Friday, December 30, 2016

December 30 - Josephine Butler, Feminist, Activist, Grieving Mother


Josephine's life was indubitably envied by many of her contemporaries and acquaintances. She had had the blessing of a happy childhood with good parents and now was married to an academic and cleric and his income provided more than sufficiently for their needs and many of their desires. They even had four children--three sons and a daughter. Josephine and her husband were active in social causes and vicious opponents of slavery anywhere in the world. In fact, they were known sympathizers with the Union cause of the Civil War in the States. Their activism was a tame sort that would be expected from a socially progressive cleric and his wife and they lived into these roles and expectations with ease. Yet, as life often does, things took a turn and their happy way of life was suddenly and painfully upset: their six-year-old daughter Evangeline died without warning and left the family reeling.

Josephine was overwhelmed with grief and was absolutely inconsolable. She resisted the efforts of her friends and acquaintances to comfort her and instead looked for distraction. In her pain, she was immediately desperate for somebody more desperate than herself. She found an object of focus and compassion in the prostitutes of London who she viewed as victims of the cultural machine--as the ones who were ground up in the gears of a machine designed to help and protect some by sacrificing others. She hated prostitution and saw it as a dehumanizing sin against God and themselves but her growing passion and love for the women enslaved by desperate need overcame her aversion to the acts. Soon, she found herself loving the women more and more and helping them less and less out of a desire to be distracted and more out of an honest and consuming love.

The Contagious Diseases Act that had been passed in the 1860s--which Josephine referred to in a gripping way as "surgical rape"--meant that a police officer could accuse any woman of prostitution and turn them over to a group of government backed medical workers who would perform an intrusive examination upon the woman and confine her for a period of three months to "quarantine" her. This became a way of intimidating and abusing women on the streets of London and a simple accusation by a police officer--no matter their honesty or integrity--annihilated the reputation of the woman and left her untouchable withing polite British society. So, Josephine fought for the repeal of these laws because of the abuse it assisted and the victimization it spread among women who were already victims. Josephine could not understand how a society could be so ostensibly Christian yet simply reject women who were in critical need of help. Josephine had learned to love these women and had become their benefactor--a voice to the voiceless. She was slandered and physically assaulted by Christians and non-Christians alike but her faith bade her remain the friend of the victim and the oppressed. She rejected any morality that appeared built upon a double standard of sexual justice and--finally--in 1886, the laws were repealed in large part due to Josephine's work.

Later in her life, she fought again to have the age of consent raised from thirteen to sixteen to help fight yet more abuse and double standards inherent to the system. This was the life she had been cast into first by her desperate grief and second by a genuine calling from the God she loved and followed. Until the day she died, she remained a powerful activist and feminist who insisted upon the equal rights of women in a system that thrived by victimizing the already victimized.

No comments: