Reprinted with permission from Sue Young’s vast collection of Homeopathy biographies sueyounghistories.com
Women’s stories are nearly always obscured in our human history, and women who supported or practiced homeopathy especially so. In this short essay I have chosen three powerful, clever, industrious and innovative women who did emerge from the broad sweep of 19th Century history and managed to make a significant impact upon our modern world. However, they could not have achieved their well-earned place in British history without the support and succour of our early homeopathic ancestors, bless them all!
Whether concealed or explosively appearing like glowing comets from the pages of human history, these three women really did shine like small suns in their time. I would also draw my reader’s attention to the interconnectedness of all of these people in their time, and make the point that a few astonishing people can change the course of history, and light the way for us all to follow in our own troubled times… Networking has always been the key! To illustrate this point more effectively, I have also snuck in mention of a few other amazing women in the footnotes, alongside some pretty amazing men!
Josephine Elizabeth Butler (1828-1906) was an indomitable English feminist, who fought tirelessly to protect the welfare of prostitutes, and to shame men into facing the unpleasant side of their own sexual behaviour. Josephine also directly confronted the common and casual sexual abuse of underage children. This great labour was fully supported by homeopaths in Britain and in America at a time when most of Victorian Society preferred to look the other way. Josephine was also a staunch abolitionist. Without the inspiration and support of homeopathy, Josephine would have struggled alone, and she may not have even begun her valiant fight. Josephine is regarded today as a ‘…famous social reformer who has received the closest status to Saint as the Church of England can bestow…’
In 1841, the Liverpool Homeopathic Dispensary was founded by homeopaths John James Drysdale and John Chapman with the stated aim of providing health care to the poor and destitute free of charge at the point of access. Richer people had to wait their turn with the poor in new fangled waiting rooms, and pay monthly fees‘up front’ to access treatment. This model for financing a health care system was first instituted by Samuel Hahnemann in his Paris practice, and his students were eager to put his radical ideas into practice in Britain.Thus it would be that homeopathy radically revolutionised health care provision in Britain and outraged the protectionist privileges of the elite as a consequence. The NHS is a direct consequence of this brave new world introduced by our homeopathic ancestors, a fact often missed by absolutely everyone!
The homeopathic custom of taking a case easily and simply revealed how the trauma of sexism, slums and poverty were deeply and explicitly enmeshed in a complex matrix of health and sexual and social politics. After all, improving the living environment and life chances of patients was an obvious way of improving the health of suffering people, and these inspiring ideas slipstreamed nicely into the revolutionary airs floating so dangerously in the ether at this time.
In Britain, the reputation of homeopathy was vividly coloured by the dangerous atmospheres of intense social change and revolution and post revolution fall out in America and Europe at this time. The unequal distribution of largesse between rich and poor and the vexed problem of who exactly was in control of people’s destinies was being fought right across the Northern hemisphere, causing intense political, social and cultural earthquakes, and definitely frightening the horses in Britain! Homeopathy was regarded by the orthodox British establishment as a dangerous ideology, right from the very first moment it arrived from the continent, and it has been severely persecuted throughout its history as a result. Nothing ever changes does it?
However, in the 19th century, homeopathy was an extremely fashionable and powerful force for fundamental change in Britain, challenging the establishment at every step with radical humanistic philosophies. Homeopaths trumpeted a rallying cry for human rights and medical freedom, most especially with their strategy of ‘slumming’, which entailed visiting the hovels of the poor to offer medical and social aid to the previously hidden populations of this ‘undiscovered country’. This shocking and profound challenge to the exclusivity of an old and outdated medical system offered only to the rich and privileged,was a direct result of the forced exclusion of homeopathy from orthodox mainstream hospitals and practice, which obliged our early homeopathic ancestors to innovate and improvise to survive. These history lessons contain profound messages for modern homeopaths in the current climate of today!
The Liverpool Homeopathic Dispensary eventually relocated to Hope Street in 1861. In this same year, based firmly on the homeopathic model of social justice and improvement of the lot of the poor, Josephine opened her famous ‘house’ in Hope Street, just next door. Josephine was ‘radicalised’ by this new fangled homeopathic fundamentalism, which is exactly why she chose premises directly linked to the Liverpool Homeopathic Dispensary, to indicate her intention to emulate their philosophies and to bask in their limelight and benefit from their popularity to advertise her good causes. At this time, supporting homeopathy was extremely dangerous and perilous, but it was a cause celebre and well worth the distress and the risk it carried with it. This was an unstoppable force in its time, and it still is today!
In 1867, Josephine was also instrumental in establishing the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women, another cause for improving the lot of the downtrodden, inspired and promoted by these early ideologies, and especially by homeopaths across the land. Josephine led the long campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases (Women) Act (1864) from 1869 to 1886. This legislation enabled officials to detain and imprison ‘loose’ women, who were then forcibly medically ‘inspected’ and compulsorily treated for venereal disease, real or supposed. Josephine’s campaign was enabled and supported by homeopaths and many other like-minded individuals across Britain and America. In particular, James John Garth Wilkinson would be steadfast in support of Josephine’s campaign to repeal the many Contagious Diseases (Women) Acts (1864, 1866, 1869), and he wrote ‘… white with anger and indignation…’ an open letter sixteen pages long addressed to the Home Secretary Henry Austin Bruce 1st Baron Aberdare, entitled The Forcible Introspection of Women for the Army and Navy by the Oligarchy: Considered Physically, to support Josephine’s campaign. Josephine was duly thankful for his support, and in turn, Josephine supported James John Garth Wilkinson’s long campaign against compulsory vaccination, when she joined the Committee of the Mothers’ Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League.
In 1870, Josephine became the leader of the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, and subsequently spent many long years touring between countries (she even carried her campaign to India) to protest against the presumption of guilt of women, astonishing her audiences when she directly addressed the unspoken and deeply difficult subject of prostitution. Her campaign directly targeted the double standards of Victorian ‘gentlemen’ who casually sexually abused under aged children, a problem that unfortunately still plagues our so-called ‘modern age’. Josephine argued with great passion that men should accept their responsibility and account for their atrocious behaviour, and she argued forcibly that the morality of men was deeply questionable. She lectured with great energy and passion, often putting herself in risky and dangerous situations, and her wonderful husband George Butler (1819–1890) disregarded all the warnings that his wife’s activities would damage his academic career, supported and protected her throughout this period. The passage of The Contagious Diseases Act 1886, finally and fully supported Josephine’s long national and international campaign to amend this dreadful legislation.
Annie Wood Besant (1847-1933)was a prominent Theosophist, women’s rights activist, writer and orator and supporter of Irish and Indian self-rule. Annie was one of the first women to attend the London University, where she studied mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology under Thomas Henry Huxley. However, she was refused her BSc due to her atheism and her defence of woman’s rights and birth control. Annie Wood Besant was supported and influenced by homeopaths and by homeopathic philosophy for her whole life’s work. Unfortunately, Annie lost custody of her own children due to her pioneering activism.
In 1877, Annie suggested the idea of the Malthusian League to members of the London Dialectical Society and to the defence committee organized to defend her and Charles Bradlaugh in their trial for publishing Charles Knowlton’s The Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People, which was based upon the work of Harriet Kezia Hunt, an American female lay eclectic and homeopathic practitioner. Annie was very close to the Drysdale family, and Charles Robert Drysdale and his wife Alice Vickery spoke as witnesses at her trial.
Annie became the secretary of the Malthusian League, a leading member of the National Secular Society.She was involved with the International Labour Union, a founder member of the Fabian Society, and a member of the London School Board when she instituted free school meals, and she was a tireless campaigner against the abuses of child labour. Annie was a founder with Herbert Burrows of the Matchmaker’s Union, leading the famous strike for better conditions duringthe London Match Girls Strike of 1888, alongside Catherine Booth. Annie would continue to campaign for Irish Home Rule and Indian Home Rule, and many other worthy causes, for the rest of her life.