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The Duty of Women

November 25, 1870 — County Hall, Carlisle, England


I find it very needful for myself, and it may be also for you, my friends, to impress upon my mind again and again the hideousness of the principles which underlie this legislation. We need to be filled with a horror of the selfishness, the profligacy, and the treason against God and nature, which have given birth to such a law. We need, at the same time, continually to renew the conviction of the sacredness of our mission in opposing such legislation. This renewal of the horror of the evil and of zeal for the war against it, is necessary, that we may not be weary in well-doing, and may be found faithful unto death. In the work to which God has called me, one of my most painful experiences is that of seeing fellow-workers who at first are filled with zeal, afterwards falling away. We have from thirty to forty local Committees, or Branch Associations, throughout the kingdom, and sometimes it happens that the local secretary of one or other of such Committees writes to tell me of the waning zeal of the ladies of the Committee, or the hindrance to work, in the form of indolence or timidity, saying, that “the ladies find the subject so painful, that they are glad to cease from working in the matter.” This is very natural. I well know that the mind cannot bear a long strain of one painful topic, and this subject is, of necessity, so sad and painful, that, in order to attain to faithful action, there must be another feeling or motive in the mind, powerful enough to overcome the fear of pain: and again and again I have seen that powerful motive born and growing in the minds of the gentlest, purest, and most timid, until strength became perfected in weakness; and pain, patiently endured, brought forth such living results, that the tried soul has “remembered no more her anguish.”

A rest, a diversion from the painful topic, may be, and ought to be sought again and again, but only that it may strengthen us in health and in spirits for the holy task of again assailing the strongholds of Satan. The tired soldier may well lay down his head at sunset and sleep soundly; or seek, in the flashes of beauty in earth and sky which are granted to him from time to time, to forget the toils and woes of battle; but he will gird on his armour again at the first summons to meet the foe. O my countrywomen, need I remind you of the fact, that the crusade we are engaged in is for the liberation of our fellow women from the darkest, crudest slavery the world has seen? Need I remind you how sad at all times is the lot of fallen woman, — how, in spite of the tenderness of Christ to the woman who was a sinner, society, professing. His religion, has tacitly agreed to brand and outlaw her? And how, under this modem and inconceivably wicked system of the State supervision of harlotry for the protection of the male sinner, the fate of outcast woman becomes tenfold dark and more hopeless. Need I remind you that, by such public measures, which set their seal upon the Devil’s doctrine that freedom in licentiousness is needful for men,—the moral atmosphere is being poisoned for your brothers and sons, — that temptation is thereby made more attractive, — that insidious principles, dark as hell, are being instilled into the mind of our youth; and that the holiest mother’s influence will scarcely avail to counteract the influence of the tacit promise of the Government, that safety and health shall accompany the practice of the most cowardly, unmanly, and abominable vice?

I do not charge you, my dear friends, with any lack of appreciation of the great work to which we are called; on the contrary, I feel a love for my countrywomen greater than I ever did before, now that I see how true their hearts are, and how self-sacrificing they can be for a principle. But the lesson I should like to inculcate most of all to day is perseverance. We are too ready to escape from that which gives us pain. I think we should pray to be made capable of a constant, sustained, and well-governed indignation; for, a just anger, as well as charity, is needful for the purification of society as well as of the individual soul. The momentary flash of generous indignation against cruelty and wrong, which is common enough, is poor in its results unless capable of expanding into the profound, patient, lifelong hatred of injustice and oppression, which alone can work out social reform. The emotional pity, which is easily kindled in a tender soul, is worth little unless it ripen into that Christ-like, unwearying compassion, which is able to toil, and suffer, and to live a long tedious life for the love of souls, as well as, if need be, to lead gallantly a forlorn hope, and perish suddenly in the breach. I am inclined to think, however, that want of constancy in a painful work is not always from cowardice and indolence, but that it arises, most often, in noble minds, from doubt. Doubt produces wavering and uncertainty. Doubt is fatal to persevering and laborious action. To secure constancy in action we need deep conviction. There may be some here who would gladly throw themselves into this great and good work, if they were sure that God sanctions, and smiles upon the work; if they were persuaded that evil can be overcome of good, that Christ’s promises refer to the present time, and that, by brave conflict with the powers of darkness, we, even we, can hasten the advent of that day of grace for which we daily hope and pray. There are many, I feel sure, who would encounter pain and toil, and death itself in this matter before us, if they could, once for all, hear a whisper from on high, — telling them that it is the will of God, that by their opposition to this evil legislation they should make a permanent inroad upon the kingdom of Satan.

Perhaps it may bring a little help to some friends, if I may be allowed to speak for a moment of what my own heart has gone through in connection with this matter. At the beginning of this agitation I was in doubt; not in doubt about the character of this legislation; for my soul fainted within me, in horror, at the cruelty, impurity, and tyranny impersonated in this accursed system; but I was not perfectly sure that it was right for me to rise up against it, and to invite others to do the same. I was long in suspense; consequently I spoke and acted uncertainly and feebly, and there was no proportion between the torment within my heart and any outward vigor of opposition to the evil thing. I waited upon God, and implored Him to put me beyond doubt, to show me His will, and bring my will into harmony with His, — so that I might act and suffer without anxiety for the result. Gradually, and powerfully, the answer came. From a thousand channels, without and within, tides of evidence of the holiness of our work flowed in, and of the suitableness of women as God’s agents in it. Conviction deepened. Assurance, quiet, and calm came to me, with the power of the voice of the Eternal God.

You remember that when Joshua entered on his first difficult campaign among the giants of Canaan, he was in doubt, he trembled, and feared, and questioned, like any other man. And you remember how it came to pass that when, in the silent night, he was by the river Jordan, in secret prayer, no doubt, a vision stood before him of a warrior, armed; and in fear and doubt Joshua inquired whether the warrior was come for him or for the foe, and the angel of the everlasting covenant (for it was he,) replied, “Nay, but as Captain of the Hosts of the Lord am I now come.” And Joshua fell on his face and worshipped. Doubt vanished for ever, — and, strong in that warrior’s presence, he conquered. When, equally sure of the presence of the Captain of the Lord’s hosts in our battle, we shall not fight “as those who fight uncertainly, nor as those who beat the air.”

. . .

There are many tragical histories recorded in the Old Testament, that true mirror of the faith and the righteousness, but also of the depravity of man. Few are more tragical than that story in the Book of Judges of the wayfaring Levite who halted at Gibeah of Benjamin, and lodged there with the woman, his companion. We read with a shudder the ghastly details — the clamouring of the sons of Belial round the door, the suspense, the parley, till, in the cowardice of self-defence, the man brings out that helpless woman, and casts her among the hellish horrors of that awful night. “All night, until the morning,” she endured, “until the day began to spring. Then came the woman in the dawning of the day, and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her lord was, till it was light. And her lord rose up in the morning, and opened the doors of the house, and went out to go his way; and, behold the woman was fallen down at the door of the house, and her hands were upon the threshold. And he said unto her, up and let us be going. But none answered.” She was dead.

Christian friends, — there is a weak and prostrate figure lying at our door; to this door she turns for help, though it be but in her dying fall; her hands are upon the threshold — dead hands flung forward in mute and terrible appeal to the God above, who, looking down from heaven, sees not that prostrate form alone, but on the one side the powers of hell, on the other, in their safe dwelling-place, the selfish sleepers to whom the pale cold hands appeal in vain. The night is far spent; throughout the world’s long night the fate of the Levite’s concubine has been outcast woman’s fate; cast forth in answer to the clamorous cries of insatiable human lusts, and then left to perish in the outer darkness; while “her lord,” ordained her protector by nature and by the law of God, slumbers unheeding. Her voice is too weak to be heard, the door is too heavily barred for her to open, that she might cross the threshold again; her only appeal is her heavy corpse-like fall beside the door, her silence when invoked, and her cold dead hands stretched forth. It might well make our morning slumbers uneasy, and cause us to murmur in our dreams of coming judgment, to know that there lies a corpse at our door, an outraged corpse, crushed with the heaped and pitiless weight of the sins of others and her own. But the day is at hand. We have slept long and soundly while that woman bore the hell without. Shall we sleep still? What if the Judge should come and find us scarcely risen from our torpor, our door scarcely opened, our morning salutation scarcely uttered to the victim whose voice is stilled in death — should come and should require of us an account of our protectorship, and show to us such mercy as we have shown to her?

. . . .

Thinking of these things, how can we for a moment doubt the nature and sacredness of the mission on which we are bent? — a mission whose object it is to release the enslaved, loaded with chains of sin; women crushed by want and woe, and now pressed down beneath the heel of a powerful tyranny, and of a grievous, cruel, oppressive law, by which they are made the legal slaves, the official servants of a great, regulated, and sanctioned iniquity. Who can look into her own heart, and into the life of Christ on earth, and doubt for a moment that the service we have undertaken is acceptable to God? — the service of waging war against the hideous traffic which is going on around us in the bodies and souls of women; against the buying and selling of tender female children; against the costly and luxurious brothel-keeping, patronised by the fashionable and the wealthy; and against the faithless, godless, despairing legislation which has now proclaimed that this awful state of things is to be the recognized condition of England! Our mission — our present movement — I hesitate not to say, it is a great one, a greater and holier one, perhaps, than we, any of us, at present realise. Its beginnings may be small, but it will increase, and not cease till it has embraced in its onward flow all the nations in which the governing powers and the stronger portion of society, are now contentedly allowing and patronising this profane and costly sacrifice of souls to the demon of lust. There are indications of this already. Simultaneously with our own movement, efforts have been made in many parts of the earth for the redemption of these female slaves. In Italy, a man of high character and position, Deputy Salvatore Morelli, of Florence, has protested in the Italian Chambers against this hateful system for protecting vice, and has brought before that Parliament the case of a poor girl who had been outraged by the police at Turin. An honourable lady, Signora Mozzoni,  of Milan, has publicly declared that wrongs are perpetrated under this system, in Italy, such as can scarcely be rivalled in the annals of slavery; and believes that all thoughtful men and women see in it a presage of future woe to the Italian race. Similar protests were made in Paris before the war silenced every voice. Senor Castalar, the Spanish Republican, the leader of the Anti-Slavery party in the Cortes, is filled with horror at this system, and sees in it one of the sources of the rottenness of nations. Madame Lemmi, writing from Elba, says: — “the condition of degradation to which Italian women are reduced by the system, must be seen to be comprehended. They are completely slaves.” Intelligent and educated Hindoos, write from India, mournfully predicting what may be the result for English government and influence in India, if this curse, cruelly imposed by our authorities on India, be not speedily removed. Such a horror of the system, and a conviction of its evils, have been aroused at the Cape of Good Hope, that there is a prospect of its speedy abolition by the Colonial Parliament there. Cries of distress, on account of this cruel slavery have reached us from Malta, Jamaica, and China. From the United States we receive constantly expressions of sympathy in our present movement. There has till lately been little or no communication between these different countries, and as yet there is no attempt at combination; and I think the simultaneousness of the movement in different parts of the world is a striking indication of the divinely appointed character of this crusade, leading on to issues still hidden from us, but safe in God’s keeping.

I believe we are called, in this our day, to labour for the abolition of harlotry — that great and soul-devouring evil, that huge Typical Sin, which comprises all other sins, all crimes, all miseries, and all woes, within its bosom. No doubt we are indebted to this recent legislation — this great blunder on the part of the Government — for waking us up; it has forced people to look into this painful subject. We have, most of us, been more or less supine; we have all some cause for repentance in this matter. But now that many are roused to feeling and action, the first obstacle we find is, these chains imposed by legislation upon the frail and fallen, (of one sex only, and that the weaker) to bring them under a legal bondage to a recognised and superintended shame. You know that it is much easier to disperse a loose rabble than well organised troops. Now, these Acts of Parliament have changed prostitution from a rabble into a well-drilled army, fenced in by regulations, and so completely in the hands of official persons as to make the efforts of God’s voluntary and free-hearted evangelists hopeless in that direction. We wake up to the awful nature of the social evil, and to the corruption of our national life through its influence, just at a time when authority and power have set their official seal upon the abomination, just when our Parliament — the first in all the world which has done such a thing — has spoken with awful and unmistakeable voice the words (which it is unlawful for any human judges to utter) “He that is filthy, let him be filthy still.” For such is the verdict gone forth. This verdict pronounces, that sin is our master, and must continue to be so; it says, in the words of the Pall Mall Gazette, “that fleshly instincts will outlive all moral crusades,” and that, since we can no more hope to get rid of the frightful tyranny of lust, we must aim only at getting rid of the annoyance of physical disease. This piece of legislation is the last expression of a nation’s hopelessness,—a nation’s despair; it is the tocsin which gives warning of the impending assassination of a nation’s faith in God! Therefore, is it that, before all things, and at the very entrance upon the great work of which I have spoken, — the war against harlotry, — we feel the absolute necessity of bringing to naught this fatal legislation.

I fear that on waking up late to our responsibilities, we must ever work with the sad and humbling memory of past centuries of injury and neglect in this matter. They who have themselves been guiltless of actual wrong towards the fallen, feel the more acutely, in the tenderness of their souls, the wrong done by their forefathers, who, since the foundation of the world till now, have dedicated, by millions, these weaker vessels to profanest service — sacrificing them with impious rites to a so called necessity — a Moloch to whom all the kingdoms of the earth have caused armies of their daughters to pass through the fire, generation after generation. These vessels — once defiled — were, as our fathers judged, incapable of cleansing, never again to be restored to sweet and honourable household use, too vile for hand of just man on pure woman to touch; albeit ONE, the ever blessed, the only pure had not disdained to raise such a vessel from the earth, and with richest draughts from thence to allay the thirst of his divine soul for his creature’s love. Nay, He complains of the strong uninjured vessels, that they give not as the broken give: to the honoured of men, firmly holding his position in society, “Thou gavest me no kiss,” He said, “but this woman hath not ceased to kiss my feet.” We cannot know how many of “this woman’s” character and kin may not have kissed secretly those blessed feet, even in the darkness outside the door, more perhaps than we, who pity, dare to hope; — more certainly than SIMON thinks, while he sits eating and drinking there, and shuddering at the thought that any guest of his should suffer the approach of so vile a thing; for He who gives his feet to be kissed, have we not His voice to the end of the Dispensation — “Behold, I stand at the door and knock?” His head is filled with the dew, and his locks with the drops of the night, and it may be that at that same closed door, these two, the slain woman and the Saviour, have met many a time while we slept and knew it not. It may be that those cold faint hands, falling upon the threshold, groping hopelessly, have stolen in the darkness some virtue from His garment’s hem; and though the fount of weeping, which despair has dried up, may have given no more tears to “distil like amber on the royal feet of the Anointed,” yet may they have been pressed instead with the cold death dews of a forehead branded with shame and hiding itself in the dust.

But now dear friends, there is hope before us. I believe we are called to advance Christ’s kingdom on earth by our opposition to those wicked laws — and to that end we need, above all things, a mighty quickening of charity. It grieves me to see a coldness and shrinking in certain pure and refined women from their fellow women who have fallen from virtue. If they were personally to go among them and help them, this coldness would melt into compassion. For, after all, these fallen ones are our own flesh and blood — often as naturally refined as ourselves, as capable of elevation, as fitted for sweet home life; but they have been ruined. I have seen them dying by dozens in the hospitals in cold November weather, cut off at a tender age, like autumn leaves before the blast. My friends, we must cherish love for the fallen, and the guilty; yes, nothing short of love. This uprising of women against the unblushing legalised desecration of womanhood is the auspicious hour given us of God. Let us be ready! God is beginning to put forth his hand. Our part is to go forward, not expecting Him to do the work for us, but believing that it is He who works in us, both to will and to do according to His holy pleasure.

And now, the last word I would speak to you is this: —  Be filled with charity, with that divine charity, that love, which, together with the duty of perseverance, I feel called to press upon your hearts — love to the fallen, the outcast, even the madly sinful — love to every human being, however degraded, who bears the impress of the Divine image. One of the pioneers of the great Anti-Slavery cause, JOHN WOOLMAN,  used to say: “Only love enough, and all things are possible to you.” This holy charity is the true stand point of Archimedes, from which we may move the world.



Source: The Duty of Women, In relation to our great Social Evil, and recent Legislation thereupon, being an Address delivered by Mrs. Josephine E. Butler, in the County Hall, Carlisle, on the morning of 25th November 1870 — Nearly 400 Ladies Present, (Carlisle: Hudson Scott & Sons), 1870.