Josephine Elizabeth Butler (1828–30 December 1906) was a Victorian era feminist who was especially concerned with the welfare of prostitutes. She led the long campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts from 1869 to 1886.
She was born in the village of Milfield, Northumberland and was the daughter of John Grey and Hannah Annett. Her father was the cousin of the reformist British Prime Minister Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey and a slavery abolitionist himself. In 1833 he was appointed manager of the Dilston Estate, near Corbridge, Northumberland, and the family moved there.
Josephine married George Butler, a scholar and cleric, in 1852 and gave birth to four children. The Butlers had strong radical sympathies, including support for the Union in the American Civil War.
Her only daughter, Eva, died in 1863. This led Josephine to seek solace by ministering to people with greater pain than her own. Against her friends' and family's advice, she began visiting Liverpool's Brownlow Hill workhouse which led to her first involvement with prostitutes.
Josephine was, from her 20s on, very active in feminist movements. This was particularly spurred by the accidental death of her six-year-old daughter Eva in 1863 when the Butlers were living in Cheltenham. In 1866 George Butler was appointed headmaster of Liverpool College, and the family moved to Liverpool. Josephine now became involved in the campaign for higher education for women, and in 1867 together with Anne Jemima Clough, later principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, she was instrumental in establishing the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women. However, she had also been very closely involved with the welfare of prostitutes; as a passionate Christian, she abhorred the sin, but she also regarded the women as being exploited victims of male oppression, and she attacked the double standard of sexual morality. So when a national campaign was begun in 1869 to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts, she was an obvious woman to lead it.
The Contagious Diseases Acts had been introduced during the 1860s (1864, 1866, 1869) as a form of state regulation of prostitution, in order to control the spread of venereal diseases, especially in the British Army and Royal Navy. This gave magistrates the power to order a genital examination of prostitutes for symptoms of VD, and detain infected women in a lock hospital for three months to be cured. Refusal to consent to the examination led to imprisonment. An accusation of prostitution by a police officer was sufficient to order an examination; women so accused often lost their livelihoods, and notoriously, one woman committed suicide.
Butler's description of this at a public meeting reduced Hugh Price Hughes, Superintendent of the West London Mission who was thanking her formally on the platform to leave the stage in tears, something most unusual in those days and commented upon widely at the time.
The various Acts only applied to certain specified areas - ports and garrison towns - but in 1869 a campaign had been mooted to extend their operation over the whole of the British Isles. This led to vehement opposition from Christians, feminists and supporters of civil liberty and to the setting up of the Ladies' National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts; soon afterwards the scope of the campaign was broadened to include male supporters. Josephine threw all her energies into the campaign despite vilification and occasional physical assault, and the Acts were finally repealed in 1886.
In 1885 she was drawn into another related campaign led by the campaigning editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, William Thomas Stead. He had published a series of articles entitled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon exposing the extent of child prostitution in London. As a result of this campaign, the age of consent in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was raised from 13 to 16.
Josephine was also very active in spreading the campaign internationally, and travelled to the French Third Republic and Switzerland where she met with hostility from the authorities, and strong support from feminist groups. As a result of her efforts, international organisations including the International Abolitionist Federation that she was a founder of, were set up to campaign against state regulation of prostitution and the traffic in women and children. Also, in 1897 in British Raj India, new Contagious Diseases Acts were imposed by the British government, and she led a new campaign against this.
Meanwhile George had retired from Liverpool College and been made a Canon of Winchester Cathedral, and he died in 1890. Josephine continued campaigning until the early 1900s, and died in 1906.
Josephine Butler was not only a vehement feminist but a passionate Christian; she once said "God and one woman make a majority". In the Church of England she is celebrated with a Lesser Festival on 30 May. She is also represented in windows in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral, and St Olave's Church in the City of London.
In 2005, the University of Durham honoured her by naming Josephine Butler College for her. This reflects the fact that she was married to a Durham University lecturer, and was a local of the North-East.
Her connections to the UK city of Liverpool are also memorialized. One of the "Faculty of Business and Law" buildings of Liverpool John Moores University is named "Josephine Butler House". The building can be found opposite the famous Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool city centre.
Her house in Cheltenham, The Priory in London Road, was demolished in the 1970s. However, there remains a blue plaque on the apartment building which now occupies the site.