Helen’s speech at Westminster

The Launch of Patron Saint of Prostitutes in the Houses of Parliament, Westminster

Tuesday 14 October

Speech by Helen Mathers

I am delighted to see so many people gathered here in this venerable building, the Palace of Westminster. I wanted to hold the launch of my book about Josephine Butler here, because this place is the most closely associated with her battle to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts, a battle that lasted from 1869 to 1886.

During those years, in the House of Commons, there were regular debates on the repeal of the Acts. Josephine watched from the Ladies Gallery on several occasions as MPs voted, always to keep the Acts. The debates became especially demoralising when the Conservatives were in power, since almost all Conservative MPs supported the Acts. Sometimes Josephine and her female supporters were told that they could not watch the debate because the subject matter was ‘unsuitable for women’. This incensed Josephine, who wrote an open letter to MPs saying “as long as any woman is obliged to suffer that outrage, I should be ashamed to speak of the pain to myself of hearing of it”. The ‘outrage’, of course, was the forced internal examination of prostitutes detained under the CD Acts.

The House of Commons gave up its attempts to exclude ladies from the debates!   Finally, Josephine was in the Ladies Gallery on April 20 1883 when the tide had turned. The Liberals were in government and many Liberal MPs had been persuaded by her campaign. They saw that the Acts were immoral and unacceptable and were prepared to vote against them. The division took place after midnight, and as the ladies continued to watch, in Josephine’s words:

Mr. Gerard, the steward of the Ladies’ Gallery, crept quietly in and whispered to me, ‘I think you are going to win!’…. Never can I forget the expression on the faces of our M.P.’s in the House when they all streamed back from the division lobby …. We did not require to wait to hear their announcement of the division by the teller: the faces of our friends told the tale… I thought of the words, ‘Say unto Jerusalem that her warfare is accomplished’…. Then we ran quickly down from the gallery and met a number of our friends coming out from Westminster Hall.

The CD Acts were suspended by a majority of 72. This was the work of a woman who had no vote herself, but who, together with her supporters, had wielded incredible moral power within the House of Commons. The Acts were repealed altogether three years later. When she took on this campaign, very reluctantly, knowing how hard it would be, she never had any doubt that “The avenging angel must be one of the sex which has been outraged”. Without the ‘avenging angel’ the CD Acts would probably have remained a little-discussed, regularly-renewed, feature of the statute book. It was her willingness to speak out, in public, which made the difference.


I first heard about Josephine Butler in an undergraduate lecture when I was a history student at Sheffield University. I was really impressed to hear about what she achieved. Josephine Butler lived in the Victorian period when women were supposed to stay at home and look after their families. If they were middle-class they didn’t work. They were expected to stay in the ‘separate sphere’ of domesticity while men inhabited the ‘public sphere’ of work and politics. So I was surprised to hear that Josephine Butler had led a political campaign and fought for years to have a law repealed that she thought was unjust. And I was even more surprised to discover that this law concerned prostitutes. Josephine Butler had actually devoted her life to, as one Oxford professor she knew said, “a class of sinners whom she had better have left to themselves since they were the authors of their own destruction. But, as we know, she refused to ignore them and she actually changed their lives for the better.

When I began my research on Josephine Butler there had been quite a few articles written about her by feminist historians, which I read but found rather unconvincing. For me they did not answer the question ‘why?’ Why did she devote her life to prostitutes? Why did she take on a campaign that was so difficult and so enormously demanding? Why did she, essentially, sacrifice herself to this cause? It was only when I began to read her own writings that I started to understand. And here I must pay tribute to the work of the Josephine Butler Society in not only collecting her publications and letters, but also depositing them in the Fawcett Library, now the Women’s Library, where they form a treasure trove of material for research. It was in the Fawcett Library that I devoured Josephine Butler’s thoughts and realised that, yes, she was a feminist – a very unusual thing in Victorian England -, but also a devout Christian of a very unusual kind. Her commitment to her campaigns, and to prostitutes in particular, arose from her own prayer and Bible study.

This is an extract from my book to be read by my sister Pat:

Josephine was especially affected by the considerate way in which Jesus treated ‘fallen’ women, like the ‘woman in the city’, described in the gospel of St Luke, who washed Christ’s feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair and anointed them with precious ointment. Jesus took the tears as a sign of her penitence and forgave her sins, despite the objections of his disciples. Josephine’s conclusion is a powerful and radical statement:

Search throughout the Gospel history, and observe his conduct in regard to women, and it will be found that the word liberation expresses, above all others, the act which changed the whole life and character and position of the women dealt with, and which ought to have changed the character of men’s treatment of women from that time forward

….. Josephine Butler believed that Christ had liberated the women he met and therefore that Christian faith should liberate all women.        [adapted from Patron Saint of Prostitutes, p.65]

Back to Helen

This shows you how unusual, how innovative and independent, Josephine Butler was. As I grew to know her through her writings, Josephine Butler got hold of me and would not let me go. I had a strong need to explain her ideas, and I was also powerfully affected by a feeling that she was under-rated and under-recognised in our contemporary society. Josephine Butler was once described as ‘“the most distinguished Englishwoman of the nineteenth century”. So why is she not as famous as Victorian heroines like Florence Nightingale? She achieved as much as Nightingale, probably more. But she was never celebrated by her country, never became a national heroine. Indeed, to many she was the reverse of a heroine, because she fought for women’s rights, at a time when men had all the power.   ( Queen Victoria was the only exception to that.) Even worse, she fought for ‘fallen’ women, who were regarded as ‘subhuman’ by polite society.

The other reason Josephine Butler got under my skin was because her life story is just so compelling and interesting. She had a happy childhood in a comfortable Northumberland home, and she married a man who was truly devoted to her, George Butler. They had four children but when their youngest child Eva was five, their lives were devastated when she died. It was not just the fact of her death, but how she died, that was so devastating. It’s all in the book! After that Josephine’s life took a new turn when the family moved to Liverpool. She was terribly lonely and miserable in her new home.

Pat will read another extract from the book, which starts with Josephine Butler’s own words:

I became possessed with an irresistible desire to go forth and find some pain keener than my own – to meet with people more unhappy than myself …. my sole wish was to plunge into the heart of some human misery, and to say (as I now knew I could) to afflicted people, “I understand. I, too, have suffered”.

She chose the most abject human misery she could possibly find – that of women who had been incarcerated in the ‘Bridewell’ in the Liverpool Workhouse on Brownlow Hill. […. These women] had “most frequently been convicted of fighting or brawling, on the quays and docks, of theft or drunkenness” and been “sent to ‘do a week’ or a month there”. They joined other poor women, “driven by hunger, destitution or vice, begging for a few night’s shelter and a piece of bread”, who were required to ‘pick oakum’ in the vast ‘oakum sheds’. These were housed underground, in “huge cellars, bare and unfurnished, with damp stone floors”. Oakum picking was a popular form of ‘task work’ in workhouses, especially those in ports, since it involved unpicking old ropes to obtain loose fibres which were then sold to the navy or shipbuilders. The work required no tools and was very hard on the fingers. Josephine went alone to the vast, dark, oakum sheds, where she found more than two hundred women and girls. All she did on her first visit was to sit down on the floor with them and pick oakum. [Extract from Patron Saint of Prostitutes, p.53]

Back to Helen

For what happened next, read the book!  But she was taking a huge risk – one of the matrons had recently been beaten to death by the inmates. The new matron just pushed Josephine inside, shut the door and left her to it. Josephine thrived because she was compassionate and really cared for these women. Once she gained their trust, they started to confide in her and she saw their needs, for healthcare and some kind of job. She set up a House of Rest as a hospital to care for them and even invited some to live in her own home. She set up an Industrial Home to provide them with employment.

She was already busy – Then she heard about the Contagious Diseases Acts. The name sounds innocuous but the contagious diseases the acts dealt with were actually sexually-transmitted diseases, like syphilis and gonorrhoea. There was an epidemic at that time with hardly any treatment available. It was particularly bad among soldiers and sailors. The govt decided that the solution was to keep diseased prostitutes away from them. . Police were empowered to round up any woman who might have a sexual infection, and forcibly examine her. The process of examination was described by Josephine as ‘steel rape’. She heard about it from the prostitutes that she knew, who gave her a graphic description. If , as a result of the examination, a woman was found to be diseased she was detained for up to 9 months in a so-called lock hospital.

Josephine Butler was incensed and horrified. As a feminist and a Christian, she saw that the Acts punished women and only women. They assumed that the women were the problem, not the men. And yet, as she said, the men were actually the main cause.   When she was asked to lead a Ladies Campaign against the Acts she agreed even though she knew the campaign would be terrible. There would be so much opposition from people who supported the Acts and thought that they would solve the problem.


There are quite a few doctors here tonight, so I just want to briefly consider the attitude of the medical profession. In the 1860s when the Acts were passed, sexual infections were out of control. By 1864, one in three soldiers who consulted a doctor was found to have syphilis or gonorrhoea. But many soldiers of course did not come forward for examination and the army authorities did not want to force them to. It was easier to detain prostitutes, who were in any case commonly described at the time as the ‘vehicles of disease’. Dr William Acton, a consultant in sexual infections, argued that regularly detaining and examining prostitutes allowed early treatment and so prevented the terrible later stages of syphilis in particular. There was hardly any treatment available for that stage but in the early stages application of astringents to infected women might work. For that reason, most doctors supported the Acts. But a few were outraged by the forced internal examination and some of those were the prime movers in the launch of a men’s campaign which ran alongside Josephine Butler’s women’s campaign.


I don’t have time to give you more details of the campaign, but It’s all in the book! But I will ask Pat to read from the book again to give you one glimpse, an attack on Josephine Butler at a by-election in Pontefract, West Yorkshire. She was trying to hold a women’s meeting in an extremely hostile atmosphere. Josephine is speaking:

We had to go all over the town before we found someone bold enough to let us a place to meet in. At last we found a kind of large hayloft over an empty room on the outskirts of the town. You could only ascend to it by means of a kind of ladder, leading through a trapdoor in the floor. However, the place was large enough to hold a good meeting, and was soon filled.

… the women were listening to our words with increasing determination never to forsake the good cause, when a smell of burning was perceived, smoke began to curl up through the floor, and a threatening noise was heard below at the door. The bundles of straw beneath had been set on fire….

Then, to our horror, looking down the room to the trap-door entrance, we saw appearing head after head of men with countenances full of fury; man after man came in, until they crowded the place. There was no possible exit for us, the windows being too high above the ground, and we women were gathered into one end of the room like a flock of sheep surrounded by wolves……. 

….. A fierce argument ensued. Meanwhile stones were thrown into the window, and broken glass flew across the room. ….. Our case seemed now to become desperate. Mrs. Wilson and I whispered to each other in the midst of the din, “Let us ask God to help us, and then make a rush for the entrance.” Two or three working women placed themselves in front of us, and we pushed our way, I scarcely know how, to the stairs. It was only myself and one or two other ladies that the men really cared to insult and terrify, so if we could get away we felt sure the rest would be safe. I made a dash forward, and took one leap from the trap-door to the ground-floor below. Being light, I came down safely. I found Mrs. Wilson with me very soon in the street. 

Once in the open street, these cowards did not dare to offer us violence. We went straight to our own hotel, and there we had a magnificent women’s meeting. Such a revulsion of feeling came over the inhabitants of Pontefract when they heard of this disgraceful scene that they flocked to hear us, many of the women weeping. We were advised to turn the lights low, and close the windows, on account of the mob; but the hotel was literally crowded with women, and we scarcely needed to speak; events had spoken for us, and all honest hearts were won.” [Extracted from Patron Saint of Prostitutes, pp. 13-14]


Back to Helen

That campaign would have been enough for any other woman. But Josephine Butler actually became involved in several other campaigns.   She went to Europe to investigate the treatment of prostitutes there and was horrified by the system of state-controlled brothels in European capitals like Paris, Geneva and Brussels. So she set to work to create an organisation to improve the lives of these prostitutes.

She gave evidence about girls trafficked for prostitution in Belgium. She helped to expose the extent of child sexual abuse in London, in a campaign called ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. This is all in the book !


As we know the appalling sexual abuse of girls and young women still goes on today. A few weeks ago we heard about the terrible abuse of girls in Rotherham. These stories are horribly similar to those Josephine discovered in London in 1885. Very little has changed. Yet again the govt and police are standing by and either doing nothing or actually facilitating the abuse. Then there is trafficking, which we know has exploded in recent years. The issues that Josephine Butler cared about are still with us.

That’s why the work of the Josephine Butler Society is so important.   It campaigns for prostitutes to be protected from abuse by the police and public and from exploitation by pimps and brothel-owners. It helps women who want to find a way out of prostitution and for the social welfare support that they need.

My book ends with a look at the present day and I conclude:

Josephine Butler’s work is not over, and the legacy she hoped for was that others would follow the trail she blazed. As [her friend] James Stuart concluded: “the world as a whole is better, because she lived; and the seed that she has sown can never die”.”

[End of speech]

© Helen Mathers 2014


One thought on “Helen’s speech at Westminster

  1. Sasha B says:

    Great blog I enjoyed readding

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