Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Josephine Baker

Glenda posting a letter from Lisa Thompson
Dear Friends:

There are many wonderful, amazing, inspiring women extolled in today's National Review Online.

Besides those described in NRO, there are many other women I consider modern-day wonders who are leading charges against sexual trafficking, fighting for human rights, and heading up relief and development efforts, while maintaining marriages, families, friendships,and developing amazing talents. So instead choosing from among them, I decided to memorialize Josephine Butler and here's why:

Lisa Thompson

Josephine Butler (1828-1906) was the unrelenting force behind the first international anti-trafficking movement in behalf of women in prostitution. In the 1860s a series of laws known as the Contagious Diseases Acts (CDA) legalized prostitution in several of England's garrison towns. Butler rightly viewed this state regulation of prostitution as government-sanctioned enslavement of women, and ignited a national campaign for the repeal of the CDA. She wrote volumes and traveled widely to communicate her moral indignation at the CDA. To give you a sense of her righteous anger: Before a conference of men in 1870, she stated that those affected by the CDA, "are to be no longer women, but only bits of numbered, inspected, and ticketed human flesh, flung by Government into the public market."

In taking on this issue, Butler rocked the social norms of her time not only because she spoke out on the shameful subject of prostitution, but also because she dared to publicly address audiences of men at a time when women were expected to be silent regarding public affairs.

Why did Butler bravely face public criticism and even occasional mob violence in order to advocate on behalf of the demimonde, the most unpopular of underclasses?

First, she was greatly influenced and motivated by her evangelical Christian beliefs. Like many Abolitionists a generation before who had supported the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and insisted on the humanity of the slave, Butler insisted on the humanity and God-given dignity of those caught up in the sex trade.

Secondly, she understood that the lack of education and work opportunities for women, as well as views espoused by Positivists and others that marriage was the only "career" open to women, were factors driving women into prostitution more "than any amount of actual profligacy."

Furthermore, she understood the demand dynamic. Instead of adopting the ever popular "blame the victim" attitude (unfortunately still widely with us today) toward those who were caught up in prostitution by the sinister recruitment methods of traffickers, or various means of force and coercion, or because they were desperately attempting to survive poverty and support their children, she reserved her wrath for those who engineered prostitution's normalization and expansion, and who were profiteers or partakers of the "trade."

During the course of many years the CDA were repealed and Butler helped form and head the International Abolitionist Federation which fought on behalf of sexually trafficked women around the world. By the end of her life, Butler had engaged in efforts to promote the higher education of women, supported women's suffrage, took prostituted women into her own home for care and restoration, founded the "House of Rest," a refuge for former prostitutes, revolutionized the role of women in politics, and elped elevate women some viewed as "the sewers of society" to places of safety and positions of dignity and respect. What a woman!

Lisa Thompson is Liaison for the Abolition of Sexual Trafficking at the Salvation Army.


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