A heroine for our age
Josephine Butler was ahead of her time in her campaign against the sexual exploitation of women. So why has she been forgotten? A new exhibition is about to restore her place in the pantheon of great social reformers - and about time, too, says Julie Bindel
Thursday September 21, 2006
In a dark, stinking workhouse in Liverpool in 1864, a frail woman sits on the floor with scores of prostitutes and unmarried mothers. They are picking the frayed fibres off old rope as punishment for their behaviour and she is helping them. Her name is Josephine Butler, and she is well on the way to becoming a legend in her own lifetime. Aside from those with an interest in women's or Victorian history, few today will have heard of Butler, but she was Britain's first anti-prostitution campaigner and remains one of our greatest social reformers.
What led Butler to the workhouse was a passion to fight for the rights of the oppressed - and a recent tragedy. One of her four children, a daughter aged six, had died after falling from a balcony. "[I] became possessed with an irresistible urge to go forth and find some pain keener than my own, to meet with people more unhappy than myself," she later wrote.
One hundred years after her death, the Women's Library in London today opens a major exhibition on prostitution, with a section dedicated to Butler's life and achievements. The campaigns she spearheaded - against sex trafficking, child prostitution and state-endorsed brothels - continue today, and if she remains one of feminism's unsung heroes, it is probably because she was so eclipsed by both the drama and the relatively uncontroversial achievements of the suffragettes.
Although some have written her off over the years as a prissy, anti-sex Christian, Butler is an important figure who advocated on behalf of women considered to be "scum" - prostitutes and other "fallen women" - and challenged men's right to sexual access to prostituted women and children. She achieved huge social and legal reforms in her own lifetime at a time when women did not even have the right to vote. She travelled all over the country, and over much of Europe, inspiring individuals, stimulating local organisations into action, addressing meetings, from small gatherings of women to public meetings attended by hundreds of working-class men.
Born in 1828 into an upper-middle class, liberal family in Northumberland, Butler learned of the horrors of slavery from her parents, who were active in the abolitionist campaign. She married George Butler, a headmaster, who was unusual in that he supported the notion of equality between men and women. They moved to Liverpool where, because of a lack of factory work, poor women would often turn to prostitution to feed their children. A committed Christian, Butler believed that "everyone is equal under God", and became appalled at how women in prostitution were treated. She was also disgusted at the way servant girls were often sexually exploited by the men they worked for, and then left destitute when they got pregnant.
Having helped prostitutes on the streets and in workhouses, Butler began to take those most desperate into her home, often to die. Suspicious of the motives of religious-run secure units intended to reform "fallen women", she raised enough money to establish her own, non-sectarian, "house of rest". Considering prostitution as abuse - a viewpoint which is controversial even today - she wrote: "The degradation of these poor unhappy women is not degradation for them alone; it is a blow to the dignity of every virtuous woman too, it is dishonour done to me, it is the shaming of every woman in every country of the world."
The laws regulating prostitution - then legal - were nothing short of barbaric. The Contagious Diseases Act, passed in 1864, was intended to stop the spread of syphilis in the armed forces. Under these laws, any woman in designated military towns could be forcibly inspected for venereal disease. It was decided that men should not be examined because they would resist. Women believed to be prostitutes could be reported to the authorities, and those found to be infected could be imprisoned for three months in a secure hospital. There were instances of such women, many of whom were not prostitutes, being subsequently forced into the sex trade.
The sexual double standard of the act, which Butler took to mean that men could use prostitutes with impunity while at the same time punishing the women, disgusted her, and she led a campaign to repeal it. After winning that battle - the law was repealed in 1886 - Butler took the campaign to India, where women were being sold into prostitution by the British army.
She won enormous support over the years from individual politicians, radicals and medical people, but also became the target of violent hatred. There were several lucrative brothels in Liverpool and those who profited did not take kindly to Butler's interference in their trade. She was once pelted with cow dung by pimps at a rally she was addressing. Another time, a group of men smashed the windows of a hotel where she was staying, trying to get to her and threatening to set it on fire.
Undeterred, Butler appealed to the government not to license brothels, arguing that the state should never profit from the misery of women. Sheila Jeffreys, a feminist academic and campaigner against the international sex industry, believes that Butler was remarkably ahead of her time. "Even today, few dare to mention that prostitution is caused by and protected for the sake of men, not women," she says.
With the formation of her Ladies National Association in 1869, Butler became the first publicly recognised feminist activist in Britain. In the previous 50 years, some women had supported anti-slavery, and the temperance and suffrage movements, but they had never been openly critical of men and their sexual behaviour.
Jane Jordan, a feminist historian who in 2001 published a biography of Butler, says that she was exceptional in her time for treating prostitutes as equals. "When she was rediscovered by feminists in the 1980s, it was suggested that Butler was patronising to the women she helped but she treated the women with respect, and was careful to discuss with them the causes of their oppression."
Butler was clear that the women, although partly driven by poverty, were the victims of patriarchy. Early in her campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act, Butler was asked by a man: "Can you ever reclaim prostitutes?" She replied that prostitutes often came to her and asked if men could ever be reclaimed.
Jeffreys considers Butler one of the bravest and most imaginative feminists in history. "She told men they must change, rather than having the male-dominated state set up systems of prostitution that would protect the male customers and give official approval to their behaviour," she says. "This is hard to imagine now when governments around the world are once again calling for legalisation of the industry."
In 1875, having saved the lives of countless "fallen" women and been instrumental in changing legislation in favour of women, Butler decided to tour Europe to inspire women to begin campaigning against commercial sexual exploitation and state regulation of prostitution. She was influential in France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands where leagues of women were shocked into action. A new campaign for the civil rights of prostitutes was established across Europe. For many of the women, this was their first activity in the public sphere. The result was the formation of the International Abolitionist Movement, still active today in the fight against the trafficking of women and children.
Although sex was never discussed in public in Victorian England, particularly by women of Butler's class, she regularly made public speeches about intimate matters. She believed that women should not leave issues such as female sexuality to men. Many of her liberal friends shunned her as a result, and one MP called her "worse than a common prostitute".
In 1880 Butler turned her attention to child prostitution, and was instrumental in the campaign to raise the age of consent from 12 to 16 to protect girls from sexual abuse. She helped expose the scandal of children trafficked between Belgium and Britain, and the trade in underage virgins on the streets of London.
"Butler would find the discussions on prostitution as 'sex work', and the normalisation and expansion of the sex industry today very odd," says Jordan. "She would want to know how we could have gone backwards after the huge strides forward she achieved".
· For more information on Prostitution: What's Going On? at the Women's Library, London E1, call 020-7320 2222.
Source: Guardian Unlimited