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Social Reform: The Prostitute as a “Fallen Magdalene” :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

Social Reform: The Prostitute as a “Fallen Magdalene”


Josephine Butler

Josephine Butler


Cartoon of the Social Purity Movement

Cartoon of the Social Purity Movement

Josephine Butler’s vision of the reformed prostitute

Josephine Butler was a British social activist with whom Stead frequently allied on political reform campaigns. Butler held a very narrow view of the urban English prostitute. In her writings and campaign propaganda, she cultivated the archetype of a tragic, easily reformed, Magdalene-like girl who had been robbed of her innocence. Like the Biblical figure of Mary Magdalene, the docile English prostitute was closer to God because she had sinned and then experienced redemption (Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society, 89). Taking a savior role, Butler rescued “fallen” girls from the streets, prisons, workhouses, and slums of Liverpool, bringing them to her home to be rehabilitated. However, she only took the girls who fit her image of a victimized prostitute. In her personal diaries and political propaganda, she characterized these women as pitiful and dependent. The historian Judith Walkowitz summarized Butler’s archetypical prostitute:

The protagonists in Butler’s sketches were dying magdalens who had finally found maternal protection and personal salvation under Butler’s care. They were victims and heroines, ‘poor wandering lambs’ ennobled by their suffering and sad life. (Walkowitz, 89)

Butler and other reformers carefully cultivated this vision of the urban prostitute beneath the public’s eye for the purpose of political propaganda.

Butler cast the fallen Magdalene as the perfect figurehead for various social reform campaigns. Many of these campaigns were part of the Social Purity Movement, a Victorian cultural push towards morality, temperance, and charity. In the 1870s and 1880s, Butler and other progressive feminists embarked on mission to repeal various regulatory acts against prostitution. They argued that “state regulation sentenced registered women to a ‘life of sin’ by publicly stigmatizing them and thus preventing them from leaving prostitution or finding alternative ‘respectable’ employment” (Mahood, The Magdalenes, 141).  In Butler’s essay “The Constitution Violated,” she condemned the Contagious Diseases Act, insisting that it discriminated against prostitutes and against women in general. This Act attempted to control prostitution and venereal disease through registration. However, Butler explained that the Act could convict a woman if one policeman apprehended her under his belief of her prostitution and if one judge accepted his claim. She wrote:

The honour therefore of every woman is by this law entrusted to two men, the one the justice of the peace, the other the policeman, who let it be carefully observed, is expressly hired by the Government for the one stated object of detecting unchaste women. (Butler, “A Constitution Violated,” 34).

To oppose the Contagious Diseases Acts, Butler’s propaganda suggested a conspiracy between the government and oppressive male power, characterizing women as victims and aristocratic males as aggressors. As another tactic to protest the Acts, she published a series of letters from her rescued fallen women, harnessing their archetypical voices for the purpose of political reform. Blaming male power, one letter cried, “It is men, only men, […] that we have to do with! To please a man I did wrong at first, then I was flung about from man to man. Men police lay hands on us. By men we are examined, handled, doctored” (Walkowitz, 92). Butler’s Magdalenes condemned aggressive male corruption and embodied feminine victimization. The intentionally cultivated symbol of a fallen woman provided a powerful political tool for social reform in England.

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