Those currently debating the purpose of the voluntary sector and its strategies would benefit by studying a leader who died 100 years ago on 30 December, 1906. Josephine Butler was an unlikely friend of prostitutes but she had an impact on social policy.
Born in 1828 to wealthy parents, she married George Butler, an Oxford don. She seemed set for a conventional life but was gradually radicalised. Living in Oxford, she resented the arrogant and chauvinistic university staff. She was a feminist in the making. After ordination, George became vice-principal of Cheltenham College.
Then came tragedy. Their fourth child, Eva, fell from the top bannisters and was killed. Josephine determined to help those whose pain was keener than her own. Her talented husband was soon appointed head of a prestigious private school, Liverpool College. Josephine joined in campaigns to obtain the vote and higher education for women. But helping middle class women was not enough. At the Brownlow Hill Workhouse, she sat and picked yarn from old ropes with prostitutes and criminals who were drawn by her gentleness. With George’s backing, she took sick and dying prostitutes into her home and then opened a “House of Rest” – paying the rent herself.
In 1864-9, the government passed the Contagious Diseases Acts to reduce sexual disease among the armed forces. Women regarded as prostitutes had to submit to medical examinations and, if diseased, to hospitalisation. Those who refused could be imprisoned. Josephine led protests on the grounds that the laws punished women, not men, and condoned prostitution by making a “clean” supply available.
It took 20 years but eventually the acts were repealed by what historian Trevor Fisher calls “the first effective feminist campaign in British history”. She and her colleagues then proved that young girls were procured for wealthy men who lusted after virgins while others were smuggled to the continent as virtual slaves in brothels.
The outcome was the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) which raised the age of consent from 12 to 16 and made it an offence to procure girls under 21.
To lead campaigns which repealed one act and promoted another was an amazing achievement by a Victorian woman. She also laid the foundation of the social work principle of a non-judgemental attitude. A Christian, she believed all were of equal worth before God, including prostitutes.
Today’s leaders of voluntary agencies might learn from features of her approach.
First, she adopted aggressive tactics. Her organisation put up candidates at elections to challenge MPs, about whom she could be scathing in her criticism. It worked. In the 21st century some voluntary leaders cosy up to the establishment. They do not name and shame MPs who, for instance, own three homes while others are homeless. They are more identified with the powerful than the powerless.
Second, Josephine always maintained her friendships with prostitutes. She was accused of encouraging them. But, as she gained understanding, so Josephine perceived that it was poverty, not immorality, which drove women on to the streets. If more of her successors today had not just contact with but genuine friendships with those at the bottom of society then they would speak with more passion.
Third, far from climbing up a welfare ladder to enrich herself, Josephine gave her money to the cause. Her last years were spent in rented rooms. She was prepared to tell powerful figures the truth and so gained no honours, no titles. As her biographer, Jane Jordan, points out, other great Victorians were buried at Westminster Abbey. Her grave is in a small churchyard and bears nothing but her name. But she was loved by those she served and she did help to change social policy for the better.
A hundred years after her death, we need to honour her memory. More, we need to follow her example.
Bob Holman is an author and voluntary neighbourhood worker in Glasgow