December 31 – Josephine Butler

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Josephine Butler, renewer of society

Josephine Butler was born on 13 April 1828 in Northumberland. Her father John Grey was a strong advocate of social reform and a campaigner against the slave trade. His cousin was Earl Grey, British prime minister between 1830 and 1834.

John Grey’s family were members of the Church of England, and strong supporters of the anti-slavery campaign.  The Grey children learned early about the horrors of slavery and Josephine’s first feminist instincts were aroused by the terrible stories of female slaves made pregnant by their masters and then forced to give up their babies.  The girls were educated at home by their mother, and Josephine had only a few years of formal schooling.  Despite that, as an adult she was a prolific writer of books and pamphlets, and became a competent speaker of both French and Italian.

The Grey siblings remained close throughout their lives, even when marriage took two of the sisters to live abroad.  Their political and Christian commitments inspired them to become involved in a number of philanthropic campaigns, but Josephine was the most dedicated and the most persistent.  Her faith was also an overwhelming motivation for all she did – at 17 she had an experience of conversion which led her to prioritise daily prayer and bible study throughout her life.

Josephine married George Butler in 1852. He was an academic with similar political views to her own. Together they had four children but in 1863, their six-year old daughter died. In an attempt to cope with her grief, Butler threw herself into charity work, particularly related to the rights of women. Amongst the issues on which she campaigned was child prostitution. She was part of a group which forced parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16.

In 1869, Butler began her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts. These had been introduced in the 1860s in an attempt to reduce venereal disease in the armed forces. Police were permitted to arrest women living in seaports and military towns who they believed were prostitutes and force them to be examined for venereal disease. Butler toured the country making speeches condemning the acts. Many people were shocked that a woman would speak in public about sexual matters. But in 1883 the acts were suspended and repealed three years later.

Butler also took a great interest in women’s education. She pressured the authorities at Cambridge University into providing further education courses for women, which eventually led to the foundation of the all-women college at Newnham. She was appointed president to the North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women in 1867.

Butler’s writing – promoting social reform for women as well as education and equality – was widely distributed. Her most famous publication ‘Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade’ was written in 1896.

Butler died on 30 December 1906.

Peter Gador-Whyte