acts, and formed links in Parliament.
If one hoped to reconfigure social and political realities, Butler believed, one had to start with personal prayer. Without being alone with God, individuals would remain immersed in the existing cultural environment, with its prevailing definitions of power: class power, sexual power, and religious power. Without prayer the conscience would become numbed and passion dulled, leaving the individual unable to think and act with independent judgment.
Throughout her life, Butler continued to spend a portion of each morning alone in prayer. How will we find the freedom to imagine something new, Butler asked, if we are subject to the noisy tyranny of a society that squeezes us into its way of defining others? The person who prays participates in God’s imagination, coming to see as God sees. Those who pray are set free from enculturation and drawn into active agency with God to mobilize and effect deep and lasting change.
This is Josephine Butler’s legacy: a fresh social and political imagination. The prostitute – understood by Victorian culture as refuse – became for Butler a sign not only of grief and pain but also of Jesus’ identification with the excluded. It was this compassionate identification with others on the margins of society that made Butler’s work so transformative and of such lasting significance, inspiring subsequent generations to seek fundamental changes in the ways men and women are treated in society.
- M. G. Fawcett and E. M. Turner, Josephine Butler: Her Works and Principles and Their Meaning for the Twentieth Century (London: Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, 1927), 1.
- Butler to Professor Benjamin Jowett, n.d. (ca. 1860–70), Josephine Butler Collection, The Women’s Library.
- Josephine E. Butler: An Autobiographical Memoir (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1909), 59.
- Butler, Autobiographical Memoir, 60.
- Butler, Autobiographical Memoir, 49.
- Butler, Autobiographical Memoir, 58.
- Josephine E. Butler, Social Purity (London: Morgan and Scott, 1879), 19.