Josephine Butler

Josephine Butler

A Victorian social reformer and campaigner, Josephine Butler fought for women's rights in a society which expected women to not discuss the 'ills of the world'. 

  • Born: 13 April 1828
  • Field: Campaigner for women's rights.
  • Key moment: Delivered a petition signed by 300,000 women which succeeded in repealing the Contagious Diseases Acts.
A young Josephine Butler, with thanks to Liverpool University

A forerunner to the Woman's Suffrage Movement

Josephine Butler campaigned for social reform and women's rights, particularly for prostitutes.

A home-educated clergy man's wife, it would have been hard to imagine the vast impact of Butler's work; a forerunner of the Woman's Suffrage movement, leaving a legacy that changed the rights and lives of working class women and prostitutes forever.

Outraged at moral hypocrisy

Josephine Butler credited her Christian beliefs as a great factor in her commitment to humanitarian reform. Josephine married George Butler, a University Teacher and Clergyman in 1852.

Whilst living in Oxford, Josephine met many of the gentlemen of the University, and felt they imposed double standards on women. On one occasion Butler sat seething whilst they discussed the idea of women and promiscuity; declaring it a sin that was immensely worse in a woman than a man, deciding that a 'pure woman' should be completely unaware of 'a certain class of ills in the world'.


Supporting 'ruined' women

After this encounter, Butler resolved to speak 'little with men, and much with God'. She started to support and rehabilitate 'ruined' women, welcoming them into her home, including one young Mother who had been seduced and abandoned by an Oxford Don, and was now in Newgate Prison for the murder of her baby.

By 1864 The Butlers moved from Oxford, and Josephine continued her work, supporting 'ruined' women, bringing women from the streets, jails, and workhouses of Liverpool into her home, and working with them to create a better future for themselves, even setting up an envelope factory for the women to work at.


The Houses of Parliament. © Historic England Photo Library.

A petition signed by 300,000 women

In 1869 Josephine Butler joined the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, starting what would be her longest and most well-known battle for women's rights.

The Contagious Disease Act of 1864 was passed in secret and only affected women. It allowed for any woman suspected of being a 'common prostitute' to submit to an internal genital exam by a male doctor.

Butler helped to lead the fight against this act, ensuring women were aware of this bill that directly affected them, and encouraging women to stand up against it. She gained the support of many famous women, including Florence Nightingale.

In 1871 Butler delivered a petition calling for the act to be repealed to parliament. Signed by 300,000 women, the petition was so large it is said that there was not a table large enough to hold it. The bill was finally repealed in 1886.

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