Strong Women

The idea for writing my new novel ‘All Gone’ (published on 26th May) came from a character I referred to in my genealogy series, Maze Investigations Book 5, “The Policeman’ and I want to share with you what inspired this book.

There are so many strong women, some famous, many more who live out their lives in obscurity, with no wish to be recognized for what they do every day: looking after family, friends, strangers even, giving their time, energy and courage without wanting or needing recompense, return or recognition, and standing up when a critical moment arrived.

The characters in ‘All Gone’ – collectively the Curiosity Club of St Foy – are such. When called upon to step up, to use their individual strengths, support a friend, a family member or stand up to someone determined to prevail over them, they don’t hesitate, or even consider if this is in their best interest. They just do it.

And if you were to ask them, most wouldn’t recognize themselves in the description. They are not selfish or needy, or waiting to be thanked. It doesn’t matter to such women what their motive is – it’s about doing the right thing.

So, the woman who inspired me to write about the strengths of women was Josephine Butler.

She was born Josephine Grey, in 1828, into a well-to-do Christian family, related to Earl Grey, a UK Prime Minister as well as the man who invented Earl Grey tea (my personal favourite!).

Her family’s moral Christianity led Josephine to take a strong interest in social issues. When she was nineteen the event that opened her eyes to horror and profoundly affected her for the rest of her life was the death from famine and poverty she witnessed on a visit to Ireland: the Irish potato famine, which killed hundreds of thousands of peasants and caused many more to flee the country.
Josephine was a ‘feminist’ before feminism was thought of. She believed in the education of girls – all girls, not just those who could afford it.

The change in her life that set her on the road of becoming a feminist campaigner was a move to Liverpool with her husband, George Butler, when he became the Headmaster of a school in the city. She had recently suffered the loss of her daughter, Eva, aged five, in a tragic accident. Josephine’s grief was overwhelming. She decided to take up active work, but not of the ‘do good’ kind. In a letter she wrote:

“I became possessed with an irresistible desire to go forth and find some pain keener thank my own – to meet with people more unhappy than myself … I had no clear idea beyond that, no plan for helping others: my sole wish was to plunge into the heart of some human misery and to say (as I now knew I could) to afflicted people, ‘I understand. I, too, have suffered.’”

The people Josephine chose were the prostitutes of Liverpool. The average age for women in Victorian England to enter prostitution was around fifteen. This lasted, on average, around five years, usually ending in their death. The majority were driven to this by poverty and destitution. For married women, few paying jobs were available. They were exploited and abused, but the choice was to feed themselves and their children – often abandoned, or starve to death. In our time, in this century, in this decade, it’s hard to understand. But in the late 19th century, it was common.

In choosing to support these women, and campaign for them, Josephine did not make herself popular. Reviled by her own class, subjected to insult and mockery, she persevered. On one occasion, the building in which she was due to speak to a group of women was set on fire by men who hated what she stood for.

It sounds, in writing this account, that Josephine was a firebrand. This was nowhere near the truth. She was quietly spoken, yet was a mesmerizing speaker, able to not only command an audience, but to sit and debate with senior national figures including government ministers. She suffered bouts of ill health, but never stopped travelling and working.

One of her great achievements was the repealing of the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864, commonly known as ‘Steel Rape’. This act was set up to allow the police to take women infected with venereal diseases out of circulation. Any woman suspected of being a prostitute could be taken to a hospital and subjected to an internal examination, which was described as ‘unbearably painful’. If they refused, they would be held in prison for an unspecified period of time, until they consented. The devil is in the detail here (which I will not describe as it’s too horrific), as the police could haul in any woman they liked, often inappropriately. There are cases of women who committed suicide after being unfairly examined. Needless to say, nothing was done about the men from whom they received their infection – mostly soldiers (by 1864 1 in 3 military men were believed to be infected and therefore unable to fight). Yet it was the women who were referred to as ‘vehicles of disease’.

Josephine’s involvement in campaigning for the repeal of the act was met with horror by the establishment, national, political and ecclesiastical. One MP publicly called her “A woman who calls herself a lady”. She carried on, undaunted, until the Act and its several amendments, was finally repealed in 1883.

Later she became active in raising to prominence and combatting the European slave trade, rampant in England where many girls were kidnapped or deceived into travelling abroad and sold into brothels, predominantly in Paris and Brussels. Reading about this particular aspect of her life gave me the basis of the plot of my novel, “The Policeman”.

Towards the end of her life Josephine was a supporter of the suffrage movement, campaigning for women to have the right to vote and to own property.

She simply could not believe or accept that men alone had the right to rule the world.

Josephine Butler became known as the Patron Saint of Prostitutes.

She was, and is, for me, an inspiring woman.

Picture of Mary Jones

Mary Jones

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