Feminist Heroes of the Past: Josephine Butler


Josephine Butler, official bad-ass

Whenever I hear a women say that they’re not a feminist I think one of three things:

1.) They don’t know the meaning of the word.

2.) They are scared that they will be negatively associated with (untrue) stereotypes that feminists are bitter, ugly, angry, masculine, man-haters.


3.) They Don’t Know Their History

Throughout all time in almost all cultures women, their bodies, and their sexuality have been attempted to be controlled.  I love reading and learning about feminism.  I am a bad feminist in the sense that since I am new to the movement I am still educating myself about the feminists of the past and the enormous obstacles they overcame.  I just learned about the all-around awesome woman Josephine Butler and I felt I had to share.

The following is an excerpt from the marvelous book ‘Farewell to the East End’.  Adapted into the popular BBC show, ‘Call the Midwife’ it is one memoir of three written by Jennifer Worth.  The books chronicle her life experiences as a Midwife in the poorest areas of 1950’s post-War London.  I find them endlessly fascinating as a look into the intimate lives of ordinary women of the past.


[Trigger Warning]

In the following excerpt Jennifer is having a conversation with Sister Monica Joan, a 90 year old nun.  Sister Monica Joan was raised in a very wealthy family in the Victorian Age and did not embark on her journey as a nurse, midwife, and nun until she was over thirty.  Jennifer is asking why she became a nurse when she had the financial freedom to do anything she wanted:


     [Sister Monica:] ‘When Nancy died, I had an almighty row with my father, who wanted to control me.  I hated the shallow, empty life I was leading, and wanted to throw myself into the struggle.  I left home to become a nurse.  It was the least I could do in her memory.’

     [Jennifer:] ‘Who was Nancy?’

     ‘My maid.  She had been surgically raped.’

     ‘What! Surgically raped? What on earth does that mean?’

     ‘Exactly what it says.  Josephine Butler had rescued that child and asked me if I could take her on as my ladies maid.  I was eighteen at the time, and my mother permitted me to have a lady’s maid of my choice.  Nancy was thirteen.’

      ‘Who was Josephine Butler?’

      ‘An unknown saint.  You are ignorant, child! I cannot waste my time with such ignorance.  Go, fetch my tea, if your mind cannot rise to higher thoughts.’

     Sister Monica Joan closed her fine, hooded eyes, and haughtily turned her head to indicate the conversation was over.


After the conversation Jennifer made it a point to find out what Sister Monica Joan was talking about, and some of the older nuns filled her in.  I was also filled in with a bit of history I had never heard about.

In the 1860’s syphilis was rampant in England.  It was so common and so widespread that it was weakening the British Army and Royal Navy.  In an attempt to curb the spread of the diseases through prostitutes, the Contagious Diseases Acts were passed.

When these cruel laws were passed, this gave the right that a policeman or Doctor could inspect any prostitute on sight and demand a examination.  If they were infected, they were placed in a lock hospital (a hospital that you couldn’t leave that was basically a prison) until you were cleared of infection.  There were several terrible problems and consequences with this law.

  •   The law was designed to persecute women only.  Men were not subjected to examinations or locked up if infected.
  •   Women were forced to consent to the examination.  If a women failed to sign a consent form, she was imprisoned until she did sign.
  • Once a consent form was signed, it was indefinite and she could be examined whenever the examiner wanted.
  • This law attracted deviant, sadistic men that volunteered to do the examinations and were placed in complete power over these women.
  • These “examinations” were done without witnesses.  There are many reports that they weren’t examinations at all but simply an excuse to hurt the women.  Many women were raped by the examiner’s and well as having to endure the insertion of the instruments.
  • Gynecological instruments were primitive and no lubrication was used.  An examination was a tortuous ordeal.

Victorian speculum

  • Not surprisingly,  not only prostitutes were targeted but all lower class women.  Any woman could be “suspected of prostitution” and “examined.”
  • These exams were not just happening to women but girls starting at the age of thirteen.


So. To sum up.  If you were a teenage girl walking in London’s East End, you could be confronted by a policeman that may be an honest man may be a sexual sadist.  You will be confronted with a piece of paper and ordered to sign.  Once you do, you will be strapped down and violated.  Even if you are not infected, you now are on record and will most likely have to endure several more “exams” in the future.

This is what happened to Sister Monica Joan’s maid Nancy.  When she was 13 she was trying to take in some washing by the docks to make some money, and was accosted.  An “exam” that should have taken less than five minutes was a torturous forty-five minutes.  She was strapped and tied down and was treated so roughly she had injuries and pain for the rest of her life.  Fortunately for her Josephine Butler came to her aid and placed her as a maid in the West End so that she didn’t have to endure the ordeal ever again.

So who was Josephine Butler?  She was a Christian feminist that made it her life’s work to try to protect and speak up for the rights of prostitutes, who lived dismal and violent lives.  In Victorian times sex was not even mentioned in polite company and Josephine spoke up as to what was really happening.  In the 1870’s England was going to expand this law.  Instead of only London all of England was going to be affected.

Josephine started the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act and dedicated all her efforts to repealing the law.  She is responsible for coining the term “surgical rape” and it proved effective as some people had not seen the procedure in these terms.  Josephine was vilified, and even physically assaulted.  This did not stop her and eventually as the public became more aware of what was happening.  In a time when women were literally their husbands property and under their complete control her husband George Butler not only “allowed” her activism but helped and encouraged her every step of the way.

It took a decade but the vile law was finally abolished in 1882.  Never think one person can’t make a difference.  Josephine saved hundreds of not thousands of women being surgically raped.

 Modern Day Applications

It should be mentioned that although this appeal happened over 140 years ago “surgical rape” is once more an issue in modern day America.  In 2012 the state of Virginia passed a law where if a women wanted an abortion she was required to have a transvaginal ultra-sound.  These ultrasounds serve no medical purpose. The idea is if a heartbeat is heard the woman won’t go through with  it. ( It hasn’t decreased abortions.)


transvaginal wand, shown to scale

About four years ago I was having pains and my Doctor had to check for ovarian cysts and I had a transvaginal ultra-sound.  Let me assure you, THEY HURT.  Every ounce of my energy was concentrated on not crying in pain.

I believe abortion is an immoral act.  But since making abortion illegal neither increases or decreases abortions, and women’s deaths and injury skyrockets, keeping abortion safe and legal has always been a no-brainer to me, even though I realize some think that being a Pro-Choice Christian could be considered an oxymoron.

The idea that lawmakers are once again trying to violate women’s bodies without their consent is repellent to me and fits the legal definition of rape.  Since the women are receiving abortions I feel an undercurrent of “punishment” and “who cares if you don’t consent and it hurts” attached to the law.

I’m proud of all my modern Josephine Butler-esque feminists that stood up to say, “No, this is wrong.”  Their ruckus causing ways helped stop the spread of this gross law to other states.  Keep on fighting, Ladies.  Josephine would be proud.


Photo taken at a women’s rights rally in Virgina, 2012.


You can follow Linddykal on Twitter @lindseykal28


Jordan, Jane, Josephine Butler, John Murray, 2000

Moberly Bell, E., Josephine Butler, Constable, 1962

Stafford, Ann, The Age of Consent, Hodder and Stoughton, 1964

Worth, Jennifer, Farewell to the East End, Weidernfeld & Nicolson, 2009



Filed under feminism, history, rape

7 responses to “Feminist Heroes of the Past: Josephine Butler

  1. I love reading your posts. Your blog is one of the very few that I learn something new from every time. That law is frightening and it’s unbelievable that it was ever allowed to pass.
    Thank you for sharing that and please keep these posts coming. — MM

  2. Thanks to you, now I know what “surgical rape” is! I’ll remember the name Josephine now. Great cause.

  3. Luke

    Is that a typo in the headline? Josephine Baker being a vaudeville star and badass in her own right.

  4. Wow, how fascinating and disturbing. I love “Call the Midwives!” Such a great show. Thanks for the educational commentary on Josephine Butler.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s