In the history of British feminism, Josephine Butler occupies a marginal position. She has been overshadowed as a feminist pioneer by the dramas surrounding Florence Nightingale, the Pankhursts and the militant suffragettes. Yet in her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, Josephine Butler fundamentally changed the terms of women's political lives. She not only challenged the Victorian taboo that sexual matters were unmentionable, but by taking a dominant role in a major pressure group permanently destroyed the notion that women could not take a leading part in politics.
Josephine Butler was the path-breaking pioneer of a women's right to political independence. In the half century before the formation of her Ladies' National Association in 1869, women had actively supported antislavery, the Anti-Corn Law League and temperance and suffrage movements, but no woman had become a national political activist. Josephine Butler did just this, and in leading her campaign to success after a decade and a half established that women were not inferior to men in terms of political ability.
But Josephine Butler did not set out to create precedents. A daughter of a Liberal upper class family who was second cousin to the former prime minister Lord Grey, she had married into a very respectable family. Her husband, George Butler, was son of a former headmaster of Harrow who became vice principal of Cheltenham College and principal of Liverpool College. There was little in her background which suggested a rebellion against the all male political elites of mid-Victorian England. But an exceptional challenge propelled her into the public arena. That challenge was the passage, in 1864, 1866 and 1869, of three Acts of Parliament which established state regulated prostitution in garrison and naval towns across Britain and Ireland.
The Contagious Diseases Acts regulated prostitution in order to control venereal disease. They gave police and magistrates the power to order any woman suspected of being diseased to be medically inspected, by force if necessary. If found to be infected, the authorities had power to have her confined to a hospital for treatment for a period of up to three months. If she refused to be inspected, or discharged herself from hospital without permission, she could be imprisoned for up to two months. No similar provisions applied to the men of the town. The Acts thus embodied the double standard of sexual morality in a particularly striking way.
The government saw the Acts as a step towards maintaining military efficiency in the teeth of a worrying venereal epidemic. Public health reformers welcomed them as a step towards state-regulated prostitution on the continental model. Puritans and feminists opposed them as a threat both to womens' rights and public morality, but in the early 1860s their concerns were limited to a marginal group of health reformers around Florence Nightingale. The initiative lay with politicians deeply concerned by the abysmal performance of the British military during the Crimean War. This cruelly exposed the crippling inadequacies of the British forces. Acts of individual heroism such as the Charge of the Light Brigade and the work of Florence Nightingale's nurses could not conceal overwhelming incompetence in the military leadership.
However, it was not politic for the British establishment to admit the deep inadequacies of the officer class and a scapegoat had to be found. The most convenient culprit was the poor physique of the fighting men, in particular their susceptibility to venereal disease. Infection rates had been rising since the 1820s, and venereal disease offered a convenient excuse for officialdom. The military establishment formed a de facto alliance with the public health lobby led by The Lancet to secure a supply of disease-free prostitutes to service the rank and file.
When Earl de Grey was appointed as Secretary for War in 1863, he swung his considerable political weight in favour of state-regulated prostitution. …