Period piece: The San Francisco prostitute march of 1917

Pub date October 26, 2011
SectionSex Blog

One morning in January 1917, 300 prostitutes marched into the church of their biggest detractor, Reverend Paul J. Smith. They were ready to show the anti-vice crusader what they were made of. The women were organizing in the face of what had become a decades-long dwindling of their rights, spearheaded by the reverend himself.

The world’s oldest profession flourished in brothels all over the city during the Gold Rush, thanks to all those lonely 49ers. But sex work has never been uncontroversial — and the local practice quickly accumulated its own critics.

Officials began cracking down on city brothels in the 1850s, slowly pushing them into tinier and tinier spaces. By 1909, sex work had been ghettoized in the Chinatown neighborhood and in 1911, to an even tinier strip of city known as the Barbary Coast. 

The 300 prostitutes had some community support, even a municipal clinic supposed to cater to their needs. But weekly checkups were mandatory. Anyone who refused could be arrested.

Reverend Smith took a hard line against what he saw as the heart of San Francisco’s vice. With friends, he gathered data on nightly wanderings through houses of ill repute (next time you find yourself in a gallivanting bachelor party, just use the “collecting evidence” excuse). Smith aggressively proposed a “state farm” – olden speak for rehab – for the sex workers, insisting he had their moral wellbeing at heart. 

The Reverend stepped on a few toes on the way, accusing police and politicians of having their hands in the pockets and up the skirts of brothels. An obviously annoyed Mayor James Rolph published an open letter in the San Francisco Chronicle lampooning Smith’s idea for a state farm. “I fail to see how it is proposed to reform the women by putting them on a farm. Is it your idea to make them milkmaids?”

But Smith’s most compelling challengers were the prostitutes themselves, who crowded into the reverend’s church the day of their march asking what, exactly, his intentions were for his campaign of persecution. 

“Are you trying to reform us or are you trying to reform social conditions?” asked one woman. Smith proposed that the sex workers turn to alternate professions where they would earn the minimum wage – $10 a week, half of what the prostitutes estimated they made through sex work. His suggestion was met with laughter.

“What ship are you going to send us away on?” challenged another. Smith brought up the possibility of doing housework, presumably while being financially dependent on a husband (numerous men, in fact, had written the reverend looking to be fixed up with a good-looking fallen woman). 

“What woman wants to work in a kitchen?” a member of the crowd shouted. 

Citing his “impassioned critics,” the reverend adjourned the meeting. By Valentine’s Day, the anti-vice movement forced a roundup of more than a thousand working women from city brothels and dance halls. 

But for a brief moment, sex workers native and foreign, young, old, and middle-aged, had made their voices heard in a city mostly hostile to their existence. At the time, the Chronicle characterized the march as “one of the strangest gatherings that ever took place in San Francisco.” 

Yeah right. In any case, “strange” isn’t the right word.