The Centennial of the 1917 San Francisco Sex Worker Rights March
Bv Devon Angus
In 1917, San Franciscans faced a full plate of political drama and struggle. The Preparedness Day Bombing in the city the previous year, an event that extreme elements of the Chamber of Commerce exploited to attack organized labor, had been both a premonition of the coming Great War and the death knell of radical labor in the city. Within the greater struggle, a courageous and desperate political action was staged by a group of women who were considered to be voiceless and worthless of consideration: the sex workers of San Francisco’s vice districts. Women had been in the vanguard ofpolitical action in the state of California for decades; amongst the first to win the right to vote in the nation in 1911, women’s political groups in the Golden State had a considerable voice in the politics of the era. While club women, often from the middle to upper middle classes, sought to purge the urban landscape of the city’s riotous gold rush past, working class women and sex workers struggled to exist in a world that built wall after wall against any protest they hoped to present.
Long illegal and yet long sanctioned, prostitution and the brothel system were foundational pieces of the mythic West. Tidal in nature, waves of reform and vigilantism dashed against the bulwarks of the vice districts of San Francisco with only temporary successes. The passage of the Red Light Abatement Act in 1913, fully enacted in 1917, broke that stormwall, closing down the infamous vice districts of San Francisco that had grown up with the gold rush city. Anti-vice organizers mounted a rally in January 1917 that they dubbed “Purity Sunday”, weeks before the mass evictions of the vice districts on Valentine’s Day, focused on the moral questions surrounding sex work. “Victims” of the brothel system were to be “saved”, if possible. But what eluded these varied reformers in their campaign was the labor aspect of sex work.
Reggie Gamble and Maude Spencer, two madams from the Uptown Tenderloin district, aimed to confront “Purity Sunday” by storming the church of one of its main prothesizers, the Rev. Paul Smith. Seeking organizational support from Fremont Older, the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, a rival to the anti-vice Examiner, Gamble and Spencer planned what would become the first major organized sex worker protest in U.S. history. In 1913, Older had published the memoirs of a sex worker who went by “Alice Smith” as a serial in the Bulletin. The response to the memoir was extraordinary; over 4,000 letters flooded into the paper, many by sex workers themselves. In all, 114 letters to the editor were published by sex workers, speaking candidly about issues they faced that had long went unheard. By 1917 Older, alarmed by the attacks on organized labor in the aftermath of the 1916 Preparedness Day Bombing, had turned the energy of his editor’s pen against the city’s rightward turn. Likewise, with the planned march organized by Gamble and Spencer, Older sought to tie in the sex worker movement with the beleaguered labor movement.
Reggie Gamble stormed the pulpit of the Rev. Smith after leading over 200 sex workers into the church; her speech focused on the economic conditions that surrounded sex workers. The ongoing wage that a working class woman could expect at the time was six dollars a week, which was little more than starvation wages. Needless to say, working class men made considerably more. Facing such economic disparity, especially with children, out of work husbands, or parents to support, many women turned to prostitution simply in order to survive. Others chose sex work as a valid economic choice in a city with few options. Anti-vice reformers, claimed Gamble, entirely missed the point, as she told the congregation:
“You want the city cleaned up around your church--but where do you want the women to go? Have you made any arrangement by which they can make their living elsewhere? …Why don’t you go to the big business houses? Why don’t you go to the legislature and change the conditions? Men here in San Francisco say they want to eradicate vice. If they do, they better give up something of their dividends and pay the girls’ wages so they can live. You won’t do anything to stop vice by driving us women out of the city to some other city. Has your city and your church a different God, that you drive evil away from your city and your church to other cities and other churches? If you want to stop prostitution, stop the new girls from coming in here. They are coming into it every day. They will always be coming into it as long as conditions, wages and education are as they are. You don’t do any good by attacking us. Why don’t you attack those conditions?”
Come join in the celebration of the 100 year anniversary of this important piece of feminist and labor history at the Tenderloin Museum on January 25th, followed by a march to the site of the original 1917 demonstration. You can RSVP at this link: https://www.facebook.com/events/1810284865925747/