What are we to do with our own personal ‘cry of pain’ and that we encounter in others? Can we help transform it into a ‘cry for justice’, finding spiritual courage to question the structures of oppression, seek liberation, and nurture networks of solidarity?
Josephine Butler (1828-1906) has been called the ‘mother of Christian feminism’, with much reason. Not only did she directly help to give birth to it, but most of the key motifs and strategies of the later women’s suffrage movement were present in her proclamations and actions. Some of these were laced with distinct 19th century thinking. Yet they also set the stage for later feminism and expressed a theology of liberation whose preference for the poor and outcast is still inspirational today. For Josephine, grounded in both deep biblical reflection and a broad liberal education, the women’s movement was ‘a cry of pain, a cry of justice’ for the outcast and oppressed:
Our hearts cry out for Justice; our souls are athirst for Justice. Like the Hebrew prophet we are sometimes constrained to exclaim, ‘Justice has fallen in the street.’ (Truth Before Everything, p.9)
Looking to Galatians 3:28 as ‘the Magna Carta’ of the Christian women’s movement, she called on others to join the struggle. For:
Self-government is life and life cannot be lived at secondhand (The Constitution Violated)
Tears are good, prayers are better, but best of all is the ballot box.
God and one woman make a majority.
A minor saint in the Anglican Church calendar today, she was partly propelled into social activism after the tragic death of her six year old daughter Eva and the immense broader pain she found in subsequent ministry with the poor and outcast. Significantly, she was also a product of born a great northern reforming culture. Born to radical north-east parents in Milfield in Northumberland, her father John was a cousin of Charles, Earl Grey, a principal architect of the Great Reform Act of 1832, and himself prominent in anti-slavery and Catholic Emancipation work. Similarly, Josephine’s work went far beyond care for the welfare of others to transforming the very perspectives and structures which gave rise to oppression. Most notably, although groups such as the temperance movement had already begun to organise evangelical women on public issues, it was Josephine who first linked moral concern with feminist arguments about the position of women and men in society. Convinced that female prostitutes were victims, both of women’s economic position, and of contemporary sexual attitudes, she thus helped launch a long but eventually successful campaign against the ‘double standard’ of Victorian sexual morality, especially against the Contagious Diseases Acts which victimised women for the ostensible ‘protection’ of military servicemen. To do so in that era required tremendous courage, a remarkable willingness to embrace stigma and considerable cost to herself and to those who supported her, not least her clergyman husband George.
For all the reasons above, Josephine remains an amazing multifaceted diamond of Christian feminism. No wonder perhaps that, in the past, the Church has sought to domesticate her as a ‘mere’ model Christian wife, mother and welfare activist (not that there is anything wrong in any of those things!), or that secular feminists have tried to ignore the powerful spiritual and theological basis of her life and work. Clothed in Victorian language as it sometimes was, Josephine’s legacy remains powerful and profound. Not least, this is true of her understanding and advocacy of women’s issues as borderless and inextricably bound up with one another. It is a message we still have fully to learn. For, as the main women’s suffrage paper put it, drawing on her inspirational life close to the severing of international bonds in the first world war:
It was Josephine Butler, surely, who first said of womanhood that it was solidaire. She is the patron saint of all international movements, for she taught the unforgettable lesson that all the wrongs of every woman are the wrongs of all women, and no woman can be outraged or oppressed but womanhood itself is the sufferer.
(editorial, Common Cause, 9 March 1913)
God of Justice,
who, out of her pain,
so empowered Josephine Butler
with burning compassion for the outcast
and strength to speak and act upon it,
You are present among us
in our own longings for wholeness, healing and hope.
Give us the same Spirit of insight, courage and solidarity,
that we may too may be voices for the voiceless
and Christ-like companions of the poor.
In the liberating power of your Love, Amen.