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Comment: J John considers the legacy of an overlooked heroine

We owe it to history and the truth not to overlook the Christian motivation of people like Josephine Butler, says Canon J John ...

We owe it to history and the truth not to overlook the Christian motivation of people like Josephine Butler who pushed forward the legislation to raise the legal age of consent, says J John

As new and disturbing evidence mounts of the sexual abuse of young teenagers by a high-profile celebrity, spanning decades, there has been some discussion about the age of consent in Britain. 

In those discussions the name of Josephine Butler is surfacing as the person who pushed forward the legislation which, in 1885, raised the legal age of consent from 13 to 16. 

In some places there are brief descriptions of her life (she lived from 1828 to 1906) and mentions of her long struggles against the exploitation of women in prostitution and the sexual abuse of children.

Most references simply talk of her as a ‘Victorian feminist’ and ‘social activist’. What is all too frequently omitted is the fact that Josephine was one of that extensive and memorable group of 19th century Christians who struggled to make the world a better place. Only William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury are now commonly remembered.

She summed up her motivation when she said: “God and one woman make a majority.”

Yet in many ways Josephine Butler was remarkable. In an age when women of her class were expected to be ‘respectable’, her commitment to helping those being crushed and exploited by society was seen as outrageous.

She worked with prostitutes, not just at a distance but getting alongside them and in some cases caring for them in her home. She also led prominent and controversial public campaigns for better and fairer treatment of women in the ‘vice trade’.

It annoyed those for whom the ‘flesh trade’ was profitable and shocked those who preferred not to think that such things were possible. 

She was by all accounts a most notable woman, and the raising of the age of consent to allow the prosecution of men who procured young girls was only one of her achievements.

Let me make three comments. First, it is worth noticing that most mentions of Josephine Butler today manage to overlook the Christian faith that motivated her, somehow giving the impression that she was no more than some sort of early political or social feminist.

I suppose the omission of her faith might be due to a misplaced ‘political correctness’, but there certainly seems to be an increasingly common trend to dilute the influence of Christians from the historical record. It’s a phenomenon commonly seen in period dramas on television in which the Church or clergymen are either conspicuous by their absence or the object of ridicule.

The reality is that until very recently the Christian faith played a central role in how British people thought, spoke and lived. It certainly played an important part in motivating people to improve society.

We owe it to history and the truth not to overlook the Christian motivation of people like Josephine Butler.

Second, we need to remember people like Josephine and be inspired by them. I suspect she has been doubly forgotten.

On the one hand feminists have been perplexed by her fervent Christian faith and on the other the Church has been discomfited by her radical attitude to social action.

It is also highly likely that she was forgotten because men in pulpits preferred not to speak about prostitution. “It’s not a nice subject,” they probably said in apologetic tones. Well, it isn’t a nice subject. In fact, it’s precisely because prostitution isn’t nice that we should be talking about it.

Third, as recent revelations have sadly demonstrated, simply creating a law does not end an abuse. We see here, as elsewhere, that battles we assume had been won now need to be fought all over again.

Prostitution today is a big business, the sexual abuse of children persists and the trafficking of people for prostitution is widespread.

We need to remember Josephine Butler and what motivated her, but the best memorial to who she was is to imitate her, as my friend Christine Caine, the Director of A21, is doing (see www.thea21campaign.org).

Rev Canon J John, The Philo Trust

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