Josephine Butler

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Josephine Butler

Brief Biography

Josephine Grey was born in Milfield, Northumberland to Hannah Annett Grey and John Grey (Boyd 23) .  Her parents were wealthy leaders and landlords.  They believed in liberal principles based on Evangelical piety.  There is no formal account of her childhood, however, she gives insight into it through her biography on her father: Memoir of John Grey of Dilston (Boyd 23).  Josephine did not have a normal childhood as her parents took her to many of their political activities from a very young age.  They were a very close family and were seldom apparent.  John Grey was a strong advocate for women's rights (Boyd 24).  He believed that men and women were equal in the eyes of God.  He achieved much in his lifetime including petitions for the abolition of slavery and he often expressed his feelings that the franchise should be extended (Boyd 25).  He made sure that Josephine was taught not only in politics and intellect but also drawing, sports, and music (Boyd 27).  In 1850 Josephine met George Butler and became Josephine Butler within the year (Boyd 31).  She left one politically free and gender equality home to enter another.  Her husband did not require her to stay at home and raise children.  He encouraged Josephine to seek what she wanted with her life.  They had a very happy marriage.  

Butler struggled to get her views heard.  As a female in a male dominated society, her opinions were often ignored.  This helped her to understand how other women were mistreated in Great Britain.  In 1857, the Butlers moved to Cheltenham (Boyd 35).  Reportedly, they moved due to ill health.  Butler was often said to have suffered from weak lungs throughout her life.  In 1863, Eva, one of Butler's four children, fell down the stairs and tragically died (Boyd 35).  Her death made a large impact on Josephine's beliefs of good and evil.  Because of the loss of her daughter who was said to resemble her, she felt the need to find a purpose in life.  Josephine began to do missionary work helping out the less fortunate.  Although this was not acceptable in her society, she ignored the criticism and continued to work.  Yet still Josephine was not content.  She decided to search out the reasons of poverty (Boyd 38).  It was then that she became interested in women becoming prostitutes.  Josephine was able to convince the Committee of the Workhouse to open a hostel for women where the women worked first at sewing and later at an envelope factory (Boyd 39) .

Josephine continued with her work for women's rights and was asked to present a petition with 800 signatures for the admittance of women into universities (Boyd 39).  Her work here was interrupted when a friend requested her to lead the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act of 1866 (Boyd 39).  The Contagious Disease Act was an attempt by the government to control the up rise of venereal disease through state inspections of prostitutes (Boyd 40).  Josephine started her campaign by appealing to the poor.  She published a manifesto in the Daily News opposing the act (Boyd 42).  She began to travel through towns lecturing on the evils of the act.  In 1883 the act was repealed (Boyd 44).  She then decided to continue with her crusade with prostitution and traveled to Paris in order to take up protest there (Boyd 48).  From Paris she traveled throughout Europe, often lecturing and investigating the situations.  Due partly to Josephine's actions the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was passed.  This bill made punishments for engaging with prostitutes higher and raised the age of consent from 12 to 16 (Boyd 51).

Soon after this success, Josephine disappeared from public life.  Her personal life needed her attention; her husband had become very ill and often needed attention.  Sadly, George died in 1890 and Josephine never fully recovered from the loss (Boyd 51).  Her interests in the avocation of women never fully ended as she continued to encourage others to continue with her work.  Josephine Butler died on December 29th 1906 (Boyd 52).


Primary Sources

Butler, Josephine.  The Constitution Violate.  Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 1871.

Butler, Josephine and Elizabeth Grey.  A Grave Question That Needs Answering by the Churches of Great Britain. London: Dyer, 1880.

Butler, Josephine and Elizabeth Grey.  Catharine of Siena: A Biography.  London: Horace Marshall & Son, 1895.

Butler, Josephine and Elizabeth Grey.  Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade. London: Horace Marshall & Son, 1983.

Butler, Josephine.  The Hour Before Dawn.  London: Trubner, 1876.

Butler, Josephine.  In Memoriam Harriet Meuricoffre.  London: Horace Marshall & Son, 1901.

Butler, Josephine.  The Lady of Shunem.  London: Horace Marshall & Son, 1894.

Butler, Josephine.  Memoir of John Grey of Dilston. London: Henry S. King & Co., 1874.

Butler, Josephine.  Recollections of George Butler.  Bristol: Arrowsmith, 1892.

Butler, Josephine.  The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness.  Paris: Sandoz, 1875.

Secondary Sources

Bell, Moberly, E.  Josephine Butler: Flame of Fire. London: Constable, 1962.

Boyd, Nancy.  Three Victorian Women Who Changed Their World: Josephine Butler, Octavia Hill, Florence Nightingale. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Fawcett, Millicent and Turner E. M.  Josephine Butler: Her Work and Principles, and Their Meaning for the Twentieth Century. London: The Association for Moral & Social Hygiene, 1927.

Hay, Cooper, L. Josephine Butler and her Work for Social Purity. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1922.

Jordan, Jay.  Josephine Butler. London: John Murray, 2001.

Nolland, Lisa Severine.  Josephine Butler and the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (1883/1886): Motivations and Larger Vision of Victorian Feminist.  Bristol: University of Bristol, 2001.

Petrie, Glen.  A Singular Iniquity: The Campaigns of Josephine Butler.  London: Macmillan, 1971.

Turner, E. M. Josephine Butler: An Appreciation. Westminster: Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, 1927.

Williamson, Joseph.  Josephine Butler, the Forgotten Saint. Leighton: Faith Press, 1977.


Available Images


                                         Family Portrait

Josephine Butler Memorial House 

  Prepared by Claire Drake (2004)

Nipissing University
Contact:  Professor Ann-Barbara Graff
Department of English Studies
Last modified: November 08, 2004