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Josephine Butler: The Victorian feminist who campaigned for the rights of prostitutes


Josephine Butler was once described as ‘the most distinguished Englishwoman of the 19th-Century’. Born in 1828, she was the leader of a national women’s political campaign – one of the very first. As a woman, she defied Victorian convention by becoming involved in politics. Even worse, she campaigned for the rights of prostitutes, or ‘fallen women’ who were despised by polite society.

Butler rescued prostitutes from the Liverpool workhouse and cared for some of them at her home. Her blissfully happy marriage to her husband, George Butler, was an invaluable source of support. Prostitutes told her about their sufferings under the Contagious Diseases Acts, which allowed the police to arrest and forcibly examine them internally. The aim was to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted disease by identifying and detaining infected women. Butler was horrified by the Acts, calling the examination ‘steel rape’. She started a campaign to repeal them – “a deadly fight on behalf of us women for our bodies”.  The fight lasted 15 years, but against all the odds, it was successful. The Acts were suspended in 1884.

This was Josephine Butler’s first campaign but by no means her last:

She fought a European campaign against state regulation of prostitution, enforced by ‘morals police’ (from 1874 until her death in 1906).

She fought a Belgian trafficking campaign, which resulted in the trial and imprisonment of brothel-owners and traffickers (1879-80).

She had a major role in William Stead’s campaign against child prostitution in London, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’(1885).

She was instrumental in raising the age of consent from 13 to 16 in 1885.

She led a campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts in India (from 1887 until her death).

She exposed the trafficking of women to Europe and stood up to cruel and coldly calculating authority figures such as the Superintendent of the Morals Police in Paris.

Josephine Butler was selected as an inspirational woman from history however her full story, including her tireless campaign work for the rights of women, deserves to be even more widely known.

By Helen Mathers

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