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Josephine Butler - Feminism's Neglected Pioneer

White slavery and under-age prostitution - two of the crusades associated with the social reformer Josephine Butler. Her contribution to the self-image of 19th-century women was, however, more complex than the lurid headlines might suggest, argues Trevor Fisher.

In the history of British feminism, Josephine Butler occupies a marginal position; She has been overshadowed as a feminist pioneer by the dramas surrounding Florence Nightingale, the Pankhursts and the militant suffragettes. Yet in her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, Josephine Butler fundamentally changed the terms of women's political lives. She not only challenged the Victorian taboo that sexual matters were unmentionable, but by taking a dominant role in a major pressure group permanently destroyed the notion that women could not take a leading pan in politics.

Josephine Butler was the path- breaking pioneer of a women's right to political independence. In the half century before the formation of her Ladies' National Association in 1869, women had actively supported anti- slavery, the Anti-Corn Law League and temperance and suffrage movements, but no woman had become a national political activist. Josephine Butler did just this, and in leading her campaign to success after a decade and a half established that women were not inferior to men in terms of political ability.

But Josephine Butler did not set out to create precedents. A daughter of a Liberal upper class family who was second cousin to the former prime minister Lord Grey, she had married into a very- respectable family. Her husband, George Butler, was son of a former headmaster of Harrow who became -vice principal of Cheltenham College and principal of Liverpool College. There was little in her background which suggested a rebellion against the all male political élites of mid-Victorian England. But an exceptional challenge propelled her into the public arena. That challenge was the passage, in 1864, 1866 and 1869, of three Acts of Parliament which established state regulated prostitution in garrisons and naval towns across Britain and Ireland.

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