A brief introduction to the life of Josephine Butler

Josephine Elizabeth Grey was born in Northumberland in 1828, to a wealthy and prominent family. Educated at home in English and Italian literature and the works of the Church Fathers, she was also strongly influenced by her father’s passion for social reform and hatred of injustice. When she married George Butler, then a tutor at Oxford, in 1852, she found a like mind, and together over the course of their lives they supported the abolition of slavery, showed concern for the socially disadvantaged, and argued for better rights for marginalized women.

Living first at Oxford, then at Cheltenham College, the Butlers had four children, the youngest of whom, Eva, died at the age of six after falling from the banisters at the top of their stairs. Her daughter’s death left a deep scar in Josephine Butler, and it was particularly in the aftermath of this tragedy that she appears to have turned more to social campaigning on behalf of prostitutes, and promoting education and moral reform.

The family moved to Liverpool in 1866 when George, who was by then ordained in the Church of England, was invited to become the new headmaster of Liverpool College. Still suffering from grief and from the depression which would recur throughout her life, Josephine threw herself into working with women in the local workhouse, hoping, as she wrote, to “find some pain keener than my own – to meet with people more unhappy than myself.” She had no clear plan, other than to help: “my sole wish,” she explained, “was to plunge into the heart of some human misery, and to say (as I now knew I could) to afflicted people, “I understand. I, too, have suffered.” As a result of rescuing many young girls from the workhouse, and either finding them homes or taking them into her own household, Josephine worked to set up her own refuge, believing it to be a divine calling.

Josephine Butler’s practical work fed into her own writing, and her first published article, The Education and Employment of Women, was followed by Women’s Work and Women’s Culture. In 1867, having met Anne Jemima Clough, sister of the poet A.H.Clough, she began campaigning for better educational provision for women, becoming president of the North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women. Despite her own ill-health, she also travelled to Cambridge to persuade the University to allow women’s admission to study there, and to set up a college (Newnham College) exclusively for women.

After a tour of Switzerland in 1869, intended to improve her health, Josephine became aware of European policies designed to regulate prostitution, and of Britain’s own recently passed Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869. These laws, which effectively legalized the sex trade, sought to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the army and navy and required all women living near garrison towns and naval ports to submit to registration and regular internal examination. In 1870 Josephine became leader of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, arguing against the presumption of guilt on the part of the women, and seeking instead both to question the morality of the men involved and to bring them to account for their behaviour. She travelled the country, speaking with incredible force and passion, sometimes putting herself in danger, surprising many with her candour on the taboo subjects of prostitution and sexual morality. Her husband supported her campaigns, despite warnings that it would damage his academic career.

George and Josephine moved to Winchester in 1882 where he took up a canonry at the cathedral. Josephine had soon opened up a new House of Rest for women who temporarily needed care and shelter, and continued her campaigning work, offending both Church of England members by her outspokenness, and atheists among the repeal movement by her strong faith. But Parliament did finally repeal the contagious Diseases Acts in 1886, and laws which in effect also enslaved women into prostitution in Switzerland, Holland, Norway, France, and Italy were similarly repealed or reformed because of her influence.

In March 1890, after a few years of ill health, during which he was faithfully cared for by his wife, George Butler died. Josephine, herself still in poor health, settled in London, but continued travelling to see family, and to campaign in Switzerland and Italy. She also wrote a biography of George, a Life of St Catherine of Siena (1898), various tracts,and her own memoirs, Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade (1896). Unsettled and often lonely, struggling with the deaths of her sister, brother-in-law, and others close to her, as well as with her own weakness and insomnia, she moved to live with her son George on his estate at Galewood in Northumberland, where, on Sunday 30th December 1906, she died. She was buried nearby at the little church in Kirknewton on January 3rd 1907.

Although Millicent Fawcett described Josephine Butler as “the most distinguished woman of the Nineteenth Century” she has not perhaps been as widely known as she deserves. Her major political impact in securing the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, her work in improving education for women, and her personal support for women on the edges of society, all made her a major force for social change in this period. An enduring example of Christian social radicalism, she is also a model of a pioneering feminist, daring to speak out publicly, and to seek equal rights for women of all classes and in all social situations.



Jane Jordan, Josephine Butler (London: John Murray, 2001).

Ingrid Sharp and Jane Jordan, eds., Diseases of the Body Politic: Josephine Butler and the Prostitution Campaigns (London: Routledge, 2002).