Leigh Denton studied English Literature and Fine Art before becoming a litigation lawyer in Sydney, Australia. She maintains an interest in Victorian and Edwardian social history and blogs on this subject at downstairscook.blogspot.com. She currently lives in a coastal region north of Sydney and divides her time between writing, lawyering, travelling and beachgoing.
content warning: sexual assault, surgical rape
Could a woman born into an upper-class family in the mid-19th century, schooled at home and raised to be devoutly religious be dangerous? If that woman’s name was Josephine Butler, the answer is definitely “yes.”
The danger with Josephine was that she was not afraid to call a spade a spade, and that she was forthright and vocal on a subject many men of her time did not want to hear about publicly: their sexual lives.
Speaking out thus, in pamphlets and public lectures where she did not shy away from outlining the procedures employed by police and doctors under the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 – 1869 in shocking and graphic detail, earned her odium and disapprobation. But she continued doing so until these Acts were finally repealed in 1886.
Josephine Butler was born in 1828 to a father who treated all his children equally and a mother who gave her a strong Christian faith. Hers was an affluent family with strong connections to prominent figures such as the reformist Prime Minister Lord Grey, her father’s cousin, and Lord Wilberforce, with whom her grandfather worked on the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. She was schooled at home and developed a political and social conscience early in life before marrying George Butler, a fellow libertarian who supported her later reform work.
Josephine first threatened the social order in Great Britain by joining forces with Elizabeth Wolstenholme to form the Married Women’s Property Committee to seek reform of the law of coverture which gave a married man full control over all property his wife owned at the time of their marriage. Their campaign led eventually to the enacting of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882.
But it was Josephine’s strident and thunderous condemnation of the criminal acts sanctioned by the Contagious Diseases Acts that really earned her widespread opposition from men. She considered prostitution to be abuse or exploitation of one sex by the other and was fearless in describing the barbaric practices employed by doctors and policemen under this legislation in forcibly examining women internally they merely suspected of engaging in prostitution. Men were not examined.
The Contagious Diseases Acts were introduced in an attempt to halt the spread of venereal disease in the Army and Navy and groups of plain-clothed policemen regularly hauled in women they deemed to fit the definition of “common prostitute”, which under the legislation was broad and vague.
The examinations were brutal and could not be more harrowing than in the case of “Nancy”, a 13-year-old girl whose widowed mother took in washing from the Navy garrison in Southampton to make ends meet. Nancy collected and delivered the washing and one day was arrested by a policeman who had observed her going to and fro and upon searching her pockets, found threepence. She was marched into a police cell while a doctor was summoned. He quickly came and asked if she could write her name. When she said she could, he thrust a piece of paper and said ‘Write it here.’ She did so, unknowingly giving consent to be examined. She was forcibly restrained on an examination table by the policeman pulling her skirts up over her head and tying them underneath, effectively binding and gagging her. Her feet were placed in stirrups. The doctor began his examination for signs of venereal disease by repeatedly thrusting a metal speculum into her vagina, and then a long-handled forceps in order to grab hold of her cervix so it could be examined. The examination took 45 minutes, when it should have taken only two or three and amounted to nothing less than instrumental torture and surgical rape.
Nancy, when she was first bound and gagged, had thrashed around in confusion and terror, managing to throw the upper half of her body off the table. Hanging by her legs, one of her lower vertebrae was crushed against the metal edge of the table, an injury from which she never recovered.
She was found to be clean and issued with a certificate to this effect. Her distraught mother, knowing it was futile to complain to the police about the incident, as the men had acted entirely within the law, wrote to the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, also founded by Josephine and Elizabeth Wolstenholme, and received a visit from Josephine herself.
She advised that Nancy needed to leave Southampton at once, as she was at risk of being seized and re-examined again. Josephine promised to find a position for her and so Nancy became lady’s maid to the daughter of a baronet who later became a nun: the nun referred to as Sister Monica Joan by Jennifer Worth in her memoir Call the Midwife. Nancy’s back was severely injured and she was cringing and traumatised; she worked for the future Sister until she was 24, when she died of tuberculosis of the spine.
Josephine, in her continued campaign to have the right to perform these examinations overthrown, wrote letters to all and sundry containing detailed accounts women had given her of the horrors to which they had been subjected. One such letter containing the following account was sent to Dr. J.J. Garth Wilkinson, a Swedenborgian and homeopathist with a practice in London:
“THE ATTITUDE THEY PUSH US INTO FIRST IS DISGUSTING AND SO PAINFUL, AND THEN THESE MONSTROUS INSTRUMENTS – OFTEN THEY USE SEVERAL. THEY SEEM TO TEAR THE PASSAGE OPEN FIRST WITH THEIR HANDS, AND EXAMINE US, AND THEN THEY THRUST IN INSTRUMENTS, AND THEY PULL THEM OUT AND PUSH THEM IN AND TWIST THEM ABOUT AND IF YOU CRY OUT THEY STIFLE YOU WITH A TOWEL OVER YOUR FACE.”
Dr Wilkinson annexed Josephine’s letter (which used capital letters as above) to the pamphlet he published in 1870 entitled Forcible Introspection of Women for the Army and Navy by the Oligarchy Considered Physically,and Josephine was no less sparing in detail when she addressed public meetings called to raise support for the reform of a law she saw as benefitting men while victimising women.
And Josephine, despite being described by a journalist as “an indecent maenad, a shrieking sister, frenzied, unsexed, utterly without shame” was effective. By 1871, an MP said to her “Your manifesto has shaken us very badly in the House of Commons: a leading man in the House remarked to me, ‘We know how to manage any other opposition in the House or in the country, but this is very awkward for us, this revolt of women’.”
Awkward indeed. Josephine had struck at the core of the double standard that said men could only satisfy their sexual desires with the prostitute class rather than The Angel in the House who tended their home and children. This double standard said prostitutes preyed on men for financial gain, with hapless males as their victims, as such women both aroused and gratified desire.
Josephine was nothing if not persistent. Her initial attempts to have the Contagious Diseases Acts repealed came to naught, but in 1883 the forcible examinations were suspended. Three years later, the Acts were repealed.
Josephine did not stop there, however. In 1885, she persuaded W.T. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette to help her expose child prostitution and its associated trade of the selling of young girls to brothels on the continent. He obliged by purchasing a 13-year-old girl for five pounds from her mother in a slum in Marylebone and took her with him to France. A few days after the publication of an article in his newspaper detailing this escapade and exposing the extent of child prostitution in London, Josephine gave a speech calling for increased child protection and the raising of the age of consent. The next month, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 which raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 and made it a criminal offence to both procure young girls for prostitution by fraud, intimidation or drugs and abduct girls aged under 18 for the purpose of carnal knowledge. Josephine showed again she was a force to be reckoned with.
Was this middle-aged genteel lady, wife of a schoolmaster and clergyman, dangerous? She was an agent of progress, certainly. She was also a threat to the established order, as she dared to tell men they needed to change in the male dominated society of mid-19th century Britain.
A dangerous woman by any stretch of the imagination.
Josephine Butler and the Prostitution Campaigns: Diseases of the Body Politic. Ed. Jane Jordan & Ingrid Sharp, 2003, Routledge, pp. 22, 35.
A Heroine for Our Age. Julie Bindel, 22 September 2006, The Guardian.
Josephine Butler 1828 – 1906. Claire Jones, 5 July 2012, Herstoria.
Farewell to the East End. Jennifer Worth, 2009, Phoenix, pp. 69–72.
The Angel in the House: Title of a poem by Coventry Patmore, first published in 1854, which became the description that characterised the Victorian woman’s role.