The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City

The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City

by Sharon E. Wood


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Gilded Age cities offered extraordinary opportunities to women--but at a price. As clerks, factory hands, and professionals flocked downtown to earn a living, they alarmed social critics and city fathers, who warned that self-supporting women were just steps away from becoming prostitutes. With in-depth research possible only in a mid-sized city, Sharon E. Wood focuses on Davenport, Iowa, to explore the lives of working women and the prostitutes who shared their neighborhoods.

The single, self-supporting women who migrated to Davenport in the years following the Civil War saw paid labor as the foundation of citizenship. They took up the tools of public and political life to assert the respectability of paid employment and to confront the demon of prostitution. Wood offers cradle-to-grave portraits of individual girls and women--both prostitutes and "respectable" white workers--seeking to reshape their city and expand women's opportunities. As Wood demonstrates, however, their efforts to rewrite the sexual politics of the streets met powerful resistance at every turn from men defending their political rights and sexual power.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807829394
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 04/25/2005
Series: Gender and American Culture
Edition description: 1
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sharon E. Wood is associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She has edited two volumes, The Underworld Sewer: A Prostitute Reflects on Life in the Trade, 1871-1909, by Josie Washburn, and A Home in the West, or Emigration and Its Consequences, by M. Emilia Rockwell.

Read an Excerpt

The Freedom of the Streets

Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City
By Sharon E. Wood

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2005 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-5601-0

Chapter One

Women in the City

Law, Reputation, and Geography

Lust is a better paymaster than the mill-owner or the tailor. Caroline H. Dall, Woman's Right to Labor (1860)

It was just past 11:30 p.m. on a sultry July evening in 1880 when four police officers arrived at a dark, quiet house facing an alley on the outskirts of Davenport, just north of the fairgrounds. Three officers took up positions around the house, watching the roof and second-story windows; the fourth, carrying an arrest warrant, rang the front bell. A gracious Belle Walker answered the door, offering the policeman a "luxurious seat" in the parlor. She called to the officers posted outside, urging them to come in. Puzzled, they entered; the visit was not going as expected. Searching through the house, they found no occupants besides Mrs. Walker and a cook in the kitchen. "Where are the girls?" they finally asked. "O, my daughters are all out enjoying the cool air riding," replied Walker, perfectly cool herself. The policemen, thwarted in their efforts to catch a house of ill-fame in full swing, arrested Walker, giving her notice to appear in court the followingmorning. Her attorney appeared for her and posted a six hundred dollar bond, and Walker remained free.

The report of the foiled raid on Walker's place appeared on the front page of the Davenport Democrat just one column distant from the paragraph noting Dr. Jennie McCowen's arrival that day to open a medical practice in Davenport. At first glance, these two women could not have been more different from each other: McCowen was a respected professional woman, well educated and articulate, soon to be a leading citizen of the community. Walker was the proprietor of a bordello. Setting these two women alongside each other, as the newspaper did that steamy July day, calls attention not only to their differences but also to the way gender shaped the possibilities each found in her life. Both Walker and McCowen were in their mid-thirties in 1880. Both women had traveled far from the scenes of childhood and family as they sought ways to earn a living. Neither was married. Despite the honorific "Mrs.," Walker, whose real name was Rachel Armstrong, was not married to her partner, Charles Walker. Armstrong and McCowen, each in her own way, had rejected the expected pattern of a woman's life, a pattern that led from girlhood to marriage to motherhood, a pattern strongly associated in the dominant culture with pastoral retirement to the domestic sphere. As different as their lives were, both Armstrong and McCowen had chosen a course likely to place their names where most women's names rarely appeared: on the front page of the newspaper. Far from retired, both were ambitious, and both were successful. Rachel Armstrong was a businesswoman, a property owner, and a taxpayer; McCowen would become all three as well.

In the judgment of most middle-class Americans, Rachel Armstrong ought to have been an outcast, shunned by her family, miserable, and alone. Or, conjuring another stock figure from the catalog of imagined prostitution, she might have been a monster-"diabolical," one newspaper writer called her. Yet when Armstrong died in 1883, her funeral revealed a woman very different from those caricatures. Indeed, a reporter attending the service seemed fascinated by the way it violated his expectations. Armstrong's brother came for the funeral-a brother Armstrong had tenderly nursed through the months of his recent illness. "Most of the women of her class in the city" also came, and far from being blasphemous harridans, they knew the hymns and sang them with "readiness and harmony," suggesting, perhaps, a history of churchgoing. In "the strange company about that grave," the reporter observed genuine grief. Few women in Davenport would have wanted to trade their lives for Armstrong's (though assuredly, some would have done so gladly), yet in her life, Armstrong had friends, family, and financial comfort. Her money protected her from the sordid business of police-court appearances, and it gave her the stability to form a longtime partnership with Charles Walker. She acknowledged his importance in her life by making him the sole heir to her real and personal property-worth forty thousand dollars, by one probably exaggerated estimate-and the executor of her will.

When Rachel Armstrong and her mourners failed to conform to expectations, they blurred the line that was supposed to separate "virtuous" women from the "fallen." Most nineteenth-century writers who dealt with prostitution in America insisted that the line was unambiguous: loss of sexual purity irrevocably transformed a woman. "Good women," explained philosopher Ellen Mitchell, "feel that between them and their erring sisters is a great gulf fixed." Good men shared the same view. After John Warren, a veteran New York City detective, helped a distraught father trace his missing daughter and found her in a brothel, the man refused to rescue her. "It wouldn't be my Annie, you know, she's gone," he mourned. "I shall never see her again." Kate Bushnell of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union was more sympathetic to such women but voiced a similar certainty. The "fallen woman," she wrote, "is an exposed criminal; she cannot keep her crime hid as man can. It tells too painfully on her health; it lies too weightily on her conscience; or the offspring of lust enters the world through her bedchamber. So that in some way or other, either by haggard look or confession or enforced motherhood, the lightening-shaft of God's seeming-judgment descends, and she becomes a castaway." Once a girl or woman was "ruined," the transformation showed in her face and demeanor, and she became an outcast-or so most writers insisted.

Yet middle-class writers' certainty seems an almost calculated defense against the ambiguity of the streets. In life, what separated "pure" women from the "fallen" was less a bright line than a broad penumbra. Where writers asserted manifest difference, civil authorities found the need to impose distinctions. Prostitution districts were among the first forms of zoning devised by cities in the nineteenth century. Yet the spaces set apart for "fallen" women were rarely empty of others. Brothels had neighbors, and on the sidewalks prostitutes strolled alongside other women. This mingling bred confusion and anxiety, as urban dwellers fretted about how to distinguish among strangers: which women were prostitutes, and which their respectable neighbors? In Davenport, one newspaper expressed the fear quite candidly: when prostitutes mixed with other women, any man might be "dupe[d] ... into marrying a disguised trull for a virginal bride."

The spatial confusion had its parallel in uncertain social boundaries, as self-supporting women found themselves immersed in a debate over wage earning, prostitution, and respectability. When a woman earned an income of her own, she placed herself-at least symbolically-outside the reciprocal obligations of marriage. In the middle-class model of companionate marriage, a wife owed sexual love and domestic labor to her husband, who provided economic support in return. But the self-supporting woman could resist this bargain, sundering the terms of the exchange. Having no need of a breadwinner, she no longer owed her sexuality to one man alone. Indeed, having defied the feminine modesty that ought to make her timid in the masculine business world, a wage-earning woman might be expected to reveal other kinds of boldness, even sexual assertiveness. Seen through this lens of gender ideology, a woman who moved into the realm of paid employment implicitly compromised her sexual reputation.

Those who argued for expanded economic opportunities for women were uncomfortably aware of this problem. A writer in the popular educational journal Chautauquan hesitated to recommend well-paid craft work to women in need of income because its practitioners were "not always moral, and the association is thus dangerous." Characteristically, Ednah Dow Cheney of the Association for the Advancement of Women acknowledged the same problem but took the opposite stance, urging "every woman, rich or poor, to do something for pay, to show that it is not disgraceful." Others, including politicians debating the tariff, associated women's paid employment with prostitution by tracing the inevitable line from low wages to the bordello. John McEnnis of the Knights of Labor alleged that among St. Louis knitting girls, "prostitution was one of the conditions of getting and keeping work, and that many girls could not make enough money to buy bread and fuel without resorting to the streets." As the keeper of one brothel reportedly explained, "What's the use, as long as men pay reluctantly the smallest wages for the longest day's hard labor, and pay the highest demanded price, in these houses, they will be continued." A writer in the suffrage paper The Revolution, addressing American women, expressed the problem in the bleakest terms: "Few professions are open to you; and in most of these, social degradation attends your entrance.... To her, therefore, who must earn her own bread, and whose affections do not prompt her to married life, there are but these alternatives-Scanty Earnings, Unloving Wedlock, Death, or Nameless Shame." When the distance from paid employment to the brothel seemed so short, the taint of sexual impropriety could stigmatize the most ordinary employments for women. A "boarding house for ladies" was code for a bordello, the proprietor tagged as a brothel keeper. "Cigar store keeper" became a euphemism for prostitute in some locales, while "shirtmaker" or "sewing girl" were used in others. Even a milliner-that most characteristic of women's trades-could face claims that she kept "a cozy room in the rear, and an inviting lounge" for male callers. Working for pay left a woman's respectability open to question.

When Jennie McCowen arrived in Davenport to open her practice, she came with an introduction to the community from Abbie Cleaves, the physician McCowen replaced. Though a stranger to Davenport, McCowen's respectability was unquestioned. Women without her resources-her education, skill, savings account, manner, and reputation-faced greater obstacles making a place for themselves in the city. "Making a place," physical as well as social, was key to a woman's success in establishing her reputation in a new city, but this was far from simple. Without a written "character" to introduce her or a local reputation for probity, a woman could find herself caught in a double bind: barred from respectable work or lodgings, she might be forced to seek both in places less reputable. Ironically, the legal construction of prostitution in the late nineteenth century focused not on specific actions but on reputation and physical location. In a culture that allowed women few choices about where to work and how to live, a woman on the margins of respectability often found herself deprived of one more choice: whether to accept the identity of "prostitute."

The 1880 raid on Rachel Armstrong's place was the second that week, part of Davenport authorities' new determination to suppress several brothels that had flourished for years just north of the city limits. Two days earlier, a visit to Claude Merrill's resort in the same neighborhood had been more exciting but hardly more successful. Of eighteen people in the house, police captured only Merrill and two women who worked for her. The others, men and women, fled through windows and into the cornfields nearby. One young man "made a flying dash through a second story window, taking sash, glass, and all, landed on a shed roof, from which he got to the ground, and thence into a cabbage patch, where he and some others did serious damage with their wanderings in search of a lone lane to town."

Set down amid cabbage patches and cornfields, these brothels lay near the northern terminus of the Brady Street car line, making them easy for patrons to reach. Nearby was the fairgrounds racetrack, a hub of Davenport's male sporting culture. In the early 1870s, there were few neighbors to trouble, and authorities permitted the brothels to operate relatively undisturbed. But the same car line that made the brothels accessible also drew new residential building. Developers platted a subdivision in the area north of the fairgrounds in the 1870s, and as more respectable neighbors moved in, they pressured authorities to move brothels out. The raid on Walker's place (called "the Farm") was prompted by a complaint from an actual farmer, while the arrests at Merrill's followed a protest from another neighbor about "carriages driving to and from at all hours of the day and night-in full view of all the children and women in the homes in the vicinity." This citizen expected city authorities to redefine the space of his neighborhood, making it a respectable place for wives and children at home by removing the women of doubtful character. On another occasion, one of Merrill's neighbors, a broom maker named George Wilkinson, reported that "at times there is a good deal of noise in and around this house & it had become a nuisance in the neighborhood."

While noise, traffic, and the mixing of "bad" women among "good" wives seemed to be the primary complaints against the brothels around the fairgrounds, neighbors grew to fear violence as well. The Black Hills, a resort on Dubuque Road just north of the streetcar depot, was a particular focus of anxiety. Consisting of two frame buildings, a saloon and a dwelling house, the Black Hills in 1877 was kept by a couple named Heinrichs. He ran the saloon, while she had charge of the house. That April, two young coal miners, Richard Thomas and Ambrose Bone, stopped by one afternoon to drink at the saloon, but it was closed because of Mr. Heinrichs's illness. Mrs. Heinrichs offered to serve them beer in the house. While they were there, Bone argued with a young woman resident, Minnie Brennicke, and as he was leaving, he turned and shot her through the head. Police arrested Thomas almost immediately, but Bone escaped. After more than a week's manhunt up and down the Mississippi Valley, Bone turned himself in to the Davenport police.

This story might be just one more in a series of grim episodes involving prostitutes, drunken young men, and pistols, except for what the newspaper reports suggest about Brennicke. The reports never wavered in their conviction that Minnie Brennicke was a prostitute-"One of the Unfortunate Inmates," a headline called her. Thomas, in fact, testified that the argument between Brennicke and Bone began after they had gone upstairs together, with Bone complaining as he returned to the parlor that "you are a great girl to use a fellow in that way." Mrs.


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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Wood masterfully unearths a striking set of women on the wrong side of Davenport's line of respectability, and she situates these wayward girls and prostitutes in a shared urban space with that other group of independent women of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the civic-minded reformers. Wood's research base is terrific and rich, bringing scores of women to life and putting Davenport's geography of sex and feminism on the historical map.--Patricia Cline Cohen, University of California, Santa Barbara

Contributes significantly to the extant literature on prostitution in the late-nineteenth-century United States. . . . A fascinating read.--Journal of the History of Sexuality

[A] skillful excavation of lives of Davenport's middle-class working women/reformers, prostitutes, and public men. . . . Wood's analysis of the relationship of middle-class working women and the city's lower class women involved in sex commerce reveals new insights into the lives of each.--Western Historical Quarterly

Valuable. . . . A model for grounding us in the larger geography of human interaction that lies at the heart of the history of sexuality.--Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

This book makes an important contribution to the growing literature on urban women at the turn of the century, the modernization of the city, the history of sexuality, and Gilded Age/Progressive Era politics. Wood has done truly remarkable research that has enabled her to give us colorful, cradle-to-grave portraits of her key characters. These portraits significantly shift our understanding of who local and state level professional women and women's movement leaders were and how they operated.--Sarah Deutsch, Duke University

A meticulous and imaginative use of sources. . . . A remarkably rich and nuanced portrait of Davenport's prostitutes. . . . Packed with compelling and richly detailed vignettes.--Business History Review

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