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Frédéric Regard, éd., Féminisme et prostitution dans l’Angleterre du XIXe siècle : la croisade de Josephine Butler

Lyon, ENS éditions, 2013, 311 p., ISBN 978-2-84788-392-3
Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière
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Frédéric Regard, éd., Féminisme et prostitution dans l’Angleterre du XIXe siècle : la croisade de Josephine Butler, Lyon, ENS éditions, 2013, 311 p. ISBN 978-2-84788-392-3

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1The Fondamentaux du féminisme anglo-saxon series was launched by Professor Frédéric Regard in 2008, and is published by the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon Press. The volume on Josephine Butler (1828-1906) is the fifth in this collection on essential British and American feminist figures, often little known in France, such as Mary Astell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Margaret Sanger. The Victorian Josephine Butler consciously jeopardized her social position and respectability to defend prostitutes and, beyond this, to fight against the Victorian moral and sexual ‘double standard’ that discriminated against women. When the double standard was institutionalised with the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, 1869—that acknowledged female prostitution as necessary, while denying prostitutes any right and control over their own bodies—Butler became leader of the Ladies’ National Association and launched a twenty-year crusade, until the acts were repealed in 1886 in the UK (the crusade went on in India). Aimed at a French-speaking readership, Féminisme et prostitution dans l’Angleterre du xixe siècle : la croisade de Josephine Butler is humbly presented as an introduction to Butler’s life and work. In spite of this claim, F. Regard’s book is much more than just an introduction to this fascinating and apparently paradoxical Victorian feminist.

2To date, the most important biography of Butler probably is Jane Jordan’s Josephine Butler, first published in 2001 by Murray. Together with Ingrid Sharp, Jordan also edited Routledge’s five volumes of Butler’s texts, Josephine Butler and the Prostitution Campaigns, published in 2003. This may be the reason why Jordan concedes in her introduction to her biography that ‘the main source of information is Josephine herself’ (4), and that she tends to rely mostly on Butler’s numerous pamphlets, articles, speeches or biographies, with sometimes little critical distance and cross-referencing. F. Regard’s book pays homage to Jordan’s editorship of Butler’s texts, and readers who can are advised to read the original documents in the excellent Routledge anthology. However, Féminisme et prostitution dans l’Angleterre du xixe siècle : la croisade de Josephine Butler manages to avoid the methodological flaws of Jordan’s biography.

3The volume comprises four distinct but complementary parts. The first one, ‘Josephine Butler et son époque’, written by Florence Marie, is a short but well-documented 30-page biography of Butler, to which is added a very thorough 10-page chronology. F. Marie makes her readers aware that Butler’s crusade was fought in a specific social, political but also moral and spiritual context, and that much of Butler’s arguments and strategies cannot be properly understood outside this context. F. Marie obviously refers to Butler’s texts, but also to a wide bibliography of other Victorian primary sources on the issue of prostitution. Most importantly, F. Marie compiled an anthology of primary documents on the topic that both enlighten and put Butler’s views into perspective. This third part of the volume, entitled ‘Le Contexte’, includes translations from obvious sources, such as William Acton’s Prostitution, Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects (1857), but also rarer though just as important documents, like Annie Besant’s article ‘The Legalisation of Female Slavery in England’ (1876). F. Marie thus gives a say to Butler’s historical opponents as well as her supporters.

4The last part of the volume is F. Regard’s selection of sixteen of Josephine Butler’s numerous texts, arranged in chronological order, from ‘The Ladies’ Appeal and Protest’ (1869) to ‘The Revival and Extension of the Abolitionist Cause’ (1887). This anthology covers the main aspects of Butler’s crusade, as well as its evolution. All her lines of argument appear in the selection, the moral and spiritual as well as the social and constitutional ones.

5Each of the primary documents presented in the volume is briefly introduced, while footnotes are included to explain what a French reader might not readily know. Sylvie Regard, who translated all the texts, also kept this French reader in mind. When an English term or phrase could not be fully translated in a satisfying way, S. Regard decided to keep the original one besides the French approximation, as in this passage from William Acton’s text: ‘C’est en vain que nous construisons des dispensaires pour maladies vénériennes [lock hospitals] et des maisons de redressement [penitentiaries]’ (181). When it comes to Butler’s texts, S. Regard was also obviously keen to offer some original examples of Butler’s specific style and tone, as in her translation of a speech Butler delivered in Birmingham in 1871: ‘L’histoire nous montre qu’il n’existe pas un seul exemple de nation forte, libre et vertueuse où les femmes se seraient contentées d’être les êtres adorables de leur foyer [the cherished darlings of their homes]’ (273).

6Josephine Butler is so misunderstood or little known in France that were this book to include Butler’s contextualised biography as well as her texts and the other primary documents only, it would still be a valuable addition to any series on essential feminist figures. However, its second part, i.e Frédéric Regard’s remarkable essay, ‘Lost: Josephine Butler et le mystère des filles perdues’, makes Féminisme et prostitution dans l’Angleterre du xixe siècle : la croisade de Josephine Butler an essential contribution to gender and British cultural studies in France. With a thorough and most original methodological approach, F. Regard demonstrates the coherence of Butler’s discourse in spite of her prolixity, and how her rhetorical strategies reveal and enlighten her actions. F. Regard shows that Butler consciously relied on two essentially Victorian genres: the melodrama and the Evangelical sermon. He also proves that, along with the famous journalist W. T. Stead she worked with, Butler contributed to the development of the genre of the detective story. Thanks to such analyses, F. Regard manages to move beyond Butler’s apparent paradoxes, whereas some French historians, who did not study her crusade within its proper cultural context, misinterpreted it because of their anachronistic and/or ethnocentric approach. It is true that Butler expressed her feminism in Christian terms, but hers was a spiritual point of view, not a religious one, and her crusade was inspired by her humanist interpretation of the Gospels. Far from being reactionary or conservative, Butler found in the Gospels her faith in democracy beyond social classes, her belief in complete equality between men and women, and enough strength to reject a moral double standard sanctioned by institutions, including the Church of England, which she strongly criticised.

7Frédéric Regard studies Butler’s work also as a quest: that of a woman who saw herself in all women, to whom she gave their voices back so as to find her own. F. Regard now gives her voice back to Butler, in all its depth and coherence, thanks to his very convincing re-evaluation: Josephine Butler was a drama queen, a prophet and a detective all at once, without contradicting herself, and her texts amount to a long single work, that opens on a rebellious cry, first uttered in French: ‘Nous nous révoltons’. Furthermore, F. Regard offers methodological tools that should now be applied to other apparently problematic Victorian figures, who are still sorely misunderstood by contemporary historiography, especially in France.

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Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière, « Frédéric Regard, éd., Féminisme et prostitution dans l’Angleterre du XIXe siècle : la croisade de Josephine Butler », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 81 Printemps | 2015, mis en ligne le 06 septembre 2015, consulté le 12 décembre 2017. URL :

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Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière

Université Paris-Sorbonne

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