Josephine Butler

Other names: 
Josephine Elizabeth Grey
Born 13 April 1825, died 30 December 1906

Josephine Elizabeth Grey was born on 13 April 1828 in Milfield, Northumberland, to John Grey (a cousin of Earl Grey) and his wife Hannah Annett. Educated at home, she was strongly influenced by her father’s passion for social reform and hatred of injustice. She married George Butler, then a tutor at Oxford, in 1852 with whom she shared many concerns, including the need for the abolition of slavery, and better rights for marginalised women.

Following the tragic death of her daughter, aged 5, Josephine Butler became involved in a variety of public campaigns. She rescued many young girls from the workhouse, and either found them homes or took them into her own household, believing her work to be a divine calling. She also famously campaigned for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act which effectively legalised the sex trade, sought to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the army and navy and required all women living near garrison towns and naval ports to submit to registration and regular internal examination. In 1870 she became leader of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, arguing against the presumption of guilt on the part of the women, and seeking instead both to question the morality of the men involved and to bring them to account for their behaviour.

She was one of the signatories to the 1866 petition for women's suffrage submitted to parliament, became president of the North-East Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women, and helped to found Newnham College, Cambridge as a college for women.

She wrote extensively throughout her life, including books on constitutional and women's affairs. An enduring example of Christian social radicalism, she is also a model of a pioneering feminist, daring to speak out publicly, and to seek equal rights for women of all classes and in all social situations.

Josephine Butler Memorial Trust
Durham University Josephine Butler College website