I spoke to Him in solitude, as a person who could answer. ... Do not imagine that on these occasions I worked myself up into any excitement; there was much pain in such an effort, and dogged determination required. Nor was it a devotional sentiment that urged me on. It was a desire to know God and my relation to Him.
Josephine Grey was born on 13 April 1828 at Milfield, Northumberland. She was the fourth daughter and seventh child of Hannah (née Annett) and John Grey, a land agent and agricultural expert, who was a cousin of the reformist British Prime Minister, Lord Grey. In 1833 John was appointed manager of the Greenwich Hospital Estates in Dilston, near Corbridge, Northumberland, and the family moved to the area, where John acted as Lord Grey's chief political agent in Northumberland. In this role John promoted his cousin's political opinions locally, including support for Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery, the repeal of the Corn Laws and reform of the poor laws. Josephine was taught at home before completing her schooling at a boarding school in Newcastle upon Tyne which she attended for two years.
In mid-1847 Grey visited her brother in County Laois, Ireland. It was at the height of the Great Famine and the first time she had come into contact with widespread suffering among the poor; she was deeply affected by her experiences and later recalled that "As a young girl, I had no conception of the full meaning of the misery I saw around me, yet it printed itself upon my brain and memory."
By 1850 Grey had grown close to George Butler, a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, whom she had met at several of the balls hosted around County Durham. By October that year George was sending her self-penned poems; the couple were engaged in January 1851 and married in January 1852. The Butlers set up home at 124, High Street, Oxford. George was a scholar and cleric and shared with his wife a commitment to liberal reforms and a love of Italian culture. The couple also both had a strong Christian belief and Josephine Butler later wrote of her husband that they often "prayed together that a holy revolution might come about and that the Kingdom of God might be established on the earth".
In November 1852 the Butlers had a son, George Grey Butler, followed by a second, Arthur Stanley—known as Stanley—in May 1854. Butler's later memories of Oxford were of a closeted and misogynist community lacking in family life; she was often the only female at social gatherings and would Listen in anger to what her biographer Judith Walkowitz describes as "the open acceptance of the double standard by the gentlemen of the university". Butler was offended by a discussion regarding the publication in 1853 of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Ruth in which the heroine is seduced by a man of means and subsequently abandoned. Butler saw that the male conversationalists considered it natural that a "moral lapse in a woman was spoken of as an immensely worse thing than in a man"; she decided not to voice her feelings on the point but "to speak little with men, but much with God". As a more practical measure she—and George—began to help many of the fallen woman of Oxford and invited some to live in their house. One case in which they were involved concerned a young woman serving a prison sentence at Newgate Prison. She had been seduced by a university don who had subsequently abandoned her; the woman had murdered her baby in despair. The Butlers contacted the governor of Newgate to arrange for her to stay in their house at the end of her sentence.
In 1856 Butler's health began to suffer from Oxford's damp atmosphere, which exacerbated a long-standing lesion on her lung; her Doctor informed her that to remain in Oxford could be fatal. As an immediate step George purchased a house in Clifton, near Bristol, where their third son, Charles, was born in 1857. The same year, as a longer-term measure, George took the position of vice-principal at Cheltenham College and they moved to a local house. They continued their support for liberal causes, including that of the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi, although their sympathy for the Union side in the American Civil War led to social ostracism; Butler considered that the resultant feeling of social isolation "was often painful ... but the discipline was useful".
In May 1859 Butler gave birth to her final child, a daughter, Evangeline Mary, known as Eva. In August 1864 Eva fell 40 feet (12 m) from the top-floor banister onto the stone floor of the hallway in her home; she died three hours later. Butler was distraught at the loss and had disturbed sleep for several years; she was unable to write about the circumstances until 30 years later. The subsequent inquest gave a verdict of accidental death.
In October 1864 Stanley contracted diphtheria while Butler was still grieving for Eva. She was suffering from depression and was in poor health. After the worst of Stanley's ailment passed, Butler decided to take him to Naples for them both to rest and recuperate. The ship in which they travelled down the west coast of Italy faced rough weather, and Butler had a physical breakdown on board from which she nearly died.
Butler campaigned for women's rights, including the right to the vote and to have a better education. In 1866 she was a signatory on a petition to amend the Reform Bill to widen the franchise to include women. The petition, which was supported by the MP and Philosopher John Stuart Mill, was ignored and the bill became law.
Her connections to Liverpool were memorialised in a more secular fashion. A building in the Faculty of Business and Law at Liverpool John Moores University was named "Josephine Butler House". The building, originally the first Radium Institute in the UK, in the Cultural Quarter in Hope Street, was built in 1867 and demolished in 2013 when the site became a car park and subsequently student housing which opened in 2015.
At the time British law relating to marriage was based on the legal doctrine of coverture, in which a woman's legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband upon their matrimony. By law a woman had no separate legal existence, and all her property became her husband's; divorce initiated by a woman was difficult and complicated. In April 1868 Butler and fellow suffragist Elizabeth Wolstenholme set up and became joint Secretaries of the Married Women's Property Committee to pressure parliament into changing the law. Butler remained on the committee until the campaign was successful, with the passing into law of the Married Women's Property Act 1882.
On 31 December 1869 the Ladies National Association published a statement in The Daily News that it had "been formed for the purposes of obtaining the repeal of these obnoxious Acts". Among the 124 signatories were the social theorist Harriet Martineau and the social reformer Florence Nightingale.
At the 1870 Colchester parliamentary by-election the LNA fielded a candidate against the Liberal Party candidate Sir Henry Storks, a supporter of the Acts, who had implemented a similar regime when he commanded the British army in Malta. Butler held several local meetings during the campaign; during one, she was chased by a group of brothel owners. The presence of the LNA candidate split the Liberal vote and allowed the Conservative Party candidate to win the seat; Butler considered that "it proved to be somewhat of a turning-point in the history of our crusade". Because of Stork's loss at the by-election the Home Secretary, Henry Bruce, announced a Royal Commission to examine the situation. One MP told Butler that
The commission began work in early January 1871 and spent six months taking evidence. After Butler testified on 18 March, a member of the committee, Liberal MP Peter Rylands, stated: "I am not accustomed to religious phraseology, but I cannot give you an idea of the effect produced except by saying that the spirit of God was there". Nevertheless, the commission's report defended the one-sided nature of the legislation, saying "... there is no comparison to be made between prostitutes and the men who consort with them. With the one sex the offence is committed as a matter of gain; with the other it is an irregular indulgence of a natural impulse." The report accepted the findings that the sexual health of men in the 18 areas covered by the Acts had improved. In relation to the compulsory examinations, the commission was swayed by the descriptions of "steel rape", and suggested it should be voluntary not compulsory. The commission heard significant evidence that many prostitutes were as young as 12 and recommended that the age of consent should be raised from 12 to 14. Bruce took no action on the recommendations for six months.
Two months after the withdrawal of Bruce's bill, a ministerial by-election in Pontefract in 1872 gave the LNA an opportunity for further action. Although they did not field a candidate, Butler attended meetings in the town. At one LNA meeting the floor of the room had been liberally sprinkled with cayenne pepper by her opponents, making speaking difficult. After it was cleared away, her opponents set bales of straw alight in a storeroom below, which led to smoke rising through the floorboards; two members of the Metropolitan Police—specially drafted into the town for the by-election—looked on but took no action. Although the incumbent Liberal candidate, Hugh Childers, was returned, there were heavy abstentions, and his vote was reduced by around 150 (from an electorate of 2,000). In December 1872 Butler met the Prime Minister, william Gladstone, when he visited Liverpool College. Although he supported the aims of the LNA, he was politically unable to back the LNA publicly, and had supported Bruce's bill.
At a meeting of regional LNA branches in May, one speech focused on legislation in Europe; the meeting resolved to correspond with sister organisations on the continent. At the start of December 1874 Butler left for Paris and a tour that covered France, Italy and Switzerland, where she met with local pressure groups and civic authorities. She encountered strong support from feminist groups, but hostility from the authorities. She returned from her travels at the end of February 1875.
As a result of her experiences, in March 1875 Butler formed the British and Continental Federation for the Abolition of Prostitution (later renamed the International Abolitionist Federation), an organisation that campaigned against state regulation of prostitution and for "the abolition of female slavery and the elevation of public morality among men". The Liberal MP James Stansfeld—who wished to repeal the Acts—became the federation's first general secretary; Butler and her friend, the Liberal MP Henry Wilson, became joint Secretaries.
In 1878 Josephine wrote a biography of Catherine of Siena, which Glen Petrie—her biographer—thought was probably her best work; Walkowitz considers the work provided a "historical justification for her own political activism". Another biographer, Helen Mathers, believes that "in emphasising that she and Catherine were born to be Leaders, of both men and women, ... [Butler] made a profound contribution to feminism".
Butler became aware of the slave trade of young women and children from England to mainland Europe in 1879. Young girls were considered "fair game", according to Mathers, as the law allowed them to become prostitutes at the age of 13. After playing a minor role in starting an investigation into an accusation of trafficking, Butler became active in the campaign in May 1880, and wrote to The Shield that "the official houses of prostitution in Brussels are crowded with English minor girls", and that in one house "there are immured little children, English girls of from twelve to fifteen years of age ... stolen, kidnapped, betrayed, got from English country villages by every artifice and sold to these human shambles". She visited Brussels where she met the mayor and local councillors and made allegations against the head of the Belgian Police des Mœurs and his deputy as to their involvement in the trade. After the meeting she was contacted by a detective who confirmed that the senior members of the Police des Mœurs were guilty of collusion with brothel keepers. She returned home and filed a deposition containing a copy of the statement from the detective and sent them to the Procureur du Roi (Chief Prosecutor) and the British Home Secretary. Following an investigation in Belgium, the head of the Police des Mœurs was removed from office, and his deputy was put on trial alongside 12 brothel owners; all were imprisoned for their roles in the trade.
The 1880 general election had removed Disraeli's Conservative party from office; they were replaced by Gladstone's second ministry containing a high proportion of MPs who wanted to repeal the Acts. As Prime Minister, Gladstone had the power to nominate candidates to vacant positions within the Church and, in June 1882, he offered George Butler the position of canon of Winchester Cathedral. George had been considering retirement, but he and Josephine were concerned about their finances, as much of their income had been spent on the LNA and other causes Josephine supported. George accepted the appointment, and they moved into a grace and favour home near the cathedral. Josephine Butler set up another hostel for women near their home.
Political pressure from Liberal backbenchers, particularly Joseph Chamberlain and Charles Hopwood, led to increasing opposition to the Acts. In February 1883 Hopwood tabled a resolution in parliament: "That this House disapproves of the compulsory examination of women under the Contagious Diseases Acts", which was debated in April. MPs voted by a majority of 72 to suspend the inspections; three years later the Acts were formally repealed.
On 16 July—ten days after the article was published—Butler gave a speech at a meeting at London's Exeter Hall calling for increased protection for the young and the raising of the age of consent. The following day she and George left for a holiday in Switzerland and France. While they were away, a moribund parliamentary bill from 1883 dealing with the age of consent was re-debated by MPs; the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 was passed on 14 August 1885. The Act raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 years of age, while the procurement of girls for prostitution by administering drugs, intimidation or fraud was made a Criminal offence, as was the abduction of a girl under 18 for purposes of carnal knowledge. The police investigated Stead's purchase, and Butler was forced to cut her holiday short to return for questioning. Although she avoided all charges, Stead was imprisoned for three months.
Butler began a new campaign to have the legislation repealed, comparing the girls to slaves. After the campaign put pressure on MPs, the widespread publication of Chapman's orders led to what Mathers describes as "outrage across Britain". In June 1888 the House of Commons passed a unanimous resolution repealing the legislation, and the Indian government was ordered to cancel the Acts. To circumvent the order, the India Office advised the Viceroy of India to instigate new legislation ensuring that prostitutes suspected of carrying contagious diseases had to undergo an examination or face expulsion from the cantonment.
Towards the end of the 1880s George's health began to decline, and Butler spent increasing time looking after him. They holidayed in Naples in 1889, but George contracted influenza in the 1889–90 pandemic. They returned to Britain but George died on 14 March 1890; Butler suspended campaigning in the aftermath of his death. Soon after, she left Winchester, and moved to a house in Wimbledon, London, which she shared with her eldest son and his wife.
Although many of Butler's friends and supporters of shared causes spoke out against British Imperial Policy, Butler did not. She wrote that because of the work Britain had undertaken in making slavery illegal, "[w]ith all her faults, looked at from God's point of view, England is the best, and the least guilty of the nations". During the Second Boer War (1899–1902), Butler published Native Races and the War (1900), in which she supported British action and its imperialist policy. In the book she took a strong line against the Casual racism inherent in her countrymen's dealings with foreigners, writing:
From 1901 Butler began to withdraw from public life, resigning her positions in the campaign organisations and spending more time with her family. In 1903 she moved to Wooler in Northumberland, to live near her eldest son. On 30 December 1906 she died at home and was buried in the nearby village of Kirknewton.
In 1907 Josephine Butler's name was added to the south side of the Reformers' Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery, London. The memorial was erected for those "who had defied custom and interest for the sake of conscience and public good". She is celebrated in the Church of England with a Lesser Festival on 30 May, and represented in a stained glass window in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral, and St Olave's Church in the City of London.
In 1915 the LNA merged with the International Abolitionist Federation to form the Association of Moral and Social Hygiene, which changed its name to the Josephine Butler Society in 1953. As at 2017 the society still operates; it campaigns for the protection of prostitutes and provides "protection for women and children who are criminally detained, violently abused or exploited by others who profit from their prostitution".
In 2005 Durham University named Josephine Butler College after her, reflecting her and George's connection to the area and the university. The Women's Library, at the London School of Economics, holds a number of collections related to Butler. They include papers from the Ladies' National Association; more than 2,500 letters in the Josephine Butler Letter Collection; and the Josephine Butler Society Library consisting of books and pamphlets collected by the society. In 2001 English Heritage placed a blue plaque on her former residence in Wimbledon; her former house in Cheltenham was demolished in the 1970s, but in 2002 the Cheltenham Civic Society placed a plaque on the building which now occupies the site.
Butler, at 62, felt she was too old to travel to India, but two American supporters visited on her behalf and spent four months building a dossier showing that the lock hospitals, compulsory examination and use of underage prostitutes—some as young as 11—were all continuing to operate. The campaign in Britain pushed again for changes, and Butler spoke at meetings, published pamphlets and wrote to missionaries in India.