Josephine Butler knew she had a difficult job ahead of her. What she didn’t know when she started was that it would take 17 long years to complete.
When Josephine arrived with her husband in Liverpool, England, in 1866, she was astounded by the number of prostitutes she saw there. Women worked nearly every street, and they were especially prevalent at the wharf, where they greeted sailors who disembarked from their ships in droves after weeks and months at sea.
In an attempt to curb the spread of venereal diseases among the British Army and Royal Navy, Parliament had passed the Contagious Diseases Acts (CDA). But the legislation was flawed. By empowering police officers to arrest any woman suspected as a prostitute and forcing her to submit to a medical examination, the CDA presumed a woman’s guilt until she could prove herself innocent.
Incensed by this blatant violation of women’s civil rights, Josephine Butler knew she was called to lead the charge against the CDA.
Because the entirely male-dominated British government and the medical profession were staunchly against her, progress on the initiative was slow and disheartening. Josephine was slandered and ridiculed, heckled and harassed. On more than one occasion she was pelted with dung and stones as she walked the city streets.
Never did she imagine that a repeal of the act would require 17 years of her life and include thousands of miles traveled, hundreds of speeches and thousands of petition signatures. But when the repeal was finally achieved, Josephine understood why such a long and arduous road had been necessary.
“Looking back over those years we can now see the wisdom of God in allowing us to wait so long for the victory,” she wrote. What started as a simple initiative for legislative repeal had grown into a movement with lasting impact, which, Josephine later realized, had been God’s plan all along.
Not long ago I sat in the back of a motorboat, my life-vest cinched tight, the cool wind whipping my hair. I gazed out at the wake unfurling behind me. Ahead of the boat, the lake frothed in the stiff breeze and the mist hung thick, obscuring the shore. But behind us, the boat churned out a smooth strip of water, a path of sorts between the peaks and troughs of the waves. Looking back, the path was obvious; ahead, the way was unclear.
The truth is, the way ahead of us isn’t always a clearly marked path, especially when we’ve embarked upon a new and unfamiliar road. We might lament slow progress or wonder where God is when we need him most. We might second-guess our calling or conclude that we hadn’t heard clearly from God after all.
Josephine Butler reminds us that perseverance and trust are important, especially when the journey is long and full of conflict and the path ahead is obscured. We must believe in our hearts that God in his infinite wisdom always sees the big picture for us, even when we cannot see it ourselves. Like Josephine Butler, some day we will look back and recognize the path clearly emblazoned in our wake.
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Josephine Butler is one of fifty Christian women featured in Michelle DeRusha’s recently released book, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith(Baker Books). Michelle is also the author of Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with her husband and their two boys. You can connect with Michelle on her blog and on Facebook and Twitter.