All Quiet On The Wench Front

Herstory at its fucking finest.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Josephine?


“Worse than a common prostitute.” Some git, eighteen-sixty-something?

Doesn’t it feel like Embarrassing Bodies has been around for like, two-hundred and fifty-six years? It hasn’t, we’ve just grown so accustomed to the site of genital warts that it’s hard to remember a time when warts were confined to a witches nose.

But, sexual health clinics actually have been around for two-hundred and fifty-six years. The first sexual health clinic celebrated this not-so-momentous birthday last week. Hoorah. Yep, before the birth of modern medicine, before hygiene practices, the small pox vaccination and the discovery of penicillin, before everything, really, came safe sex. Of course, it’d be a long time before sexual health practices could actually boast any form of ‘safety’, but the importance of a healthy downstairs was recognised a long time ago.

This might all sound very avant harde, but there’s a catch. Authorities wanted to protect virility. Exclusively. Women were actually on par with guinea pigs in this pursuit. So it would be many years before the sexual health of women was important of its own accord. Not because they were breeders of germs that could be passed onto men. The woman who sparked the dawn of this sexual revolution, yonks before the swinging sixties and first wave feminism, was one Josephine Butler.


The infamous London Lock Hospital opened on 31 January 1747 as the first venereal disease clinic. The Lock Hospitals were originally established for the treatment of leprosy, then syphilis, but eventually provided a whole array of wonderful andrological and gynaecology “treatments” before being integrated into the NHS in 1948, and eventually closed in 1952. Lock. It’s in the name, isn’t it? It already invokes a sense of foreboding.

Missionaries and charitable groups had been arguing for a VD clinic for months, so the hospital was very closely associated with the church. Lock treated almost 300 patients during its first year; the treatments weren’t medically verified or even effective, but the numbers alone ensured it was seen as a success, and so began a herstory of surgical rape and psychological torment in the name of keeping dicks clean.

Things got worse when the Lock Rescue Home was opened in 1792, as a “refuge” for women who had been treated at Lock. The Rescue Home changed location several times in its early years, since it was felt to be too far from the hospital chapel. The chapel was to provide support for “fallen” women, so the Home was eventually situated next door to Lock. Lock was renamed The Female Hospital when a new site in Soho opened for male outpatients in 1862 – which underwent a massive expansion in 1867, thanks to the Contagious Diseases Act.

*Shudder* – There’s a really spiky seat in hell for the fucker who came up with this piece of legislation. As a frigid sixteen year old you really don’t want to hear about forced vaginal examinations. Have you seen pictures of nineteenth century medical implements? Exactly. I spent the rest of that term having bad dreams about Edward Scissorhands in a nurse’s uniform. I’m not even going to say what it involves here. All you need to know is it’s barbaric. And if a woman refused or resisted an ‘examination’ she was put in prison.

This is where Josephine comes in. She was responsible for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act. Which, not only spared women the humiliation and pain of a forced examination, but potentially saved many from being arrested, institutionalised and discriminated against.

The problem is, Josephine Butler’s reputation has undergone many transformations, and her relationship with feminism has been just as unstable. For decades she was simply forgotten, whether that was because the Contagious Diseases Act was only revisited when prostitution and sex became a significant part of women’s history, I don’t know. But even after her achievements were acknowledged, Josephine’s legacy has continued to cause controversy amongst herstorians and feminists.

Problem one:

Her christianity was a massive part of who she was. So more often than not, she’s seen as a prudish evangelist, another middle class do-gooder who sought to “correct” the impertinent behaviour of women who’d strayed from God’s teachings.

I understand the temptation to write off anyone who is/was devoutly religious as a nut. But Josephine was actually very suspicious of the church run “rescue homes” and that’s why she set up a secular place for women to stay, to protect them from prejudice and the excruciating embarrassment of having to listen to how they might repent their sins.

Problem two:

All historic figures are understood, not only through what they did, but what motivated them to do it. Now, you’d think “I just really fucking hate injustice” would be sufficient a motivation. But no. Women only have one motivation; personal tragedy. So, Josephine, what happened to you to make you become a social reformer, hmm? What one incident in your life can we impart all the credit of your achievements on? You had a happy childhood? No, that won’t do. Loving husband? Crap, we’re running out of leverage here. The loss of your only daughter at six years old? BINGO.

Now, while the death of Evangeline undoubtedly had an impact on Josephine’s commitment to women and children, tying up someone’s principles in a neat little bow like this is stupid. Josephine’s upbringing was very liberal and her parents, who were active in the abolitionist campaign, taught her about equality from an early age. She then married a headmaster, George Butler, who fervently supported gender equality. They moved to Liverpool, where there was a huge prostitution trade. See the motivation growing before your very eyes?

Problem three:

After she established the Ladies National Association in 1869, Josephine was the first publicly recognised feminist activist in Britain. Women had supported other causes like anti-slavery and the early suffrage movements, but none had ever been so overtly critical of men, and definitely not in reference to something as contentious as their sexual behaviour. But despite her readiness to talk openly about sex, Josephine had quite a limited view on the sex trade, strongly believing that prostitution was only ever abuse. Abuse that was the product of patriarchy. And while she fully supported the women who found themselves as victims of that patriarchy, that’s exactly what she saw them as, victims;

“The degradation of these poor unhappy women is not degradation for them alone; it is a blow to the dignity of every virtuous woman too, it is dishonour done to me, it is the shaming of every woman in every country of the world.”

This is a bit of a pickle for sex-positivism, and it’s probably why Josephine is still a source of discomfort when discussing women who shaped feminism, especially amongst questions of inclusiveness and intersectionality. And when this view of prostitution is frequently used by those who condemn sex work, biographers, academics, feminists, it’s hard to disassociate Josephine from this sexual diatribe. In Jane Jordan’s 2001 biography, she says;

“Butler would find the discussions on prostitution as ‘sex work’, and the normalisation and expansion of the sex industry today very odd. She would want to know how we could have gone backwards after the huge strides forward she achieved.”

Short of inventing a time machine and going back to the 1860s to explain to Josephine what happened to prostitution in the century and half that followed her campaign, we’ll never know what she’d think of contemporary attitudes to sex work. I suppose the thing to remember is that Josephine was surrounded by extremely poor women who often died from disease or injuries inflicted upon them by johns. She saw child prostitutes, violence, poverty, destitution, and on top of all of this, these women were being victimised by the authorities under a heinous double standard.

The irony of it all? Josephine wasn’t bothered about her reputation while she was alive, I doubt she’d be worried about it now. She did what she set out to do, and what she set out to do was protect women who couldn’t protect themselves. What’s the problem with that?



/wenCH/ noun Origin Middle English: abbreviation of obsolete wenchel, meaning child, servant, prostitute; perhaps related to Old English wancol, meaning unsteady, inconstant. Definition Girl, woman, probably a right stand-up bird.



her·sto·ry /ˈhərstərē/ noun Shit hot history from a female or feminist perspective.
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