Typed Letter regarding the injustice of prosecuting women in the sex trade
Santa Rosa, California: July 1, 1913.
Santa Rosa, California: July 1, 1913. One page Typed Letter titled "Letter from Prostitute" and signed in type at the conclusion by "One who has to live the life of the Redlight." Legal sheet measuring 12.25 x 8.25 inches with text to recto only. Vertical and horizontal fold lines. Contemporary pencil notation "Copy" to upper margin. An example of an anonymous sex worker's advocacy for those within her trade, for young women at risk of being forced into her trade, and against the corrupt political and economic structures that protect wealthy men from accountability for their own actions.
It is unlikely that history will discover the name of the author of this letter; but in submitting it to Sonoma County District Attorney Rolf Thompson, she participated in a wider and growing trend of sex workers advocating for themselves, raising awareness about their reasons for engaging in sex work, and demanding more meaningful systemic change from state and local officials targeting and punishing them. From 1848-1917, as California public policies increasingly secularized, sex work became a topic of contentious debate. "Protestant leaders sought to address causes of prostitution...Catholic leaders attempted to remove prostitutes from public view. Jewish leaders addressed prostitution both in terms of public health and also in answer to fears about illegal international slavery operations" (Bourn). Conservative politicians, meanwhile, engaged in stoking fears of "white slavery," presenting extreme "tales of violently raped virgins" as a means to shut down brothels (Keire). Across these approaches, there was no consistent effort to identify the racial, gendered, and economic factors that contributed to individuals entering the sex trade.
The present letter excoriates the District Attorney for hypocrisy in extremely specific terms. "Kind sir; I see you will wish to prosecute the red-light district," she begins. "To have less prostitutes in the state, and for girls to commence to be more refined, you lawyers with families should sow the seed. Here a few days ago a lot of bankers and married men were arrested for giving liquor to girls and got off nicely with small fines." She identifies those men's wealth and reputation as reasons why they could go free, their reputations untarnished; meanwhile, young women and underage girls suffer the consequences. "I say if the District Lawyer does not wish to make trouble for the rich, there will always be a red-light...Bring these bankers, hop buyers, and married men to trial; let no father buy off newspapers and poor families whose girls have been disgraced, and in a short time there will be no red-light as girls will be pure and no shame to hid."
The letter-writer's point that a root cause of the sex trade is a system that protects wealthy men and abusers while punishing women and girls at an economic, social, and physical disadvantage was a concern of the wider sex trade. As district attorneys like Thompson and religious leaders used their influence to oppress and condemn this community, its members increasingly fought back. Indeed, by 1917 the conflict reached a head with the so-called Prostitute March, during which "more than three hundred prostitutes dressed and perfumed in their finest marched to the Central Methodist Church to confront" a religious leader who had "launched a campaign against sin and vice" (San Francisco Digital History Archive). Tired of leaders pointing to sex workers as the source of evil in the community, this group did as the letter-writer had before them: expose the root causes of the sex trade. "Three fourths of these women worked as prostitutes in order to earn enough to support their children. The only other jobs open to them couldn't meet the costs of raising a family" (San Francisco Digital History Archive). To these complaints they added their inability to vote for representatives who could protect their interests, and systemic protections for men who committed harm.
An important glimpse into an all too infrequently discussed portion of American history. (Item #5418)