The Lovers of the Lost
Josephine Butler, The Contemporary Review 13 (1870) pp. 20-23
There are many who will ever believe the restoration of fallen women to be a useless and undesirable Quixotism, lest in proportion as some are reclaimed, others should be forced by the law of demand and supply into vacant places. It is not my intention to discuss here the physical, economical, and moral fallacies which I believe to be involved in this popular argument: suffice it here to ask, how do such reasoners deal with the fact that thousands of these victims are themselves struggling to escape? Or, with what face can they comfort their theories with the simplicity of Christ? “Go forth,” he says, “and preach the gospel to every creature.” The Good Shepherd does not hesitate to seek the wandering lamb, lest some other in its place should stray into the wilderness ere he has brought it on his shoulders home. Christ demands of us more than the yielding of a bare permission, a clear path for the outcast to return-more than that tolerance which is not mercy, and that laxity which is not forgiveness-more than that glozing judgement of an indifferent and soon satisfied world which neither condemns nor saves, which can speak of misery as if it were no misery, of sin as an ineradicable malady of the blood beyond all mortal control, and of prostitution as a “fixed quantity,” a necessity to be recognised and superintended (as any other institution) by the State.
I was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and in prison, and ye came not unto me;” in simple words such as these the eternal excommunication runs; and when we ask Him where it may have been that we saw Him in so sad a case, shall He not answer, “Here,” for who like these are hungry and thirsty, who stripped as these, and robbed of all the adorning raiment of womanhood? Who smitten to the soul with such a dire disease, or so strictly shut up in “habitations of cruelty,” laden with the chains of sin?
But apart from all considerations of this solemn kind, nature herself protests against the cruelty of an argument – impious as the judgement of Caiaphas – which would complacently leave some to perish that others may possibly escape. Is it conceivable that any man with the least pretence to humanity can uphold a theory and a practice which force human beings to continue in a shameful sin which they abhor? Crowds of such beings come to our doors weary and disgusted, loathing the paths which they wish to leave, asking only shelter, a little food, a little rest, and a refuge for themselves. To refuse these is to say to them, as practically these economists do say: “Go back, ply your trade to the end, die of disgust: for if you do not continue your profession others must be sought to fill your place.” It might be well to ask those who judge thus the question: “Were it your own daughter who thus was seeking to escape, or even waiting passively to be invited to escape, could you hold language like this to her who was once the darling of your home? Or would your theory give you strength to slay your own child, a sacrifice to the vilest of the devil-gods?” If not, then let the voice of tens of thousands of broken-hearted fathers and mothers cry aloud in your ears: “Do ye also to all men even as ye would they should do unto you.”
There are tender hearts among our working men, our humble artisans and sons of the soil, whose daughters are every day being tempted, led, or driven to the terrible slaughter-house. The yearly reports which register the working of helpful societies and refuges of this kind, contain few records more frequent or more harrowing than those of unhappy parents coming up to London from all parts of England to seek their lost children, wandering weary and footsore through the wilderness of streets, seeking for days, for weeks, for months, the face they long yet fear to see again. We read of strong men bowed down with woe, weeping as women weep, turning homewards in the hear-sickness of unavailing search, or with a certainty worse than suspense. Of many of these fathers there is this record; “he died of a broken heart.” That mothers should die of broken hearts does not strike us so sadly, the world has been so long accustomed to the Mater Dolorosa; but fathers sick of life because of their daughter’s shame, fathers the wounds of whose loving hearts turn to a wasting sickness, of whom neighbours commonly say, “he never lifted up his head again,” these speak to us mournfully of the vast world of misery produced by the monster evil which for ever cries, Give, Give, and which, like the grave and like the worm its tenant, is never satisfied.
It is plain from the perpetual and urgent appeals for help which are made by these and similar societies, that the generosity of the wealthy has by no means kept pace with the energy of the workers.
Purses as well as hearts are contracted by the sophistries of a popular cynicism, deriving its strength, like all cynicism, as much from the selfishness of mankind as from their conviction. Yet might our favoured classes do wisely to recollect that the judgements of god are sometimes strangely retributive in their character. A regard for the sanctity of their own homes might urge them to greater efforts for the protection and the restoration of the defenceless daughters of the poor. The dwellings of the great and noble are not safe from the danger of a moral pestilence which they have hardly cared to quell while raging around them among the “dim common populations” and in many a humble home.
Some ten years ago-so scant even then was the provision made for those who were longing to escape- a weary wanderer of the streets sat for twenty-four hours at the door of a certain refuge in London. In answer to her appeal, “For Christ’s sake take me in!” she was told it was impossible, for means were wanting, and not a foot of room was to be had in the poor over-crowded place. She went away, and turning the corner of a dark and wretched street, her face covered with her hands, as if to exclude the sight of that to which she must descend, she cried in a voice, shrill with agony, “God! God! There is no door open to us but hell’s.” Are those who look coldly on efforts made to withdraw women from public abuse prepared to face the echo of that cry in the day when every whisper in corners and in dark places shall be proclaimed upon the house-top; when those passionate words shall prove not to have fallen merely on indifferent bystanders, but also to have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth?
It may be well to explain with clearness that the complaint uttered here of the wrong done to fallen women, from the earliest times till now, is not based on the assertions which are made, sometimes with exaggeration, that woman is most frequently the victim of seduction, betrayed, and abandoned. We are not at present considering the chief causes of her fall, nor is our imagination dwelling on pathetic tales of individual wrong, innumerable though such wrongs have been since the beginning of the world. Neither are we complaining of the fact that women whose profession is infamous are kept apart by society. That it should be so inevitable-is right; for to weaken this barrier, confound this class with the rest, would be to introduce into society an evil worse than that which at present exists. God forbid that we should wish or ask for these poor women that they should stand in the place of the pure while they remain what they are; that to any one of them it should ever be granted that without repentance, she should be accepted and indulged by society as a man who may be her equal in guilt is accepted-a doubtful privilege surely, an uncertain gain, for the avenger is non the less terrible for his delay, and there is no statute of limitations to bar the recovery of the debts of God.
The wrong complained of is simply this, that a world professing the religion of Christ has failed to act towards fallen women as Christ required of it; that it has neglected its bounden effort to separate her from her sins, and to restore to her, when so separated, her lost position among the honest and the pure. No deeper wrong has been inflicted upon these unhappy women than that which is perpetrated (unconsciously perhaps) in the name of a spurious and anti-Christian benevolence of Continental growth, which, while accounting a fallen woman so far a criminal as to deprive her of personal liberty, and to subject her to a perpetual outrage which deadens all womanhood within her, yet professes to give her some of the privileges of pure society while she remains what she is, and to promote the general convenience by the regulation and amelioration of her physical existence in the continuance of her degrading profession; a proceeding which, by the public recognition of her calling, deadens in her sense of shame, while it extinguishes the light of conscience. This is an aim which cannot meet with any sympathy from one who knows the worth of an immortal soul, and which, one would think, could scarcely find a place in the heart of any man who had ever truly loved a woman. It is vain to think of helping her from her shame until we first have helped her from her sin; it is vain to hope that the perpetual process of rehabilitating her person for public use can be consistent with the renewal of her spirit.
Again we repeat, that in thus demanding that the way should be thrown wide open for fallen women to return, that no means should be left untried by which woman may be, in the first instance, protected from falling, and if fallen, enabled to escape; that she should be sought for diligently, as the householder sought for her lost piece of silver; that she should be pitied, and only her sin abhorred; in all this we are asking no more than our great Example Himself granted her, no more than what enlightened Christians already grant to every other class of disreputable persons, thieves, felons, and street Arabs.