‘The most distinguished woman of the Nineteenth Century’. This was how Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the constitutional women’s suffrage movement, described Josephine Butler in 1927. Today, Josephine Butler is a comparatively unknown figure. So who was she?

JOSEPHINE GRAY BUTLER Social reformer working on behalf of women exposed to moral corruption. - Date: 1828 - 1906

Josephine Butler: social reformer working on behalf of women exposed to moral corruption. 3AMS/G/01/10

During the late 1860s, Josephine Butler became increasingly involved in a growing campaign for women’s rights. In 1866 she was one of 1,500 women who signed the petition for women’s suffrage presented to Parliament by John Stuart Mill. She served as president of the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women from 1867 until 1873 . In 1868 she petitioned the University of Cambridge to provide special examinations for women, and also joined the Married Women’s Property Committee in the same year. However, Josephine is best remembered for her campaigning work to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Concern about the widespread incidence of syphilis in the British military, led to the passing of the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s. This gave police in 18 ports and garrison towns the right to arrest any woman suspected of prostitution. Male doctors subjected them to internal examinations and forcibly detained infected women in lock hospitals. Josephine recognised the fundamental injustice of making women solely responsible for this situation.

Josephine Butler addresses the women of Pontefract, 1872.

3AMS/O/018 Josephine Butler’s address at Pontefract.

Josephine embarked on her first public speaking tour in 1869. She delivered speeches about sexual behaviour, addressing male audiences and sharing platforms with men, all of which was considered to be scandalous at the time. Her campaigns mobilised women, trade unions and Christians and led to Josephine’s campaign against ‘white slave trade’. After 17 years of activism, the Contagious Diseases Acts were repealed in 1886. Josephine continued to campaign against similar legislation in Europe and across the British Empire. Josephine died in 1906.

Key Archive Sources at LSE:

From The Women’s Library archive collection:

*Josephine Butler letter collection – 3JBL

*Ladies’ National Association, founded in 1869 and led by Josephine Butler – 3LNA

*Association for Moral and Social Hygiene (known as the Josephine Butler Society from 1962) for material on prostitution and trafficking, 3AMS

*International Abolitionist Federation, 3AMS/E

Strand/03 for other collections on the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts

Strand/04 for organisations campaigning against trafficking women and children

From LSE archive collection:

Search the LSE archive catalogue using terms ‘prostitute’, ‘prostitu*’, ‘trafficking’ for relevant material.

Key print sources at LSE:

*use LSE main library catalogue ‘Library Search‘ for Josephine Butler Society Library material eg pamphlets, books and periodicals eg ‘The Shield’. There is also the government publications collection.


Gillian Murphy

About Gillian Murphy

Gillian Murphy is an Assistant Archivist in LSE Library.