Josephine Butler - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Josephine Butler



By Jane Jordan. Bloomsbury: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007. ISBN-13: 978-1847250452.




The Contagious Diseases (CD) Acts were a series of legislative acts passed by the British Parliament beginning in 1864.  Though initially supported by the majority of the British voting population, the CD Acts eventually came to be seen as legal regulation of prostitution (which was illegal) and as invasive on the rights of women.  One of the most active proponents of the repeal of the CD Acts was Josephine Butler.  She is often seen as the main reason for the repeal of this legislation-a view supported by Jane Jordan in her book  Josephine Butler.  In this biographical work, Jordan attempts to shed new light on both the political and, perhaps more importantly, the personal character of this extraordinary woman.


The biography  is presented in chronological order of Josephine Butler’s life, which is a highly effective way to organize this work for the reader.  By arranging the biography in this way, Jordan is able to present Butler’s life as a series of events leading up to her civic activism.  This allows the reader to learn about little-known aspects of Butler’s personal life and how they affected her later crusades for women’s rights.  The book begins by discussing Butler’s immediate family around the time of her birth, with special attention being given to the role of her father, John Grey.  Jordan points out that Grey was heavily guided by his mother, and that this likely had a great deal to do with, “…his moral influence over his children and, particularly, with the encouragement he gave his wife and daughters to take an interest in the political life of the country” (7).  Therefore, from the outset  Jordan attempts  to tie Butler’s civic engagement to her family and their personal influence on her moral beliefs.


This emphasis on the familial influence continues into Butler’s early adulthood, when  her husband, George Butler, is introduced.  According to Jordan, George Butler helped form Josephine’s views on women’s rights regarding marriage, as he insisted that she, “…accept his vision of what a marriage should be: ‘namely, a perfectly equal union, with absolute freedom on both sides for personal initiative in thought and action and for individual development’. Again, he stressed that he had no authority to make decisions for her…” (25). This focus on George Butler, as well as the focus on John Grey, helps the reader to see Josephine Butler’s activist attitude in a different light.  By showcasing the mindset of the two most important male figures in Butler’s life, Jordan illustrates to the reader that Butler’s political views and activism did not appear out of thin air; there is also the strong possibility that had these two men not been so liberal in their views, the Josephine Butler we read about today may not have even existed.  This is one of the most important ideas put forth by Jordan-to place more emphasis  on the male influences of Butler’s life, as they are one of the main factors leading her to delve into campaigning for women’s rights.  Had her father and her husband been less  accepting of independent women and women’s rights in general, Butler would not have been able to enter the political world so successfully when she did.  Jordan also goes so far as to devote a chapter of the biography to George in order to demonstrate the ways in which he actively supported his wife, which at times undermined his own career.  Her family’s position (due to both her father and her husband) also played a major role in her politicking.  Had they not been of a respectable middle class lineage, Butler would have had neither the time nor the financial ability to pursue her looking after of poor young girls and fallen women.


The third chapter of this work is one of the most important to Jordan, though to most it would seem mundane.  It focuses solely on Eva, the Butler’s youngest daughter, and the impact  she had on her mother’s life, religious views, and her eventual work with underprivileged young women.  In 1864, Eva died at five years old after falling from the second floor banister inside the family home.  After this, Jordan discusses the fact that Josephine’s religious fervor, and indeed her entire outlook on life were transformed after this heartbreaking accident.  Derived from Butler’s correspondence, Jordan posits that both George and Josephine saw Eva’s death as “…part of the divine order of things,” and Josephine came to see this as specifically a work of the devil-not of God (57).  Her diary from that year is (significantly) the first surviving specific mention by Josephine of her realization of the sufferings of prostitutes (65).  Also, it is important to note that, once she began personally ministering to these prostitutes, Butler made connections between them and Eva.  She wrote, “I have a certain feeling that the love and the sacred souls of these poor girls are given to us in return for the loss of little Eva…” and goes so far as to reach out to a young girl specifically because “…she so strongly resembled our Eva in the face” (69). Jordan uses the incident of Eva’s death to demonstrate the turning point in Butler’s religious and political life.  Her tying together of Eva’s death with Butler’s need to help destitute young women also makes the reader wonder what (if anything) would have occurred had Eva not perished.  Would Josephine Butler have even campaigned for these women?  This is another main point that Jordan seems to be making throughout her biography-the idea that personal incidents in Butler’s life led her to pursue the life that she did, which is a refreshingly new way to help the reader understand the motivating force behind her zeal for the repeal of the CD Acts.


The remainder of the biography focuses largely on the details surrounding the campaigning for the repeal of the CD Acts.  What Jordan does that is intriguing is she ties Butler’s campaigns to the larger picture of society.  Through Butler’s letters, pamphlets, petitions, etc., Jordan demonstrates the changing attitudes of society by including personal reactions from different people.  While this is not a new way to study an event in history, it is new in the idea that it includes everyone: upper and lower classes, men and women.  Jordan does not rely on statements from MPs in order to show the reader how the law was changed, she uses reactions from everyone: from the prostitutes themselves to James Stansfeld to newspaper editors.  This enables the reader to really get a feel for the popular politics of the time while still focusing on the life of Josephine Butler.


Despite the thorough history outlined in Josephine Butler, there are some known issues, especially regarding the research performed on the topic.  In fact, the reader is alerted to the most prominent issue by Jordan herself, when she states in her introduction (regarding written accounts of Butler) that, “…much of her personal life is excluded, and can only be pieced together by reference to her correspondence” (4). While it is perfectly reasonable to use letters or correspondence as a form of primary source research, it can become problematic when that is one of the only methods of research that is employed by the writer.  This is especially true because the researcher must, in some cases, infer the attitudes or moods of those corresponding with one another, which can lead to incorrect assumptions.


In spite of the issues mentioned above, Jordan does a commendable job in presenting the life and work of Josephine Butler.  She manages to shed new light on Butler’s personal life, which, in turn, helps her to present new ideas regarding the background and nature of Butler’s activism.  Josephine Butler is  a helpful work to read in conjunction with a course on nineteenth century British civic engagement, as it illustrates the differing and changing views among both men and women of the upper class-especially regarding women’s rights.  It is also beneficial to the reader because there are very few works written about Josephine Butler from a personal viewpoint; published works about this figure almost always focus exclusively on her political achievements.  While these achievements are important to study, it is equally important to study the woman behind the campaign and why and how these achievements came about as they did.  In Josephine Butler, Jane Jordan has focused on the woman behind the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts-a new approach which helps the reader understand the evolution of personal support for women’s rights among men and women across multiple classes of society.


Katherine Soule
Armstrong State University



About the author

Katherine graduated from Armstrong with a History B.A. in December 2012. She wants to be a professor emphasizing in world history, specifically Africa and Asia, and human rights and genocide. She likes chocolate, turtles and long walks on the beach.



Recommended citation

Katherine Soule, review of Josephine Butler, by Jane Jordan, Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 3, no. 2 (April 2013).

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