First Contagious Disease Act 1864 Why was it important and who was Josephine Butler?

This act was passed with the aim of controlling the spread of venereal disease in 1864.  The impact was that prostitutes and those even believed to be so could be locked away in special hospitals. The reality was these were places not of kindness care and for improving their health and welfare but places where the women were subject to male brutality violence and shocking events that eventually got out into public knowledge.

It can be argued that there is a link between the campaign to improve the plight of these vulnerable women and the emergence of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. It took an enlightened individual to lead the way, Josephine Elizabeth Butler nee GREY, who launched a campaign to have them repealed. She was a vehement feminist and a committed Christian.

Josephine Butler Nee Grey

Her parents were John Grey and Hannah Eliza Annett  Her father, was a respected agricultural expert, and the cousin of the reformist Prime Minister Charles Grey who was a slavery abolitionist himself. He played a significant role in Catholic emancipation, and worked for the Reform Act 1832.

Josephine married George Butler  a scholar and cleric, they shared many beliefs including their commitment to liberal reforms. Her husbands career suffered setbacks because of her public image. The grief from the loss of her only daughter led Josephine to campaign for others whose plight and loss /pain was greater than her own.

This led her to start visiting Liverpool’s Brownlow Hill Workhouse and brought her into contact and involvement with prostitutes and experiencing their plight at first hand. She campaigned for the repeal of the act and better treatment and less prejudice. This became a lifelong commitment not only in the UK but internationally.

She also campaigned for women’s rights to higher education notably with Cambridge University


Intriguing Connections:

  •  From her own sadness she channelled her energy towards that of the greater good, when it would have been much easier not to make such an enormous effort, both she and her husband, who also became a Canon of Winchester Cathedral stood up and were counted.
  • Establishes the principle of freeing women from sexual slavery and oppression and actively engages in standing up against society’s oppression of others in her gender, the founding principle perhaps of feminism in the 20th Century, established by Josephine and others ahead of their time and social class perhaps?

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