RCC Honors History Project

Progessive Era Prostitution–History

Posted by kameron1 on May 6, 2009


The Elimination of Prostitution?

Moral Purity Campaigns, Middle-Class Clubwomen,
and the California Red Light Abatement Actby Patricia O’Flinn

Constant and persistent repression of prostitution the immediate method: absolute annihilation the ultimate ideal.

Chicago Vice Commission Report [1]

At the turn of the twentieth century thousands of girls and young women worked in the factories and retail stores of America’s cities. Immigrant or native-born, city or country bred, they all shared poor wages, long hours, miserable working conditions, and little prospect for improvement. In this environment some women chose, or were forced into, prostitution. Women became prostitutes for a variety of reasons ranging from pragmatic economic decisions to an unexamined desire for good times and an easy life, to coercion-either physical, mental or emotional. Whatever the reason, prostitution flourished in the early years of the twentieth century, and engendered multiple strands of reform ideologies to combat it. In a society that was no longer predominantly rural, where it was increasingly uncommon for young women to remain under the close supervision of their families, fears about the safety and control of women coalesced in white-slave narratives and moral purity campaigns. Prostitution came to symbolize the many consequences of increasing urbanization and immigration. The strategies developed to combat prostitution reflected the social and political changes of the early twentieth century; the problems of immigration and unemploy-ment, coupled with the advent of social work and special interest politics, nurtured the belief that social ills could be amended through elective and legislative politics. 

Progressive Era Reform

Although the decrease in-and eventually the elimination of-the demand for prostitution was the ultimate goal of moral purity campaigners, immediate intervention was necessary to curtail existing prostitution. The question of how to deal with the vice problem was answered in two ways: segregation of prostitution into municipally recognized and sanctioned areas; or vigorous enforcement of all vice laws and criminalization of prostitutes.There were those who argued that neither segregation nor the existing vice laws were sufficient to combat the “red-plague”; new laws were necessary to curb what they recognized as the big business of prostitution. The need for a new kind of legislation arose from the awareness that it was not the prostitutes and brothel keepers who became rich from vice, but the businessmen who rented them property and furniture, and sold them clothing and jewelry.

One law that inspired discussion throughout the nation was the Red Light Injunction and Abate-ment Act (RLAA). This law attacked the respectable businessman whose only involvement in the world of vice was the profit derived from property rented to brothel keepers and pimps. This strategy evolved from the debates about the efficacy of segregation and from the belief of moral purity campaigners that prostitution was a social evil that had to be assailed wherever it created profits. First enacted in Iowa in 1909, the Red Light Injunction and Abatement Act was debated by legislatures in Oregon, Washington, California, and the District of Columbia over the next several years. First introduced in the California State Legislature in 1911, the Red Light Abatement Act was enacted in California in 1914. The struggle to institute the Red Light Bill in California reflected the national debate, but included an element not found in other states: woman suffrage. Middle-class clubwomen joined moral purity campaigners in the political campaign for the RLAA as fully enfranchised citizens.



Historians in the last two decades have examined prostitution and the reform movements which arose to combat it. Two books, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, by Ruth Rosen, and The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era, by Mark Thomas Connelly, constitute a solid underpinning to the study of prostitution in the United States during the Progressive Era. A third book, Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition, by Barbara Meil Hobson, places both prostitution and reform into the larger context of American society since Colonial times.Both Connelly and Rosen clearly define the subject of their inquiry by time as well as topic: Connelly examines the various ways Americans responded to prostitution; Rosen examines the world of prostitution, the changes in the twentieth century, and the society that created them. Ruth Rosen presents the voice of the prostitute alongside statistics about prostitutes; Mark Connelly lists legal facts and offers textual analysis of white-slave literature and the Chicago vice commission report. Together, these two studies paint a remarkably complete picture of urban prostitution, and the reform movements it spawned, in the Progressive Era.

Ruth Rosen’s book, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, focuses on the years in which America discovered prostitution as one of its most serious social problems. Rosen examines the prostitutes’ lives and the reform efforts directed toward prostitution. One of the questions she asks is how prostitution changed “From Necessary to Social Evil” during the Progressive Era.[2] Neither the question, nor the answer, is simple. Changes in the way people worked and lived were occurring throughout American society. Traditional roles and values were threatened by great urban centers filled with overwhelming numbers of immigrants. Many immigrant women and their daughters worked in the expanding industrial economy. Even middle-class women were increasingly involved in public life: attending colleges; working for reform; campaigning for suffrage. Ruth Rosen asserts that it was “the changing role of women in society” that helped focus America’s attention on prostitution during these years.[3] She argues that the prostitute was a symbol of the disturbing changes in society.

One of the most interesting aspects of Ruth Rosen’s work is her exploration of the dichotomous image of the prostitute as either “a passive victim forced into sex,” or “a creature so deviant as to scarcely deserve the name of woman.”[4] She ascribes this dichotomy to the reformers’ own confusion about female sexuality. Brought up by Victorian parents to believe in the natural purity and asexuality of women, they searched for explanations of the prostitute’s behavior that would not contradict their image of womanhood. Although reformers in the early twentieth century professed a belief in statistical methodology, they did not allow the data thus acquired to interfere with their conception of prostitutes as immoral foreigners or innocent country girls trapped in the city. Most prostitutes were not immigrants, they were American born.[5] Although reformers argued that forty to one hundred percent of all prostitutes were white slaves,[6] few prostitutes blamed white slavers for their initiation into prostitution”: only 2.8 percent specifically cited white slavers and 11.3 percent accused men (lovers, seducers, etc.) of having actively forced, seduced, or betrayed them into prostitution.”[7] Yet, nativist rhetoric and the fear of white slavery fueled the anti-prostitution movement of the early twentieth century. Mark Connelly devotes a chapter to white slavery in his book, The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era. He examines the “[w]hite slave narratives, or white-slave tracts,” which “began to circulate around 1909.”[8] These tracts tell the terrible tale of an innocent girl, usually from the country, who was either tricked or abducted, in the city, and forced into prostitution. The author concludes that the white slavery narrative is a variation of colonial captivity literature, a story of a white colonist captured in the forest by savages. The captivity narrative reflects the apprehen-sion of the colonists moving into an alien and dangerous wilderness, while the white-slave narrative mirrors the anxieties of a rural population moving into an urban society. The white slaver was “invariably identified as Jewish, Italian, or Eastern European.”[9] Through these narratives, immigration and urbanization are identified as threatening aspects of a changing social and moral landscape.

Connelly’s book is a study of the various ways Americans reacted to and tried to change prostitution in the early twentieth century. He analyzes both the causes and effects of the anti-prostitution movement. Connelly uses sources that reflect the wide range of interest groups active in the fight against prostitution during the Progressive Era: industrial America; American medicine; and civic vice commissions, exemplified by the Chicago report, The Social Evil in the City. He also examines the laws passed to deter immigration of prostitutes and other immoral women: the immi-gration acts of 1903, 1907, and 1910, and the Mann Act of 1910. Changes in the legislation, and some of the court cases arising from the legislation, are scrutinized. The author is interested in the evolution of the law regarding prostitution and immigration, especially as laws became less specifically aimed at prostitution in this period. In 1903 it was a felony to import a woman for purposes of prostitution; in 1907 the phrase “or for any other immoral purpose” was added to the law.[10] By 1910, the law had expanded so that any immigrant found in a house of prostitution or any other place frequented by prostitutes was liable for deportation. “The 1910 construction in effect made guilt by association grounds for arrest, prosecution, and possible deportation.”[11]

The assumption that the influx of immigrants was undermining traditional American society and morality underlies these changes in immigration law. Yet, Connelly, like Rosen, points out that relatively few immigrant women became prostitutes. “By focusing on the ‘importation’ of alien prostitutes, federal policy defined immigration as an attack from without, when, in fact, the problem was rooted in domestic social and economic conditions.”[12]

Prostitution was not confined to urban areas or, notwithstanding the frenzy of reform in the early twentieth century, to the Progressive Era. Barbara Meil Hobson’s work, Uneasy Virtue, reaches the same conclusions about prostitution in the early twentieth century as does Connelly’s and Rosen’s. However, the perspective of Progressive Era reforms as an incarnation of an American tradition adds valuable background to the understanding of the history of prostitution in the United States.

Barbara Hobson describes the “discovery” of prostitution in the early decades of the nineteenth century in the urban centers of the East. The response to prostitution in the early nineteenth century was no less determined than in the early twentieth century. Stories of young girls tricked or coerced into prostitution were also part of the ante-bellum reform movement; like their Progressive Era counterparts, they reflected the anxieties of the society that created and read them. Uneasy Virtue presents a picture of evolving institutions: prostitution itself and the legal and reform systems inspired by it. By placing Progressive Era reforms into the context of a long reforming tradition, the innovation of using the legislative process to effect social change is emphasized.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the rules of society were changing fairly quickly. Gender roles were no longer clearly defined, and rural life was not always the norm. Cities were a wilderness of strange people and strange customs. Anti-prostitution reformers were not merely responding fearfully to the changes in their society, many sincerely believed in their ability to change society for the better. There were two main approaches to dealing with vice at the turn of the twentieth century: segregation and moral purity campaigns. Segregationists gradually lost the battle to determine the American response to prostitution in the face of the concerted efforts of moral purity campaigners to frame the debate as a contest between American Christian virtues and a social evil, rather than containment of a civic and public health problem.




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