Forgotten Heroes: Josephine Butler

I’m starting a new series of posts here at On the Other Hand about extraordinary men and women who are (probably) not remembered by the average person. Yes, the drawing on the left is of a young Josephine Butler!

History buffs, if you know of a forgotten hero who should be included in this series let me know about him or her via the contact form

Time: The mid 1860s- early 1900s.

Place: Liverpool, England.

What might your life have been like if you were born poor and female 150 years ago in England?

The jobs available to women of your station in this period were limited and paid pitifully. There was no welfare, no unemployment, no medicaid or medicare for people too old or ill to care for themselves. There were workhouses and other charitable organizations for the indigent but the conditions in them were, in many cases, horrific. Many people avoided these forms of assistance unless they had no other option.

You’re a pregnant 15 year old scullery maid whose middle-aged employer has been interfering with you for six months. When you begin to show you’re cast out of his home. No other home will hire you without a letter of recommendation so you begin to work as a prostitute to avoid starvation.

You’re a 12 year old girl who was snatched off the street while walking home from an errand and subjected to a humiliating, painful gynaecological exam to prove that you don’t have a venereal disease. Thanks to Contagious Diseases Act this was perfectly legal and could be done to any woman suspected of being a prostitute.

You’re a twenty-four year old woman who has just been raped. It is, of course, your fault. The man who attacked you would never have been provoked had you been a decent woman.

An embryonic feminism has just begun to address the deep social, legal, financial, religious and other inequities between men and women but so far the vast majority of early feminists were focused on the lives of women from wealthy families. A few have recently begun to work with poor, fallen women but it always with the sense that you somehow deserved or wanted what happened to you.

And then you hear about a woman named Josephine Butler who invites former prostitutes to live with her, her husband and their three teenage sons, an unthinkable act at a time where women from Josephine’s station weren’t even suppose to know about the types of human misery she encountered in her work every day.

Sick women who succumb to their illnesses are buried in alongside Josephine’s niece in a private cemetery. Women who recover or who were never physically ill are taught a new trade.

Josephine doesn’t stop there. In 1886 her decades-long effort to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act was finally brought to fruition. The year before she successfully lobbied to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16 to help protect young girls who were being forced into prostitution.

Simply put, Josephine Butler was instrumental in the earliest struggles against the institutionalized discrimination of women and the poor despite a lifetime of poor health, multiple family tragedies and a prevailing culture that was anything but understanding of her values.  I wish I had been born a hundred years earlier so I could have met this incredible human being in person.

Interested in reading more about her? Click here.

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  1. She definitely was a remarkable woman. So remarkable that I can never even start to picture myself doing what she did. I would never put former prostitutes in the same house with my teenage sons. 

    Sometimes I would like to switch brains with people like this woman, to know where they get their courage from. They make me feel like such a wimp. I suppose the way to go to do stuff in spite of our fears. She probably was afraid, but she did it anyway. It is about risk taking, just like in business.  

    • Yeah, I can’t imagine doing that either. From what I read nothing inappropriate ever happened, though. 

      My theory about courage: there comes a point in at least some people’s lives when their anger or sadness over injustice outweighs their fear. The fear never really goes away but the urge to help is stronger than it.