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God and a woman make a majority

The story of the Christian feminist Josephine Butler who made Catherine of Siena known overseas

"God and one woman make a majority" These are the words of a militant feminist, who was also a passionate Christian, the English woman Josephine Butler.

A cultured woman, she was born into a well-educated and progressive family, opponents of slavery, who allowed her to study, she married George Butler, a scholar and Anglican minister, who shared with her her radical campaigning, paying the consequences in his academic career. A mother of four children, her only daughter died as a child, Josephine fought political battles which were decisive for the welfare of women workers but above all for the dignity of prostitutes. But she was also a passionate intellectual: after helping her husband to prepare a critical edition of the writings of Chaucer preserved in the Bodleian Library, she was the first woman to be allowed to visit the library.

Initially, she was committed to giving women the opportunity to enter higher education, but - especially after the death of her daughter in 1863 - her work has focused especially on women who were suffering, that is prostitutes. From 1866, when George Butler moved to Liverpool College, Josephine’s experience of the large industrial city was crucial to raising her awareness of the living conditions of women of the lower classes.

Beginning from 1869, Butler led the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act, that is the law which required women suspected of prostitution to undergo a gynecological examination: if judged infected with venereal diseases, they had to pass a set number of months in hospital, which was like a prison, and then of course, now on file as prostitutes, they had no option but to return to their profession. Those who refused to undergo the examination were thrown into prison.

Josephine denounced the domineering attitude of the police, the violence with which even doctors treated these women, the fact that poor women also could fall victim to raids and even though they were not prostitutes themselves, they could be put definitively on police files as prostitutes. But mostly she railed against the double standards, which did not involve medical examinations for those who frequent prostitutes, so that they could continue with impunity to spread the infection.

This regulation, initially applied only in the ports and garrison towns was, in 1869,  to be extended to the whole country: this led to the birth of a national women's association into which Josephine threw all her energy, in spite of physical aggression and defamation. In later years, her action was expanded to other European countries where similar rules for the regulation of prostitution were entering into force, and she was also engaged in the fight against the white slave trade. In addition to some material of a political nature, related to her battles, Josephine wrote only one book: a biography of Catherine of Siena, in whom she sees a model of political action and moral rigour very close to her own experience. Anyway, she spares no details on her political influence: "In fact, you could really say that Catherine ruled Rome at that time. Her efforts were almost superhuman. Every morning she went into the Campidoglio where the gonfalonieri of the republic waited for her. No measure of any importance was taken without consulting her. The interests of the community seemed to depend on her presence and her activity. Urban VI gave her full power and authority to act on behalf of the welfare of the Church. Prominent citizens waited at her door every day for a short conversation and to get advice on difficult public and private issues." A true model for the early feminists for that reason and also for her appearance and attitude: "She had a frank attitude, she was like an open book, she used to look straight into the eyes of the people who addressed her, her forehead was wide and open, a bit too receding at the hairline to be beautiful, her hair and eyebrows were dark brown, gray or hazel eyes, a straight and extremely delicate nose; the chin and the jaw were strong and rather prominent, her smile was always remembered , an affectionate smile, sweet, that spread across her face, it lit up her eyes and often broke out into a laugh. She did not have the charm of assured beauty, but that of kindness, of sincerity and of grace. (...) She spoke fairly quickly and with the sweetest Sienese accent; she had particularly courteous ways of acting towards those who came to visit, bowing deeply to greet them, as was done at that the time, sometimes kneeling when greeting people she considered especially venerable, then sitting down next to them to talk in a frank and friendly way. Her ways of relating with men and women, went a bit “over the prescribed conventions of the time”. In the footsteps of Catherine, in her public appearances, Josephine did not prepare her script, but allowed herself to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. And she enjoyed great success.

Her empathy with the saint led her even to portray her as a proto-Protestant: "There is no doubt that if she had lived two centuries later, in the midst of convulsions that tore Christendom apart, she would have remained firmly on the side of truth of the Gospel and would have joined her protest to that of the reformers."

Butler's book certainly helped to raise awareness of Catherine among English feminists, and to help these modern women to understand that, if they wanted an example, a model, one was to be found in this medieval saint.




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 10, 2019