Sunday, 30 December 2012

Mrs Butler & the Prostitutes

The ASB (1980) used to celebrate on this day Josephine Butler (1828-1906) "social reformer, wife, and mother". The Common Worship (2000) lectionary has moved her to May. But I am slow to change things, and I quite happy to leave her where she was. Let us leave to one side the "wife and mother" side of her write-up - Archbishop Cranmer, and John Donne, are not listed as "husband and father", and it seems to me astonishing that these were dots that as recently as 1980 the C of E was unable to join. Oh no, hang on a moment, given this last year's fiascos, I might suspend astonishment for a bit. I know very little of her own biography, and for me she was only a name in the Kalendar until I read a book by Richard Davenport-Hines, called "Sex, Death, and Punishment". It is a fascinating study in British hypocrisy, looking at attitudes to sex, sexually transmitted disease, and sexuality over the last few centuries. His study of the Victorian era fascinated me most because one of my great-great-grandfathers died of syphilis in 1915 (don't be too smug - how many of you can even name your great-great-grandfathers, still less what they died of?). The death certificate said "general paralysis", and it was quite a time before I managed to fathom (no internet then) that this was the gentle euphemism that was used for the tertiary, and fatal, phase of that disease; in full "general paralysis of the insane" - he died in the London County Lunatic Asylum. To put it into a sort of perspective, over 60% of the British Army in India in the 1890s had a venereal disease of some sort. So, that's how I met Mrs Butler. The Victorians were rather obsessive about prostitution - Prime Minister William Gladstone, for instance, was noted for his interest in "fallen women". Most of them seem to have taken the view that prostitutes were a menace to men, and that picking up the fallen (not like that!) would ensure that men would not be led into temptation and could have nice family lives and lots of healthy children. At the beginning of Victoria's reign, the age of consent for boys was 14, for girls 12, so, one can well imagine those menacing 12-year-olds luring grown men astray (never mind those dodgy boys). Opposition to raising the age of consent was partly inspired by a fear that interfering with the prostitution market would mean men would have to make do with their wives, and put a lot of pimps out of business. Mrs Butler took a very different view, and in particular she led the campaign against the "Contagious Diseases Acts". At their worst, these permitted the constabulary to assume that any woman walking alone at night was necessarily touting for trade, and could force her - on threat of imprisonment if she refused - to undergo physical examination for venereal disease (followed by three months of incarceration and compulsory treatment if she wasn't given a clean bill of health). It's hard, a century and a half later, to believe that such things could be considered desirable, or even make sense, to people at the time. The law was enforced with particular brutality within walking distances of naval dockyards and army barracks, but when the powers of piety and self-righteousness tried to extend the same brutality to the whole country, Mrs Butler's coalition - consisting of many avowedly Christian people - triumphed, and had the whole lot repealed, in 1886. Josephine Butler has been described as a "vehement feminist". Was she? Wasn't she just a decent Christian with a zeal for justice and human dignity for all people? I'm sure she regarded prostitution as deeply morally repugnant - but not just on the women's side - and might she perhaps have taken the view that the demand was the cause of the supply? And wondered how the lives of women could be improved so that there would be alternatives to supplying this particular trade? Hers is a model of intervention based not on judgement, but of justice. Our rulers seem ever-keener on punishing people for drinking, smoking, or eating too much, for being fat, or ill, or unhappy, or poor, or criminal, or ill-educated, or old. This is a rich country, there is plenty for everyone, but, responsibility where it is due - those who claim those riches for themselves, and do not share them, will one day face justice from a higher court than this world's, and a far scarier judge than Mrs Butler.

1 comment:

  1. I knew of Mrs Butler (nee Grey, IIRC) years ago. There was (perhaps still is) a blue plaque on the building at the corner of Priory Street in Cheltenham, four doors down from me, in honour of the fact that she lived on that site.

    Everything I've since seen says that the whole campaign for repeal of the CDA was based on the fundamental inequity that women could be imprisoned as a social menace but not men. There is nothing specifically feminist in opposing that sort of inequity.

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