To Change the World

Sarah Williams explains how the mother of modern feminism fell off the pages of history.

After her death in 1906, Josephine Butler was described as one of the “few great people who have moulded the course of things”. (For the record, she was also described by peers as “the most beautiful woman in the world”.)

Yet how many of us have heard of her? A bit too feminist for later Christians, a bit too Christian for later feminists, this pioneer of the movement against sex trafficking is only now being remembered.

Sarah Williams is an historian at Regent College and a research associate at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford. And over the last few years, she has gotten to know Josephine Butler well – she would even go so far as to call her a friend.

When Natasha Moore asked what she finds so remarkable about Butler, Sarah speaks first about her persistence – the sixteen years she spent working to overturn one law that unjustly discriminated against women.

“I don’t think that we lack vision in our culture, but we definitely lack stamina … I think she did it by recognising that she couldn’t do it. Does that sound strange?”

For International Women’s Day this year, meet the woman who’s been called the mother of modern feminism – and join an ongoing conversation our culture is having about power, justice, gender, and what it means to “change the world”.

“We might imagine that the real centres of power are where powerful people change culture through influencing spheres of culture – media, politics, the law, and so on … And yet what’s extraordinary about somebody like Josephine Butler or Mahatma Gandhi or any other of the great social reformers that we can think of in history, is that they somehow manage to see that really the margins matter a lot. And that what goes on at the centre, if it fails to understand what’s going on at the margins, does so at its peril.”

Sarah Williams was in Sydney for the annual ADM School of Theology, Culture & Public Engagement.