If there is anyone who deserves the epithet "great", it is Josephine Butler (1828-1906). However, she is not often described in the same breath as "libertarian". As we are in the year of the centenary of her death there has been a renewed interest in her. Durham University has now opened a new college bearing her name. There was also a feature article in the Guardian by Julie Bindel, "A heroine for our age" published on September 21st of this year. It isn't a bad piece at all but something is missing, Butler's libertarianism. Even Jane Jordan's fine biography, criminally out of print even though it was only published in 2001, does not quite get to grips with it, presumably due to the author's lack of familiarity with Victorian Individualism, undeniably an obscure movement today but widely known at the time and partly emerging from Butler's campaigns.
Bindel's position is different; if I read her correctly she tends to see Butler as a proto-radical feminist and as a forerunner of current anti-prostitution campaigns. There is more than enough material to justify this. Butler is remembered as the leader of the campaigns against the Contagious Diseases Acts and against the sexual exploitation of children. Not only that, but Butler was an ardent and outspoken feminist whose demand for female equality was as much economic as legal and social. In addition, her approach to sexuality was conservative and rooted in her Christian evangelical beliefs. She was as appalled by the moral degradation of prostitution as much as by the physical exploitation. However, this doesn't tell the whole story; Butler was a complex figure.
Julie Bindel quotes the radical feminist and anti-pornography campaigner Sheila Jeffreys on Butler.
Jeffreys considers Butler one of the bravest and most imaginative feminists in history. "She told men they must change, rather than having the male-dominated state set up systems of prostitution that would protect the male customers and give official approval to their behaviour," she says. "This is hard to imagine now when governments around the world are once again calling for legalisation of the industry."
This is where something jars. Surely Butler would have supported the legalisation of prostitution? After all, its illegality renders large numbers of women criminals. She certainly would have bitterly opposed a process of legalisation that involved regulation, which she felt caused prostitution and abuse, but the removal of laws altogether would probably have met with her approval. She wanted to abolish laws not replace them with others. Secondly, when Jeffries said that Butler "told men they must change", she is not wholly right. Butler certainly believed in moral reform but she explicitly distanced her own campaigns from it.
Jane Jordan makes it clear that Butler opposed purity crusades - arguably intellectual forerunners of a strand of contemporary radical feminist thought, especially when given a feminist slant by Christabel Pankhurst - saying that it was "fatuous" to force people into moral behaviour. She defended those implicated in notorious sexual scandals, such as Parnell, Dilke and Oscar Wilde. Jordan writes that "Josephine considered the idea of converting Wilde to Christianity (goodness only knows what Wilde would have made of such overtures)". It seems that both Butler and Jordan were unaware of Wilde's devout Christian socialism, another neglected aspect of the thought of famous Victorians.
In fact, Butler opposed all forms of government regulation, even legal reductions in working hours. As she put it, "the ostensible purpose … is to reduce the hours of women's labour from ten to nine a day; but it, in fact, merely provides for reducing the paid labour of women by that one hour daily, and as one of the chief reasons given for this reduction is, that 'the comfort of the home is greatly affected by the prolonged absence of the mother from the family', it is fair to infer that the one hour spared from paid labour at the factory, is spared in order that the mother may employ it in unpaid labour at home". Butler constantly argued for female economic independence and it is this that is the key to understanding how she proposed to end prostitution.
Butler did not want to end prostitution by morally reforming men. She wasn't concerned with men; she was a feminist after all. She wanted to end the economic destitution of women. Women would not be trapped into prostitution and children would not be sold by their parents to pimps if they were not forced to do so by poverty, degradation, chronic illness, alcoholism, etc. Male desires were irrelevant compared to the economic and social condition of women that made them exploitable. Hers was a crusade against injustice and what she called "tyranny".
This tyranny was the tyranny of State regulation; a State which was certainly patriarchal, based on the legal exclusion of women, but also, just as importantly, one that only represented the rich. Yes Butler saw State power as patriarchy, but she also saw it as class rule. The Contagious Diseases Acts not only institutionalised the abuse of women, but of poor women. Her analysis was based on both class and gender. Government inevitably meant simply the imposition of the desires, interests and values of wealthy men on the poor and on women. It was in her pamphlet, "Government by Police", that she came closest to making a complete political statement.
"The more absolute a government is, the more will the police be developed; whilst the freer the country is, the more it will follow the principle that everything which can be possibly be left to care of itself should so be left."
A radical republican, she argued that power can only be exercised by the excluded through a process of drastic decentralisation, allowing a direct local democracy to flourish. Moral reform will come from people having the liberty to choose to be moral and through the absence of coercion. Universal individual economic security and independence will end the abuse of women, regardless of male morality, simply because they do not need the money. Decentralisation will end the tyranny of wealthy men.
What Butler achieved in a lifetime punctuated by debilitating illness and family tragedy is breathtaking. As well as political campaigns in Britain, Europe and India, she was a practical activist running refuges for those escaping prostitution and a voluminous writer. She also had a long and happy marriage to an astoundingly supportive husband, to whom she paid tribute by writing his biography after his death.
Julie Bindel's article did mention some of the personal price to be paid by such a public life, especially in the loss of friendships from her challenges to Victorian respectability. However, the greatest alienation from colleagues was due to her uncompromising libertarianism. This led her to adopt unfashionable positions. The most notable example was her stance on the Boer War. Unlike the liberal left of her day, she supported the British. This might sound eerily familiar. Whilst colleagues were vehemently opposed to British Imperialism and supported the Boers, Butler was acutely aware of the consequences of a British defeat for the black South African population. She held no illusions about the British, but detected a quantitatively crueller racism in the Boers. She saw Apartheid coming. Thus, in some way, she can be seen as a forerunner of the current-day anti-totalitarian left.
Josephine Butler was an exemplar of the values of Victorian Evangelical Christianity, values I do not share. However, my admiration for her lies in the fact that, in distinction from many of her contemporaries, she acted on her beliefs. She behaved as a real Christian, perhaps to reaffirm her faith against periodic surges of doubt, but more likely because her compassion and righteous anger was as much a part of her personality as her intellectual convictions. It led her to an un-patronising identification with, and respect for, the underdog. This consistency of belief made Butler a feminist and a libertarian. She deserves to be remembered as much for the latter as for the former.