Jane Jordan’s biography of Josephine Butler exposes the brutality of women’s oppression at the height of British capitalism. In particular, our attention is turned to the treatment of working class women under the Contagious Diseases Acts passed in the second half of the 19th century. Jordan shows the 20-year struggle it took to finally defeat these vicious acts and celebrates the life of its determined leader.
Josephine Butler came from a family of genteel moral reformers. Her father, Lord Grey, opposed slavery. She was also a deeply religious woman, although non-conformist, and anguished over the plight of prostitutes–women she felt were denied the chance to return to God’s grace. Privately, she had visited and taken into her home those who wished to be ‘saved’, and attempted to provide the material means by which they might gain another living. However, her life was transformed forever at the age of 42, with the passing of the first Contagious Diseases Act. Outrage pushed her into leading a repeal campaign, a role that involved a serious confrontation with the establishment.
At first Butler balked from taking this role, terrified about the repercussions on herself and her family. Her fears were well founded. She was immediately ostracised by many of her ‘liberal’ friends and was considered degraded for even speaking about such things in public. She was viciously lampooned in the press, denounced as ‘worse than a common prostitute’ by a respected MP, and meetings where she spoke were violently attacked.
The Contagious Diseases Acts were passed in Britain with the stated aim of controlling sexually transmitted diseases (mainly syphilis) in the armed and naval forces. However, they didn’t aim to target servicemen, but prostitutes. They instructed plain-clothes policemen to forcibly register prostitutes on a list, and haul in for fortnightly internal examination women suspected of being prostitutes. Any woman with a disease was detained in a locked hospital with a harsh prison regime for nine months.
Any woman registered as a prostitute had to carry around for public display a ‘clean’ ticket with her last examination date. When Josephine Butler addressed meetings she would talk of the plight of ordinary women who had turned to prostitution through ‘starvation hunger’. With the Contagious Diseases Acts she argued they were ‘no longer women but only bits of numbered, inspected and ticketed human flesh, flung by the government into the public market’. Throughout the campaign she argued that only by improving the lives of working class women could this cattle market be ended.
Furthermore, Butler saw it as an issue about the rights of women. The ‘Spy Police’ (as the cops were known) targeted working class women in general. She visited many women who had been imprisoned for their refusal to undergo the internal examination and found many had never even been involved in prostitution. Many working class women came to repeal meetings to give account of the police harassment.
The internal examination itself was an extremely brutal affair. This was not the unpleasant but polite examination we undergo today in the NHS. Instead it was doctors carrying out police duty upon unwilling women whom society considered already debased.
One woman’s testimony at a meeting described being physically forced into a position that was ‘disgusting and painful…then they use these monstrous instruments, often several. It was as if you were cattle and hadn’t no feeling.’ Pregnant women were not excluded. Josephine met one who had endured three such examinations since she was pregnant, all of which had caused her to haemorrhage and risk miscarriage. There were also frequent accusations from women of molestation by both police and inspecting doctors. Many women chose to go into prison rather than be subjected to the regular examination. Others would go to extraordinary lengths to escape the ordeal, even suicide.
Butler did persuade many members of her own class to join the repeal campaign but, crucially, she also looked outside the traditional liberal reforming committees. She addressed meetings of soldiers and of working men, and drew hundreds of working class women to meetings she organised both in Britain and Europe.
This is an interesting biography in terms of mapping out the political development of a woman who was destined for a comfortable bourgeois life, yet was moved by the injustices of the times to ally herself with working class women. Be warned, the first 60 pages are a tedious, gushing account of her family life. But when Butler’s life takes a political turn, Jane Jordan does full justice to the horror of the times and to the courage of one woman who fought back.
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