The World's Oldest Profession: Labor Organizing in Prostitution

Prostitution and the Suffrage Movement


The Revolution, March 19, 1868, Accessible Archives

In the March 19th 1868 issue of the Revolution, Elizabeth Stanton wrote in response to a bill that proposed legalizing prostitution. She saw it as a “disgrace to the decency and humanity of the nineteenth century” and engrafting on the nation “the refinements of vice from the effete civilizations of the old world”. She argued that legalization would require every prostitute woman to essentially announce her profession to the world and suffer from public shaming in addition to surveillance by a male-dominated Board of Health. She frequently evoked discourses of virtue and vice:

“Yet is it nothing to virtuous, healthy, high-toned women that men come to them from the by-ways of vice, to poison the family purity and peace, to stamp the scars of God's curse on the brow of infancy, and make lazar-houses of all our homes? What father in the state of New York would consent to such legislation for his young and erring daughter? We ask for all the daughters of the state the same protection and consideration that we desire for our own. Let our rulers consider that to-day they may be legislating for the frail ones of their own household, as it is from the gay and fashionable throng that vice recruits for its palsied ranks her most helpless victims.”

Stanton sought independence for women, but was also concerned with protecting them from any false consciousness that lured them to professions such as prostitution: “Look at the multitudes of young girls caged in palace homes, enervated and helpless by lives of ease, luxury and dependence, and wonder not that when, by a sudden turn in the wheel of fortune they stand face to face with the stern realities of life, if temptation comes to them with gilded hand, they be drawn down the whirlpool of vice to destruction.” The ballot is then what can raise women from “the depths of her degradation” and allow her to “assert herself in the world of thought and action”.

Stanton was not alone among the early feminists in taking a harsh stance on prostitution: Susan B. Anthony, for that matter, declared prostitution a “social evil” in her speech in Chicago in 1875. For women in the suffrage movement, the answer to the tension between valuing women’s autonomy and saving her from male subordination could not be more clear: women turned to prostitution out of the lack of alternatives, but this last resort should be taken away, since it further subjects them to the patriarchy in place. To the early feminists, further sexualizing women ran counter to the mission of improving the women’s condition through political and economic equality. 

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