Monday, December 7, 2020

Josephine Butler: A Courageous 19th Century Woman

 By Michelle Shocklee

One of my favorite things about being an author of historical fiction is the research! Research breathes life into our historical novels, but it also introduces us to interesting events and fascinating people we might not have run across had we not been digging deeper into history in order to bring our characters to life. 

That's exactly what happened to me a couple weeks ago. I'm in the "honeymoon" stage of writing a new novel. I have the story mapped out in the form of a synopsis, but like a roadmap, the synopsis doesn't fill in all the blanks. My characters need more flesh on their bones. That's where research comes in. 

                    Butler in 1851, portrait by George Richmond
Enter Josephine Butler. 

Josephine Elizabeth Grey Butler was born to a well-to-do family in April 1828 in Northumberland, England. Her father was cousin to Whig Prime Minister Earl Grey, and acted as a political advisor for him. Both men held strong convictions regarding Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery, the repeal of the Corn Laws, and reform of the poor laws. Her father believed in educating his daughters as well as his sons in politics and social issues, and her mother saw to their religious training. With such strong influences in her life, it's easy to see why Josephine grew up to be a woman who was comfortable expressing ideas and beliefs that were not in line with what was expected of women of her time. 

In 1850, Josephine married a like-minded man named George Butler. Their two oldest sons were born in Oxford where they lived at the time, but 1856, Josephine's doctor advised that the damp climate there was detrimental to her health. They moved to the Bristol area, where their third son and a daughter were born. 

During this time, Josephine had a deep encounter with God, finding she much preferred God over the religion of the Anglican church. This personal relationship with God led her to hold on to strong convictions, but it also prompted her to live them out. While still in Oxford, she and George began to help many of the fallen woman in the area and invited some to live in their house. One case in which they were involved concerned a young woman serving a prison sentence at Newgate Prison. She had been seduced by a university don who had subsequently abandoned her. Horrifically, the woman had murdered her baby in despair and been convicted. The Butlers contacted the governor of Newgate to arrange for her to stay in their house at the end of her sentence. 

Josephine Butler, circa 1900. New York Public Library

In 1863, Josephine and George's six-year old daughter, Eva, died tragically from a fall. In an attempt to cope with her grief, Josephine threw herself into charity work, particularly related to the rights of women. Among the issues on which she campaigned was child prostitution, and she was part of a group which eventually forced parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16. In 1869, she began her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts. These laws had been introduced in the 1860s in an attempt to reduce venereal disease in the armed forces. Police were permitted to arrest women living in seaports and military towns who they believed were prostitutes and force them to be examined for venereal disease. Josephine toured the country making speeches condemning the acts. Many people were shocked that a woman would speak in public about sexual matters, but in 1883 the acts were suspended and repealed three years later.

In 1866, the Butler's moved to Liverpool where George had been appointed headmaster of Liverpool College. There, they continued to open their home to women in trouble, often ill with venereal diseases. It soon became clear that there were too many women in need, so Josephine solicited funds from the town's wealthy citizens and opened a hostel for the women. A second, larger hostel opened a year later that not only provided housing, but offered more suitable jobs, such as sewing and manufacturing. 

Knowing prostitution was a world-wide issue, she turned her attention abroad, visiting France, Italy and Switzerland, and spoke out against the growing problem of under-age prostitution and licensed houses. This led to the founding in London of a committee for the suppression of ‘white slave traffic’. In later years Josephine lobbied for causes including Irish Home Rule, women’s suffrage and the rooting out of police corruption. She also led a campaign to end the regulation of prostitution in India.

        The blue plaque erected in 2001 by English Heritage at Butler's
                                    former residence in Wimbledon

By the time Josephine passed away in 1906, her work had changed dozens of laws and hundreds of lives. What I find so remarkable in reading about Josephine is that she never set out to change the world. She simply saw people for who they were and who they could be if given help. She refused to remain quiet when she witnessed injustice, including lawful injustice. Her life and her work has inspired many people, and I hope to create a character in my new novel who will continue her legacy, even in fiction.

What would the world look like if we all were a little more like Josephine Butler? 

Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at


Sixteen-year-old Lorena Leland’s dreams of a rich and fulfilling life as a writer are dashed when the stock market crashes in 1929. Seven years into the Great Depression, Rena’s banker father has retreated into the bottle, her sister is married to a lazy charlatan and gambler, and Rena is an unemployed newspaper reporter. Eager for any writing job, Rena accepts a position interviewing former slaves for the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she meets Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman whose honest yet tragic past captivates Rena.

As Frankie recounts her life as a slave, Rena is horrified to learn of all the older woman has endured—especially because Rena’s ancestors owned slaves. While Frankie’s story challenges Rena’s preconceptions about slavery, it also connects the two women whose lives are otherwise separated by age, race, and circumstances. But will this bond of respect, admiration, and friendship be broken by a revelation neither woman sees coming?


  1. I love hearing about strong women like Mrs. Butler. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Linda, you're welcome! I too love hearing about women like Josephine.

  2. Thanks for the post. And thank you for highlighting such a remarkable woman!

    1. You're welcome, Connie. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. What a wonderful character she was and this is a great biography of her, Michelle. I hope she appears in a book of yours, at least as a side character. One of my critique partners, Tara Johnson, is writing about a real woman - or a character based on a real woman. It limits some thing, but it makes the read so very interesting!

    1. Ane, I'm using her life as inspiration for one of the main characters in my new time-slip. Not exactly a retelling of Josephine's life, but definitely inspired by her!

  4. I love research, too, Michelle. When I got into genealogy, that bug bit me hard. I couldn't get enough of searching through the physical places such as libraries, historical societies, cemeteries, and on and on, plus I ran across interesting stories of some of my extended family lines and my favorite is always those stories of women! This is a great story about a woman who had a cause.