Josephine Butler: the forgotten feminist who fought the UK police – and their genital inspections

<span>Josephine Butler, campaigner against the sexual exploitation of women.</span><span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Josephine Butler, campaigner against the sexual exploitation of women.Photograph: Alamy

What went through the mind of Josephine Butler in 1869 as she decided to throw herself into a stormy national debate? When she agreed to lead efforts to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts – CD Acts for short – she was in her early 40s, had lost her only beloved daughter in a tragic accident and was already involved in what was known as “rescue work”; she had employed a woman freed from Newgate prison after serving a sentence for infanticide.

In her memoir, Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade, Butler described her deliberations as filled with angst. She and her husband, a headteacher in Liverpool, knew it would harm his career. But neither was in doubt that the acts had to be fought. They gave the police the power to carry out compulsory genital examinations of women they believed to be prostitutes – but not their male customers. If the women refused to be checked, they were sentenced to jail with hard labour. If found to have a venereal disease, they were forcibly detained in a “lock hospital”.

The point was to prevent venereal infections among soldiers and sailors, and initially the laws applied only in garrison and port towns. But reformers objected to measures they saw as illiberal, immoral and more likely to spread disease than inhibit it, since they did nothing to limit infected men’s sexual activity. Even before 1864, when the first act was introduced, the political economist and anti-slavery writer Harriet Martineau had called on women to “lift up your voices within your homes and neighbourhoods” against this “curse” on the nation. Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, one of the first female doctors in Britain and an early advocate of sex education, was another ally, who was angered by the failure of the law to “check licentiousness” in men while penalising women. Women in prostitution themselves dreaded the laws for obvious reasons, and the suicide by drowning of one woman persecuted by police became a cause celebre.

A National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts was formed in Bristol in 1869, followed soon afterwards by a separate Ladies’ National Association (LNA). With Butler at the helm, the campaign dramatically ramped up.

In 1870, the LNA seized the chance of a byelection in Colchester. Sir Henry Storks was the Liberal candidate and a former governor of Malta, where he had introduced similar laws. He was also on record as arguing that the acts should be applied to soldiers’ wives – a suggestion which appalled Butler, who took it as proof that the acts were an insult to all women and potentially the start of something even more broadly threatening.

Convinced that MPs had deliberately avoided publicity when the laws were passed, Butler and her supporters organised prayer meetings and gave out thousands of leaflets. This provoked a furious response and repealers were repeatedly attacked. Butler was forced to hide from an angry crowd in a grocer’s cellar, and to leave a hotel in which she had booked under a false name in the middle of the night. But when the votes were counted, it was clear that the bold tactics had succeeded. Storks lost.

When the “first wave” of feminism is referred to, it is usually suffragettes that people have in mind. Less often remembered is that this was not the first time the British women’s movement rejected the reformers’ tactics of petitions, letters and lobbies in favour of a much more direct challenge.

Butler said the coalition of police, military and courts that promoted the CD Acts was ‘a diabolical triple power’

In a single year, Butler addressed more than 100 public meetings and travelled nearly 4,000 miles. Millicent Fawcett, the non-militant suffragist, wrote in 1928 that “it is perhaps almost impossible for us to realise today how much courage and conviction was needed for a woman to challenge public opinion on this topic”. On one occasion, a gathering in a hay loft was attacked by arsonists. Butler’s physical bravery in the face of violent intimidation, as well as her philanthropic efforts on behalf of the young women she saw as victims of a cruel trade, deeply impressed her followers. But while prostitution, then as now, was a combustible subject, Butler’s arguments went far beyond the traditional Christian objection to sex outside marriage.

At the root of her determination to overthrow the laws lay her conviction that they violated women’s civil rights. In speeches and writing, she cited the principle of habeas corpus – the prohibition of unlawful imprisonment – that she saw as fundamental to the British constitution. While advocates of women’s rights had long recognised the myriad ways in which women were disadvantaged, the repeal campaign was the first time that the forceful and legal operation of a sexual double standard was publicly challenged by women themselves. The coalition of police, military and courts that promoted the CD Acts, Butler told supporters, was “a diabolical triple power”; the forcible inspection of genitals was itself an assault.

Evidence heard by a Royal Commission pointed to the different way of doing things in Sweden. There, free advice and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases were offered in clinics to all who sought them. This, rather than unrealistic demands for total abstinence, was the model proposed by the reformers – and one far closer to a modern public health approach.

MPs chose to retain the status quo whereby men could legally have sex with children

But such progressive notions were ignored, as was a recommendation that the age of protection (consent) be increased from 12 to 14. Instead, MPs chose to retain the status quo whereby men could legally have sex with children (which we would now call rape; the age was raised to 13 in 1875). It took more than a decade of campaigning by more than 100 local groups, and many years’ worth of evidence showing that the acts had failed to curb disease, before parliament backed a motion to suspend them in 1883. Butler was in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons, where women were allowed to watch from behind a screen, when the cheer went up.

This was not the end of the CD Acts agitation. Butler began campaigning against a similar regime operated by colonial authorities in India, while in London the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, William Thomas Stead, stage-managed a stunt. Scandalised by lurid tales of girls being trafficked into what was then called the “white slave trade”, Stead set out to buy a teenager himself. Having paid an intermediary to find a couple who were prepared to part with their daughter for a fee, he spirited her off to Paris. With the girl, Eliza Armstrong, placed in a safe house, he announced what he had done on billboards bearing the slogan “Five pounds for a virgin warranted pure”, and a series of front pages. The outraged public reaction, with crowds in the streets, led to the raising of the age of consent to 16 just weeks later, and a huge demonstration in Hyde Park. A year later, the CD Acts were repealed for good.

Stead was charged with abduction and sent to prison. That same year, he founded a National Vigilance Association (NVA). Initially supportive, Butler became disenchanted as its rhetoric became more puritanical and coercive. While repealers opposed prostitution and supported women in exiting it, their primary target had always been the control granted to police.

As prosecutions of brothel-keepers and women in prostitution increased, she and allies set up a rival group, the Personal Rights Association, which issued warnings to “Beware of Purity Societies”. As the rift grew, they derided vigilance campaigners as “stampers on vulnerable people”.

In the 1870s, tens of thousands of women turned to prostitution due to the lack of alternatives. Often lacking even basic schooling, women were formally barred from many forms of paid work, entry to the professions and university education. Married women existed under the legal doctrine of “coverture”, which meant they belonged to their husbands and, legally speaking, had no separate existence: they could not sign contracts and could only own property under complex trust arrangements. Mothers had far fewer rights over their children than fathers, and poor single women – whether unmarried or widowed – often lacked any means of support. While Butler had signed one of the first suffrage petitions, women were still nearly half a century off being allowed to vote.

Her analysis of prostitution was socioeconomic: when women have no income and nothing else to sell, they will sell themselves. Hence the campaign’s efforts to promote training, employment and housing (her first published article was about education and jobs, not the sale of sex). While deeply religious and committed to chastity as an ideal for men as well as women – a deeply old-fashioned notion by modern standards, influenced both by the lack of birth control and risks of childbirth – she was not narrow-minded in the manner of some peers. One of her friends, Elizabeth Wolstenholme, lived for years in an unmarried “free union”.

Now, 150 years later, we can easily see the limitations of a campaign against sexist double standards that did nothing to challenge racist ones. We can recognise the grim irony in Butler’s patriotic pride in civil liberties, given the bloody “scramble for Africa” that was about to begin, and see that the label “white slavery” was a perverse form of appropriation – given that the Atlantic slave trade had featured sex trafficking of black women and girls on a vast and horrifying scale.

Butler did not call herself a feminist – the word was hardly in use in her lifetime. Today, a reference to the famous feminist “J Butler” would be far more likely to indicate Judith, the American philosopher, than Josephine, the English reformer. But her legacy remains highly relevant. The abuse, by predatory men, of police powers to sexually exploit and harm women has rarely been a more live issue, after the rape and murder of Sarah Everard, the conviction of the serial rapist David Carrick and other similar cases. The more general failure of the criminal justice system to protect women from sexual violence has been a theme of feminists for decades.

Laws regarding prostitution remain contentious and the vast scale of the online sex industry, particularly pornography, has pushed the issue of commercial sex and the violence associated with it back to the fore. While liberals and libertarians believe people should be free to hire out their bodies for sexual purposes if they choose to, radical feminists think the selling of sex is inherently exploitative, dangerous and conducive to a culture in which male sexual entitlement is the norm. Last year, the home affairs select committee recommended the outlawing of pimping websites and said the government should consider criminalising all acts of paying for sex – while decriminalising soliciting to protect trafficking victims. Meanwhile senior police officers have warned that violent pornography is contributing to a “hugely concerning” rise in child abuse.

I used to lean towards the legalisation and regulation of prostitution, but changed my mind. The huge boost to the sex industry from digital technology is taking human societies to some dark places, which I think humanitarians as well as feminists should strenuously resist. Like the Labour MP Diana Johnson, the sociologist Sylvia Walby and others, I now think much more should be done to curb third-party profits from the sale of sex.

My objections are not religious. But you don’t have to share Butler’s Christian faith to appreciate its importance. Like some of her contemporaries, and later generations of civil rights activists, she drew on the teachings of Christ in setting out her sexually egalitarian philosophy and ethic of care. In later life she wrote a book about the 14th-century saint, Catharine of Siena.

Millicent Fawcett wrote that “no other woman in history has had such far-reaching influence”. Campaigners against the CD Acts did not set up the first women-only groups. But this was the first time that an autonomous women’s movement in Britain addressed itself so forcefully to a domestic political issue specifically on behalf of women and girls. It was a courageous challenge to the male-dominated institutions that feminists would come to know as the patriarchy – and an inspiring example of sisterhood’s strength.

• Sexed: A History of British Feminism by Susanna Rustin is published by Polity Press (£20) on 28 June. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply