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Josephine Butler

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To introduce the work of a Christian who campaigned for women's rights and against repression, and to challenge the stereotype of Victorian Christians, and Christian women in particular, as passive.

Preparation and materials


Start with the image of Josephine Butler displayed. 

LEADER: Josephine Butler. Who was she? A Victorian lady. Think for a moment about what sort of person you imagine her to be. What do you think she was interested in? 

Let us go back 150 years and meet her. She and her friends are in a hayloft, holding a rally. They have already had to clear out hot pepper dust and douse a fire and now a party of strong men have gatecrashed the meeting. There is no way out. The words that follow are Josephine Butler's own. 

READER: Their language was hideous. They shook their fists in our faces, with volleys of oaths. This continued for some time, and we had no defence or means of escape. Their chief rage was directed against me; half a dozen fists were in my face at once... We said nothing, for our voices could not have been heard. We simply stood shoulder to shoulder - Mrs Wilson and I - and waited and endured. But it seemed all the time as if some strong angel were present; for when these men's hands were literally upon us, they seemed held back by some unseen power. There was a young Yorkshire woman, strong and stalwart, with bare arms, and a shawl over her head, among our flock behind us. She dashed forward and fought her way through the crowd of men, and escaped down the ladder, and running as hard as she could, she found Mr Stuart... and said to him: 'Come! Run! They are killing Mrs Butler.' 

He did run and came up the ladder stairs into the midst of the crowd. As soon as they perceived that he was our defender, they were down on him. A strong man seized him in his arms; another opened the window, and they were going to throw him headlong out. I ran forward between him and the window. This was enough to give him time to slip cleverly from between the man's arms on to the floor... He then asked to be allowed to say a few words to them... A fierce argument began. Meanwhile, stones were thrown into the windows and broken glass flew across the room. While all this was going on (it seemed to us like hours of horrible endurance), hope came at last, in the shape of two or three helmeted policemen, whose heads appeared one by one up through the trap-door. Now, we thought, we are safe! But no! These metropolitans had been hired by the government; they simply looked at the scene for a few moments with a cynical smile, and left the place without an attempt to defend us... 

Mrs Wilson and I whispered to each other in the midst of the din: 'Let us ask God to help us, and make a rush for the entrance.' Two or three Yorkshire working women put themselves in the front and we pushed our way I don't know how to the stairs... I made a dash forward and took one flying leap from the trap door onto the ground floor below. It was a long jump but, being light, I came down all right. I was not a bit too soon, for the feet of the men were ready to kick my head as it disappeared down the hole... 

(Taken from: Millicent G. Fawcett and E M Turner, Josephine Butler, London: The Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, 1927 and quoted in The Hidden Voice by Lavinia Byrne.) 

LEADER: Hardly the words - or actions - of a shy, retiring Victorian lady. What was it all about? Josephine Butler lived at a time when women had few rights or opportunities. In 19th century society, women certainly did not have the vote, most were not educated and they were often exploited in many different ways. Josephine took on the fight against all these types of injustice, especially on behalf of those who were most vulnerable such as young girls who had to sell themselves to live. It was this, together with campaigns to reform the way in which prostitutes were treated by officials, that made her so unpopular with many establishment figures. But it is also what made her a godsend to hundreds of thousands of oppressed women and why her influence is still felt today. 

Look again at her picture. What do you see there?

Time for reflection

A Christian society should value and respect all people - regardless of sex, colour or other difference. 

Lord, sometimes we are so frightened - frightened of violence and danger.
Or frightened of something else, which is sometimes worse:
Frightened of difference and change.
Those are fears that it's hard to get rid of. We can't just run away from them.
They're fears that make us strike out half blindly, or retreat into stale, hardened views with which we we feel safe.
In times of fears like those, help us to remember a better way. A more open way. A less frightened way.
Help us to remember that Jesus faced difference and change, and despised prejudice.
As we allow our minds to open, so may we feel the fresh winds of freedom blow our fears away.


Barbara Dickson, Run Like the Wind, track 7 (Sony Collector's Choice).

Publication date: January 2014   (Vol.16 No.1)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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