Monday 20 January 2014

Ellice Hopkins and Josephine Butler: Two Victorian Reformers

I originally conceived of comparing Ellice Hopkins and Josephine Butler in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) but decided instead to focus exclusively on Butler.  In some of the material on Hopkins in the following piece, I have borrowed from the text.

Ellice Hopkins
Although Ellice Hopkins and Josephine Butler have often been perceived as polar opposites, the former serving as a foil for the latter, they did have similar if not identical aims, even if their philosophy and methodology differed. Hopkins believed that the struggle against the Contagious Diseases (C.D.) laws were secondary to promoting social purity; she was less interested in connecting prostitution to other political and economic disabilities experienced by women. Her interests were primarily pragmatic and moral.

 Hopkins established homes for young women to prevent them from falling into a life of dissipation and lecturing women on how to avoid incest and immortality in overcrowded homes. Motivated by her fury against “male devourers” and “unnatural parents” who encouraged their daughters to enter brothels, she established of over two hundred rescue homes. In the interests of protecting the young from sexual abuse, Hopkins was particularly effective in sponsoring a law that would deprive a mother of custody of her child under sixteen if she were living in a brothel. The campaign against the double standard and sexual exploitation had shifted the focus for the purity reformers into a struggle against any kind of alleged deviant behavior (sexuality not connected with motherhood and monogamy). Their goal of the establishment of a more rigid standard of public demeanour and decorum became a thinly veiled attack upon working class culture. Although Hopkins warned her purity colleagues to avoid a “self-righteous interfering spirit,” the class tensions and the atmosphere of protective surveillance aroused the scorn of prostitutes who resented the efforts of reformers to re-socialize them. True, purity groups were reluctant to acknowledge the sexual precocity of working class girls and instead sought to inculcate the need for sexual restraint
Contrary to men like Herbert Spencer who regarded sex as evidence of a lower form of evolutionary existence and women who equated sperm with a virus, Hopkins, a celibate single woman, believed that sex in matrimonial union as “humanity’s highest approximation of its divine potential as co-creators of life.” At a more practical level, Hopkins urged that mothers take responsibility to impart sexual knowledge to their daughters. Resisting a male ideal of the sexually anaesthetised angel, she advocated “robust virtue, not helpless innocence.” Her efforts received gratitude from some working-class women who, as she wrote about her lecture tours, were interested in shaking her hand.  Education and autonomy were essential components in the purity campaign, but they were not sufficient to address the social ills arising from sexual abuse.

In the view of the militant social purists, moral suasion needed to be supplemented by the increased power of the state through enlarged police surveillance, changes to the criminal code and the interventionist method of vice control. This kind of feminism appealed to men like police officers and magistrates because it encouraged state intrusion into the lives of working class women and allowed them to forcibly close down brothels. Although harassment of prostitutes and their clients became a part of the steely morality of the social purity vigilantes, it was grounded in the utilitarian new liberalism, that restraints on some provided overarching security for the large majority. Prostitution and sexual vice were portrayed as an infringement of the liberty of the respectable working-class men and women, in short as a crime against the community. Philosophically, it was a stark alternative to John Stuart Mill’s civil libertarian enshrinement of the individual rights of the prostitute, a position that one Cambridge scholar and bishop pejoratively described as “tyrannical individualism.” Although more in sympathy with the need to protect the community over individual freedom, Hopkins provided different shading by viewing the law not as essentially punitive but pedagogical: “the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.” Deeply religious, her modus operandi was essentially pragmatic in that she supported any action that would promote the nation’s moral welfare. That included the entry of "more democratic elements" into political life, the visibility of more women and working class men to offset the power of men with property in the legislature whose prime interest, she believed, was in the protection of that property. Women had to be a moral force to influence the law particularly in the interests of those most vulnerable in society.

Josephine Butler
Josephine Butler, however, was disturbed by the pressure, that the purifiers exerted, when they intimidated prostitutes and she publicly repudiated their actions. As a liberal feminist, she did believe in freedom of choice, the supremacy of conscience and that the state should not regulate morality; if an adult chose to be a prostitute, that decision was unfortunately her choice. Years after the repeal of the C.D. laws in 1894 when the campaign to deny the music-hall promenades to prostitutes was a major public issue, she wrote, "I continue to protest that any real reform will ever be reached by outward repression." In the spirit of Mill, she continued that individuals should be left alone, and that as “long as they behave decently” they should not be "driven out of any place."
Moreover, Butler’s goals had always been more political and economic. Instead of harassing individual prostitutes, her war was with the institution of prostitution and the state’s overt or covert support of it. When the state regulates prostitution, it was implicitly approving of it and allowing it to flourish. Whenever the state increased its power, it gave license to its public servants to abuse their power and be unaccountable for their actions. The struggle against the C.D. laws, therefore, could not be undertaken in isolation from the legal and civil rights of women, of laws that depressed the wages of women and reduced their working hours. The purity movements, however, focused more on altering the sexual behavior of men and women and ignored the economic forces that drove women into prostitution. For example, their style toward prostitutesreformation or be crushedgradually surpassed Butler’s inclination toward the rescue of and search for other viable economic options for these women. Perhaps she was aware that the “coercive and degrading treatment of their fellow creatures” by the social purifiers was a replication (although possibly less malevolent” of the treatment that had been meted out by the police, magistrates and doctors toward the prostitutes under the CD laws.
Butler speaking before a hostile crowd

Although Butler disassociated herself from the repressive and punitive methods of the purifiers, philosophically, she shared certain assumptions. She essentially viewed women as naturally chaste, virtuous and compassionate, deemed sexual behavior only in the service of procreation, and saw women as home–makers by instinct because the “home is the nursery of all virtue.” Those who did not understand that basic fact underestimated the power of nature. At times, her language was more reminiscent of Darwin than Mill, the latter with whom she maintained a philosophical affinity. Her version of womanhood did not mean she would ever cease demanding complete legal and political equality. But it did reveal that pronouncements against "male lust" and the double standard could cut two ways. Brandishing a speculum like a sword at a public meeting, she expressed her righteous and justifiable anger at the vile invasion of women. But the instrument could have been also a shield to protect her and her female supporters from their own sexual feelings. Like the social purifiers, they could scarcely conceal their repugnance and disdain for the young working class women who entered freely into sexual liaisons with men without the sanction of marriage. What this attitude revealed on a deeper level was that their desire to protect the women from sexual exploitation also “thinly masked [their] coercive impulses to control their voluntary sexual responses.”

Butler was not concerned with the family as an institution or how the laws primarily protected the interests of the male head, but the danger to women who were exposed to illicit sex. In this way, their attitudes mirrored the motives of the men in the repeal movement whom Butler simultaneously supported because the women needed them and resented when they attempted to assume leadership of the movement and marginalize women. Later when she came to write her memoirs with the struggle against the CD laws long behind her, she retreated on her political struggle to challenge the laws that discriminated against women and was careful not to offend men. Though it did contain descriptions of some cruel and brutal men, she minimized the sexual politics lest she alienate the many men who had supported them. She stressed the contributions of male Parliamentary and journalist supporters to the campaign, and wrote that she undertook this struggle as “a citizen of a free country first, and as a woman secondly.” By this time, her softer more accommodating language distinguished itself by being not all that different from that of Hopkins.

In When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1998) Jill Ker Conway noted how the memoirs of women are different than men. Males have followed the classical archetype of the man setting out an odyssey where he will encounter ordeals, but with the demonstration of personal strengths will overcome them. His achievements will come through his own agency. The archetype for women was more relational, first with God, than in the more secular writings with a man. Consequently, women have minimized their own contributions and have attributed them to surreptitious or fortuitous circumstances that fell her way rather than taking claim for what they have done. Her comments might provide some insight into Butler’s assessment of her own life. A form of self-censorship in order to gain acceptance from men, who did possess power, might also explain her reticence to herald the women who contributed to the repeal of the C.D. laws. My own sense of that reticence in Butler’s autobiography is that in addition to the men that made it possible was her belief in providence, that the workings of God, rather than their own struggles that account for much of the success the women experienced.

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