As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, we are reminded of the extraordinary, intrepid and heroic woman throughout history who have stood up against gender injustices.
Woman such as Mother Theresa, who devoted her life to help the sick, needy and poor; or Yaa Asantewaa, a female Ghanaian warrior who led the rebellion against the British colonialism, whilst promoting the emancipation of women and gender equality. Many women throughout history have stood up to counteract injustices, in a time whereby the majority remained silent.
One such woman is Josephine Butler, a great social reformer, as well as Britain’s first recorded anti-prostitution campaigner.
Josephine was born into a wealthy and prominent family on the 13th April 1828. Her father, John Grey, was a strong advocate for social reform and a campaigner against the slave trade. He was a relative and confidant of Earl Grey, the British Prime Minister who helped to secure the passage of the first Reform Act in 1832.
Bravery, diligence, excellence and a passion for justice were formidable characteristics which ran through Josephine’s blood.
In 1852 Josephine married George Butler, a like-minded fellow libertarian, and couple had four children. Sadly, in 1864 tragedy struck and their youngest child, Eva, fell from a banister and died. In her grief, Josephine threw herself into working with vulnerable women. She campaigned on behalf of prostitutes, determined to provide them with an alternative source of income.
Through Josephine’s strong conviction that women at every level of society as a whole, should be treated fairly she:
- became president of the North of England Higher Education Council of women, establishing the first university level lectures in the North of England (1866)
- became the secretary of the Ladies National Association for Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866 and 1869). The act permitted the police to detain any women suspected of prostitution in military towns and examine her for any sexually transmitted infection on pain of imprisonment if she refused, detaining her in a hospital if found to have an STI. The examination involved a speculum forcibly inserted into the vagina - women described the procedure as ‘instrumental rape’. Josephine fought and won against the infringement of civil rights against women, in which the act was abolished.
- campaigned against child prostitution in London, utilising the Pall Mall Gazette newspaper. The sensational research and headlines from the newspaper ensured that the facts of child prostitution were exposed and became public knowledge. At that time the age of consent was 13, but within a few weeks of her headlines, parliament voted to raise the age of consent to 16.
The determination, courage and compassion displayed throughout Josephine’s life, is a testament to her resilience and overwhelming perseverance to turn her pain into purpose.
Josephine was a woman of action and where she saw injustice she responded, campaigning hard, even when she was threatened by men who didn’t want the changes she brought about to happen. Countless numbers of women and children benefitted from the changes in laws that Josephine mobilised.
There is so much we can learn from Josephine’s pursuit for justice and her willingness to stand up for those in vulnerable positions. For us at acet UK, from supporting the Shining Star project in Zimbabwe, where our colleagues come alongside girls and women engaged in sex work to provide them with alternative options to earn a living, to our education work with girls and boys in the London Borough of Southwark, we are inspired by Josephine’s actions and honour her as we celebrate International Women’s Day.