an unexpected hero

This post follows firmly in my tradition of not getting round to talking about newspaper articles until ages after they were printed. This particular article was in the Guardian (well, where else) and it was about a nineteenth century social reformer called Josephine Butler, described by the writer, Julie Bindel, as one of feminism’s unsung heroes and the first publicly recognised feminist activist in Britain.

Josephine Butler (1828-1906) made her name by campaigning on a wide range of women’s rights issues. Prior to women even getting the vote, she was active in the cause of putting an end to exploitatative practices such as prostitution (including child prostitution), legalised brothels, and sex trafficking.

An example of her dedication and persistence was the 16-year fight against one particularly discriminatory piece of legislation – the Congatious Diseases Act of 1864, which aimed to stop the spread of venereal diseases amongst the armed forces. Apparently, “Under these laws, any woman in designated military towns could be forcibly investigated for venereal disease. It was decided that men would 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 article explains, “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 After winning that battle – the law was repealed in 1886 – Butler took the campaign to India, where women were being sold into prostitution by the British army.”

What was particularly interesting about this article in G2 was that the same woman (and the same biography of her by Jane Jordan) were featured in none other than the Christian Institute’s Update magazine of Summer 2006: Josephine Butler was in fact a Christian, determined that nobody should be treated as ‘scum,’ not even ‘fallen women,’ as “everyone is equal under God” – and living out her beliefs through letter writing, pamphleteering, and public speaking, as well as intensely practical measures which went to the lengths of taking women dying of disease into her own home, before she raised the funds to set up a separate, nondenominational refuge or ‘house of rest’ for desperate prostitutes.

I doubt that even I would always agree with the Guardian’s classification of people into the category of heroes, but this time I think it’s safe enough. The analysis of ‘sex work’ as exploitative and degrading is accepted both by this journalist and the Christian Institute’s researchers, and in both publications the point is made that, while Butler’s achievements were radical and progressive and brought huge benefits not just to women but society at large, they’re unfortunately under increasing threat of being dismantled now, only a couple of generations after Josephine Butler’s.

A quote from Butler herself to finish off:

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.

Julie Bindel’s article is worth the read if you have a minute, and the biography by Jane Jordan is on my wishlist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s