An Age of Agency: Working Women's Role in Leisure, Treating, and Prostitution 1880-1945
Throughout American history, ideas about women’s sexuality have been influenced by economic and social changes of the time. Reformers focused on female sexuality at the same time that industrialization brought great economic and social fluctuations. Cities provided women new social opportunities, employment — though limited in terms of real wages — and experiences, but importantly for many, some level of personal autonomy. Numerous other reasons lay behind rising single female urban populations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century such as familial exile, escaping abusive or dysfunctional homes, or a family’s economic dependence on the wages of their urban daughters. Worries about these women pervaded popular culture, academics, and reform societies. However, recent historians have emphasized the agency of urban single working class women, refusing to ascribe to victimization tropes. Scholars like Elizabeth Alice Clement, Kathy Peiss, Ruth Rosen, and others have illustrated that though bound by gender and class discrimination, urban working women’s agency came to shape not only their own lives but more broadly social and sexual practices within American society.
Characterizations of wage working single women ranged from the late nineteenth century “orphan”, a helpless, passionless, weak vessel corrupted and seduced by lecherous men to the early twentieth century licentious, diseased, selfish prostitute sexually and economically exploiting innocent male virility. Importantly, images created by society to illustrate these women often related to the nation’s larger anxiety ridden transition from a rural agrarian homogenous society to an urban industrial hetereogenous culture. Though women enjoyed some level of economic and social autonomy in burgeoning urban cultures, this independence remained couched in a society dominated by gender, class, ethnic, and race discrimination. Thus for working women, the complex balance between respectability and freedom circumscribed their social and economic worlds.
Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, women’s historians have looked beyond the confines of work, home, and trade unions to new areas of leisure and more informal peer networks and subcultures. The role of commercialized leisure, whose manifestations are most noted in dance halls, arcades, and amusements parks of the period, served as a site where primarily white working women could assert some autonomy over their physical body along with their social and sexual lives. However, the rise of commercialized leisure transcended all urban boundaries influencing nearly all sectors of municipalities economically, politically, and socially. The growth of heterosocial interactions among working class youth culture, a marked shift from the homosocial spaces of the nineteenth century, led to more open sexuality and greater sexual experimentation reshaping social and sexual patterns. Various sexual practices and behaviors simultaneously occupied urban spaces. Therefore, treating, dating, and prostitution existed side by side, each differentiating itself through specific rituals and practices. Entrepreneurs capitalized on these changes establishing red light districts and later legal and illegal sex industries including taxi dancers, cabaret performers, masseuses, call girls, and prostitutes. The commercialization of vice along with the gradual but growing acceptance of premarital sex, pushed prostitution to the margins whereas nineteenth century America viewed it as much more central to society.
If earlier historians often portrayed working women as recipients of middle and upper class trends and advice, more recent histories of the past thirty years have reevaluated the “trickle down” formation, arguing that working women contributed greatly to reorganizing ideas about women’s sexuality and sexual practices. Though limited sources plague historians of working class females in this period, recent works have read traditional sources such as vice societies records “against the grain” in order to get at the voices and viewpoints of wage working women. Moreover, many recent scholars have benefited from the expansion of academia into areas such as gender, ethnic, and immigration studies which have enabled historians to explore a greater variety of women’s experiences. Still, no matter which segment of the population one examines, single working women’s agency serves as a central focus including their pursuit of commercial leisure, work, housing, sexual practices, and prostitution.
By the late nineteenth century, increasing numbers of single women relocated to urban areas across the nation. Removed from the protection of family and subject to poor wages, reformers and others characterized these women as naïve rural individuals placing themselves at great risk in the morally decaying, urban metropolises of the early twentieth century. Wages failed to provide adequate compensation as many employers assumed that working women remained supported by a family economy or husband. Without patriarchical protection or the family, reformers predicted many women would be drawn to prostitution, crushed by poverty and corrupted by men. However, not all families proved equal. Reformers class biased often led them to view working families as problematic. By the early twentieth century, reformers put forth a vision of the working class home as crowded and dysfunctional, contributing to directly to “fallen women”.
Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918 (1982) argues differently. Suggesting that working class women engaged in prostitution for a complex array of reasons and motivations, Rosen explores the views of reformers, prostitutes, vice societies and social workers during the nation’s most concentrated anti-prostitution campaign in U.S. history. Rosen’s work examines the “complicated web of particular economic, social, and family difficulties that led individual working class women to choose prostitution as a survival strategy.” Rosen critiques reformers for failing to focus on economic issues (low pay; segregated workplace) while ignoring the sexual abuse in families choosing to target prostitution, which contemporaries portrayed as a symptom of urban life and broader national change. The closure of red light districts in the second decade of the twentieth century failed to eliminate prostitution. Moreover, these efforts reflected the desires of political, business, and medical interests rather than those of industrialization’s ills or women. Progressive faith in government and social science emerged to create various juridical institutions to monitor and rehabilitate female sexuality. Judicial venues like Chicago’s Morals Court or New York’s Women’s Court cooperated with vice squads, social workers, and prisons to “entrap and imprison prostitutes.” Rehabilitation in reformatories and the like consisted of gendered activities such as sewing, scrubbing, and cooking, activities unlikely to prove highly beneficial in the industrial economy women inhabited. This apparatus meant to protect the “exploited prostitute” led instead to repressive laws aimed at commercialized vice that failed to end prostitution while disproportionately affecting working class women “the antiprostitution movement resulted in the professional and official victimization of poor women.” Rooming houses, flats, massage parlors, and call girls replaced the brothels of vice districts as reformers never accounted for the gender and class discrimination endured by working women .
The growth of commercialized entertainment opened up new spaces for women. However, reformers and others often associated sites of leisure with inappropriate vice and prostitution. The shift from homosocial leisure activity to a more heterosexual example caused great unease and accusations of sexual corruption. Saloons, theatres, and dancehalls stood accused of facilitating prostitution. However, commercialized leisure accommodated numerous groups and classes, while prostitution existed, it did so alongside other social and sexual interactions.
Rosen notes that historians have failed to fully explore working women’s motives for both occasional and commercial prostitution. Revealingly, working class people’s ignored morality based arguments, viewing prostitution primarily as an economic decision. Considering pay in other fields and the dangers or difficulties that came along with them, many women chose prostitution because it appeared to be easier work or at least no worse than the difficult conditions under which they already labored. Gender and class discrimination in employment, concerns about stigma, and the continuing issue of economic dependence framed choices, but as Rosen points out, “most women chose to enter prostitution … because they perceived prostitution as a means of fulfilling particular economic, social, or psychological needs.” Neither were all women who engaged in prostitution professionals, rather many women participated in occasional prostitution in order to make ends meet.
Hysteria over “white slavery” in the Progressive Period, Rosen finds emerges from the very real trafficking of women as sex slaves. Though it raised awareness and antiprostitution efforts, its focus on native born white women excluded other groups such as immigrants and blacks. Generally, reformers directed little attention toward prostitution in black communities, assuming it inherent to African Americans or believing it to be an intracommunal issue for such communities to sort out independently. Surprisingly, native born women of foreign parentage serve as the largest demographic engaged in the practice, rather than the Southern and Eastern immigrants of Europe that reformers believed responsible. In fact, immigrant groups stressing family solidarity and chastity, notably the Irish and Italian communities, often illustrated lower levels of prostitution.
Economic, social, and political change pervaded nearly all aspects of early twentieth century U.S. culture. Prostitution serves as a useful lens from which to view not only issues around female sexuality but its connection to concurrent forces. Reflecting the “rationalized and commercialized” impulses of America, prostitution mirrored several issues that drove Progressive reformers including commercialization, immigration, unfair business practices, monopolization, and alienation/lonlieness driven by economic change.
Looking back at the nineteenth and twentieth century, Jurgen Habermas noted the increasing importance of recreation, “Leisure behavior supplies the key to the floodlit privacy of the new sphere, to the externalization of what is declared to be the inner self.” As Habermas realized, leisure revealed much about one’s identity, furthermore, such sites allowed for women to craft a larger if limited place in the urban public sphere. Rosen’s work pointed in similar directions focusing on prostitution and more widely the commercialization of vice and leisure. Kathy Peiss’s Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York (1986) builds on several of Rosen’s points shifting the focus more squarely on working women’s leisure, which served as arenas “for the articulation of different values and behaviors.” Noting Rosen’s observations that fashions associated with prostitution later emerged among middle class women, Peiss argues that working class women’s engagement with commercialized leisure helped to shift America from a homosocial to a heterosocial society. Young white working women attending urban dance halls, movies, and amusement parks mixed with their male counterparts establishing a working class youth culture that later influenced a similar middle class variant. Like The Lost Sisterhood, Cheap Amusements refutes the trickledown theory suggesting that such cultural exchange occurred in two directions. Working women’s participation in commercialized leisure reshaped the construction of gender among working class peoples while also affecting similar developments among counterparts from the middle and upper strata. Moreover, Peiss’s work pushes back against historians who argue that “cheap amusements” lulled women into a false consciousness, allowing consumerism to overtake identity.
Accordingly, the small pleasures such women took from dance halls, amusement parks, and movies failed to emancipate them. Cheap Amusements acknowledges that the freedom gained by working women occurred in a limited space that subordinated women even if the greater freedom occurred in the “context of limited heterosocial relations.” However, the agency displayed by working women contributed to the restructuring of gender and the shift from a homosocial to heterosocial culture.
Beginning with non-commercialized forms of leisure such as the street and local saloons, Peiss illustrates the sexually segregated nature of late nineteenth century leisure. Ideals of mutuality and reciprocity frequently surfaced especially in male rituals such as “treating”. In the homosocial world of nineteenth century, treating required men to purchases drinks for their fellow patrons. Illustrating the pronounced gender divisions of the time, men and women experienced these ideals differently. Working men occupied spaces of leisure such as bars or taverns while women did so in the home or among friends at sites of work such as laundering, cooking, or caring for a neighbor’s child. Women might occasionally visit saloons, however, those who stood unaccompanied at the bar risked being mistaken for prostitutes.
Local leisure often took place in the streets or in urban halls dotting communities around New York. Dancing proved popular among all ethnicities and races. Local public halls, saloon dance halls, and rackets all preceded the larger venues. Leisure options rested on the rigidity or strictness of the various ethnic groups occupying a neighborhood. The expansion of commercialized leisure simultaneously fueled similar developments in the liquor industry. Driven by the leisure desires of working women, a broader culture of commercialized entertainment expanded. Peiss’s discussion of Coney Island’s role further illustrates this point. The success of Steeplechase Park over its competitors Dreamland and Luna Park stemmed from its embrace of sexuality and romance. Drawing upon cultural patterns derived from working class amusements, street life and popular entertainment, Steeplechase successfully presented a non-threatening sexuality that encouraged working women’s attendance but also promoted middle class ideals. Diminishing class and gender boundaries, Coney Island appropriated working class youth culture’s focus on mixed sex interaction.
Female sexuality remained a dominant area of concern. The increased heterosocial nature of “cheap amusements” worried reformers. Working women attended amusements in larger groups or with a fellow female companion. Such friendships or informal networks, often ignored by historians, helped women navigate the social worlds of dance halls. Some women accepted gifts in return for companionship or sexual favors ranging from holding hands to intercourse. Known as treating, the heterosocial world of leisure altered this ideal of nineteenth homosocial spaces. “Treating” (Rosen noted a similar process) distinguishing itself from prostitution. Money was never exchanged but rather young women might articulate a material need or want, while her male companion acquired such requests in return for other favors. The cultural of communal dance halls encouraged treating which also created a new type of women referred to as “charity girls”. Though women shaped these developments to various degrees, Peiss points out that “the realities of working class life … intruded … women’s situation in the labor force and family undercut their social freedom and treating underscored their material dependency.”
Popular culture, especially through movies, broadcast much of the style and heterosocial interactions of working class youth culture so visibly on display at Coney Island and in urban dance halls. Again, Peiss notes early movies drew upon vaudevillian plots and routines that had been popular in the working class cheap theatres. Moreover, film exhibited the behavior of working class youth culture, reinterpreting then broadcasting it to other young men and women. The relative affordability of movies allowed broader sections of society to attend. For example, movies allowed for greater generational diversity. Young men and women dominated most other commercialized leisure, movies however, enabled married women and older folks to attend. For women, most leisure activity ended with marriage or motherhood.
Though women found ways to assert their independence and redefine relations between genders through commercial leisure, its effects remained limited. Wage working women may have viewed reformers as out of touch but the admonishments of some concerning the potential for manipulation proved accurate as the commodification of female sexuality contributed to new forms of exploitation. Moreover, even the few freedoms created existed in the context of economic dependence and gendered discrimination in employment. Commercial culture emphasized personal fulfillment diverting women’s class interests. No feminist response arose meaning that the allocation of power, work, and resources remained skewed favorably toward men.
Many of the wage working women attending New York’s cheap amusements lived independently from family or a husband. Shifting the urban setting to the Midwestern capital Chicago, Joanne Meyerowitz’s Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930 (1988) explores the agency and influence of similar Midwestern women. Like Peiss’ New Yorkers and Rosen’s prostitues, Meyerowitz’s “women adrift” challenged traditional society by engaging in peer and urban informal subcultures through which they established sexual and social patterns that middle class and “bohemian” later women followed. If the preferences of working women in Cheap Amusements benefited Steeplechase Park while penalizing the demonstrably more Victorian competition, Meyerowitz’s working class females contributed to the decline of Victorian culture through housing choices, participation in new informal urban networks, and occupational interactions.
Previous historians frequently describe urban wage earning women’s experiences occurring within in two contradictory frames, the liberation and family structure models. The former argues that wage work disrupted familial and ethnic ties, creating economic independence for women, thus eluding patriarchal standards prevalent in homes and the community. In contrast, the family structure model suggests that industrial wages minimally affected women who primarily remained “dutiful daughters” contributing their earnings to their families. However, Meyerowitz points to the weaknesses of each arguing for a “third way” in which “historians … now find extrafamilial “work cultures” in department stores, factories, hospitals, and offices, and peer oriented leisure time subcultures in working class neighborhoods and recreation facilities.” Informal networks and subcultures provided not only community or protection but served as “arenas for change”. Again, as in Cheap Amusements, “women adrift” experienced new opportunities and subcultures but they did so within a system based on gendered employment discrimination that greatly limited their lives.
Women adrift endured similar shifting characterizations as those established in Rosen’s work. Women began as victims corrupted by urban decay and lecherous men, transitioning to moral polluters or threats then by the 1920s fading into respectability as economic change, popular tastes, and ideas about sexuality changed. However, historians have missed their contributions for two major reasons. First, scholars too often focused on family life and trade union activity. Meyerowitz’s female wage earners did not participate in either. Ethnic backgrounds often determined occupational paths and few women adrift participated in union activity. Second, historians failed to consider sexual service whether it be treating, or prostitution, occasional or commercial.
Similar to Rosen, and Peiss, Meyerowitz argues that more complex matters than simply poverty drove wage earning women’s decisions. Women adrift migrated to cities for numerous reasons but prominent among them independence. The desire for autonomy emerges clearly in employment choices and housing. Domestic work declined not only because of industrialization but also as result of preferences for individual freedom that such employment failed to offer. Sexual harassment and abuse existed in both, but wage earning women found new networks of support in newer occupations such as waitresses and department store saleswomen. The move away from boarding with private families toward organized homes then toward furnished rooms and apartments, reflected the desire for working women to exert more control over their own lives. New employment and housing opportunities enabled the formation of new subcultures and informal peer networks. Generally, “adrifts” developed these bonds of “mutual dependence” either with peers or men, through the practice of “treating”. Acknowledging the importance of commercialized leisure in facilitating both relationships, Meyerowitz illustrates how new negative portrayals of women developed such as “gold diggers”, the “kept women” and the “pick up”. Each illustrated the continued economic dependence upon which many women struggled.
The popular image of flappers and emancipated women common to American culture in the 1920s often credits middle and upper class women for developing greater freedoms and public space. However, Meyerowitz suggests that the bohemian neighbors of “women adrift” observed and borrowed fashion, sensibilities, and sexual behaviors that eventually established themselves widely in the middle and upper classes. If concerns about the fate or influence of women adrift declined by the 1920’s, Meyerowitz argues middle class culture had so imbued many of the practices exhibited by “women adrift” that they no longer seemed threatening. Concern about levels of poverty also declined as the nation descended into economic depression, making the destitution of such women less shocking. Like other writers, Meyerowitz pays little attention to black women due to sourcing issues. As noted previously, many reformers ignored black communities. Though Reiss, Meyerowitz, and Rosen do discuss black women’s experiences pointing out racial and economic discrimination, different conceptions of “respectability” or increased levels of prostitution arrests due to biased enforcement, black women and men often take secondary roles. Though relatedly, each focuses far more on ethnic differences.
The concern centered on young single urban women encompassed more than adults. The same rapid industrialization and urban growth responsible for change also affected working class adolescent girls. Mary Odem’s Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States 1880-1920 (1995) explores the roles of four main actors in the construction of state regulation of teenage girls: middle class reformers, state officials, working class adolescent girls, and working class parents. Though like Peiss, Rosen, and Meyerowitz’s sources, most reflect the views of reformers and newspaper publishers, adopting a more juridical approach, Odem also incorporates criminal and juvenile court records from Alameda and Los Angeles counties arguing that California’s reform movement, despite high levels of activity, remained ignored by historians. Additionally, Odem’s work attempts to include discussions of racial minorities to a greater degree which it accomplishes to a certain extent.
Delinquent Daughters divides the reform movement into two stages, paralleling similar organizational divisions in Rosen and Meyerowitz’s works. The years 1880-1900 illustrate a drive by reformists and feminists to raise age of consent laws arguing that young girls were often seduced and corrupted by immoral men. Again, as victims of male lust, women’s portrayals epitomized the helpless orphan trope. In its second stage, reformers acknowledged the sexuality of young girls but framed it as dangerous, blaming social and family environments for delinquency. Such fears led to the creation of state apparatuses for surveillance and institutionalization like special police, juvenile courts, detention centers and reformatories. With this understanding Odem posits three central points. First, moral campaigns illustrated race, class, and gender tensions that had always existed but accelerated in their expression due to industrialization, urbanization, and expanding reform efforts. Reformers advocated middle class ideas of “female restraint and modesty.” Second, though reformers intended for state regulation to be nurturing and concerned with the individual, often reformatories and legal enforcement unfolded in unintended ways. Local municipal authorities resented the influence of reform, resisting its imposition. Moreover, the implementation of such policies targeted “young working class women who violated dominant codes of female respectability.” Finally, like previous authors, Odem questions the idea that middle class values were imposed from the top down by reforms. Instead, Odem points to incidents in which working class parents used the new state regulatory system to reassert control over their own daughters, though in some moments these same parents endured unexpected results from state authorities regarding their daughters including extended incarceration or institutionalization. Odem carefully notes that working class attempts to use the system in this way did not necessarily illustrate adoption of middle class morals or behaviors, but were an attempt to reassert familial control over daughters.
Odem’s work acknowledges the importance of leisure and wage work in constructing a new social reality for women, “as they earned wages in stores, offices, and factories, and spent their leisure hours in dance halls, and movie theatres, young women were constructing a new social role for themselves.” As well, their participation in heterosocial youth culture in spaces of leisure furthered the decline of familial control. However, Odem’s work focuses much more on the juridical and state regulation aspects of historical inquiry than Meyerowitz and Peiss, Still, parallels remain. If gender bias existed in employment and more widely, this proved no less true in court settings. Probation for delinquent boys frequently occurred but for adolescent girls this option rarely emerged. State regulation meant to reform girls took on a different tinge, “enforcement of the law became a punitive process for the young women and girls it meant to protect, as they faced possible confinement in detention centers and reformatories and had to endure grueling interrogations by male judges and attorneys who frequently labeled them promisicous or immoral.” Race and ethnicity proved important factors as well. Blacks and immigrants of both sexes received harsher punitive measures then whites convicted of similar charges. Reformers attempted to remedy some gender bias by promoting the appointment of female judges and juries. In Los Angeles juvenile courts, female judges presided, though in a different environment than their male counterparts. However, though female officials attempted to reduce harsh punishments, they exhibited a similar mindset regarding the threat “delinquent daughters” represented, “women court workers never doubted that young women and girls should in fact be apprehended and disciplined for legal conduct.” Rulings and institutionalization still fell disproportionately on poor and working class women and girls.
As others have argued, similar to the declining concern over “women adrift”, the diminished hysteria over adolescent girls resulted from less threatening middle class appropriations of working class sexual mores. Middle class individuals adopted new ideologies of sexual practices that focused more on pleasure. The heterosexual nature of adolescent girls took a back seat over larger fears regarding the “frigid female” and lesbianism. However, the “legal mechanisms of control” established “continued to monitor and regulate the sexuality of young women and girls throughout much of the twentieth century,” while also imposing class, ethnic, and racial biases. In contrast to Meyerowitz and Peiss who focus less on the state, Odem’s work illustrates the negative governmental aspects related to women’s increased economic and social power.
As illustrated by numerous historians, over the past thirty years, scholars have explored leisure practices, work decisions, and housing choices to illustrate working class female agency. Working women’s activities spurred the development of greater sexual freedom, which in turn realigned both middle class values and gender relations. Expanding on these ideas, Elizabeth Alice Clement’s Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City 1900-1945 “explores the historical relationships between different kinds of sexual intimacy and exchange in American history, culture, and social politic.” Building on the scholarship of Mary Odem, Ruth Rosen, Joanne Meyerowitz, and Kathy Peiss, Clement argues that a broad multi-ethnic working class culture, that illustrated marked differences according to ethnicity, religion, and race, led to significant changes in sexual norms among Americans in the first half of the century. However, Clements pushes further than the others in several ways. First, drawing upon more recent work from gender studies, specifically those relating to immigrant and African American women, Love for Sale suggests that female immigrants experienced assimilation differently than their male counterparts. For Clement’s working women, the most important areas of contestation concerning which principles of Americanization to adopt occurred within the home “over issues of family formation; that is courtship, engagements, and marriage.” Moreover, having published in 2006, Clement benefits from recent scholarship exploring with greater depth and nuance issues of race, relational identity, class, and gender than her predecessors. Thus, her work builds significantly on the significant but less robust observations regarding race and ethnicity made by previous scholars. Second, Clements extends her study to include the formation of “the larger sex industry” in the 1920s, which greatly impacted prostitution along with “racial and ethnic patterns of commercialized sex in modern America.” Similarly, Love for Sale attempts to qualify claims by historians that middle class “dating” sprang from working class experimentation while also connecting them to broader changes in sexual conduct and notions of morality.
Focusing on “the place prostitution held in the moral world of working class New Yorkers”, Clement pays close attention to how working class communities articulated a more nuanced view of sexuality than their middle class peers, “sexual behavior existed on a spectrum that paralleled a similar spectrum of respectability. Interacting in complicated ways, understandings of respectability shifted to accommodate changes in sexual behavior.” In related terms, categories of sexual interaction such as treating, dating, courtship, and prostitution exhibited specific practices and behaviors that defined each. If previous authors demanded state or middle class intervention to police these behaviors, Clements, though acknowledging state legal and juridical influence, shifts the focus to working class women policing themselves. For example, treating emerged as a “wedge that opened a space between respectability and prostitution.” Aware of the legal and social ramifications of prostitution, working women and girls distinguished sharply between the two, “young women at work evaluated each other and condemned those who fell short of the new balance that treating required … young women used work time and work relationships to define and police this new behavior.” Prostitution’s place in the local community such as its prevalence within saloons and tenements combined with the general density of New York in the early twentieth century meant it existed visibly within working class neighborhoods. Depending on the location, some located in furnished rooms or apartments integrated themselves modestly maintaining quiet lives and others, such as those in tenements occupied public space more boisterously, openly soliciting passing men. Much like earlier scholars, Clements concludes most working class peoples viewed their decisions in economic not moral terms. However, young women clearly distinguished between treating and prostitution as evidenced above, but importantly, these concerns were driven by the need for internal (self-esteem/self-dignity) and external (reputation) respect.
The repression of World War I and Prohibition, culminated in organized crime’s dominance over both the liquor and illicit sex industry. Brothels fell under their purview while the formerly dominant madams occupied an intermediary management position. At the bottom of the industry, occasional prostitution flourished “women flooded into the casual forms of prostitution.” Simultaneously, a bifurcated sex industry arose, one revolving around alcohol free family and couple friendly “cheap amusements” such as dance halls, theaters, and amusement parks and a second, featuring speak easies, burlesques, and taxi dance halls where often patrons imbibed. The effects of treating on dating among all classes along with the rise of a commercialized vice industry contributed to more open ideas about sexual interaction. As do other scholars, Clements notes the resulting rising incidence of premarital sex throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. In addition, this bifurcation established patterns of racial discrimination that continue today since black women and other minorities could not work within the legalized sex industry. Prostitution’s shift to the margins of society, the increased presence of casual prostitution on city streets along with the involvement of organized crime led to increasing levels of violence and incarceration for prostitutes. Most vulnerable were black women, the majority of whom who practiced the trade did so at the street level, enduring the most suffering by the police, while earning diminished profits. Mary Odem and Ruth Rosen draw similar observations, however, Clements work pushes beyond their periodization. For example, though several scholars note the differing interpretations behind respectability between whites and blacks, Clements also explores differing attitudes toward unwed mothers. If such incidents severely scarred whites, among blacks, at least within the family, far fewer negative associations emerged. Still, class intervened here as well. If working class blacks conveyed a sense of acceptance regarding adolescent out of wedlock pregnancy, their middle class counterparts, concerned about “respectability” in terms of racial uplift, continued to look down on such incidents. Examples of intraracial class differentiation provided by Love for Sale illustrates its more nuanced exploration of race as compared with previous historians.
Ultimately, treating opened up new public spaces where not all unaccompanied women were prostitutes, it allowed for greater possibilities regarding women’s public presence, however, it never “challenged the basic assumption that women in public were sexually available and interested in men’s advances.” Furthermore, the absorption of treating into “dating” created greater complications. If previously, two individuals clearly articulated expectations and rewards through treating, its envelopment by dating ended such conversations leading to greater confusion and warped expectations. Such developments persisted throughout the twentieth century resulting in greater sexual violence or exploitation. Moreover, increased premarital intercourse continued to be viewed by the traditional double standard. Thus, during World War II, as War Department officials realized that venereal infections spread more often from enlisted men’s interactions with average women and not prostitutes, the government expanded its repression to all “bad women”. The need to prevent the transmission of venereal disease from such women led the army to adopt “contact tracing” which tracked those women thought to be infected often leading to institutionalization or incarceration. Working women caught in this net suffered real economic hardships. As Clements observes, WWII did not create such attitudes and regulations, rather it accentuated and build upon them to further restrict women’s sexuality.
Perhaps the most surprisingly thing about the work of Meyerowitz, Reiss, Rosen, Odem, and Clements is how unsurprising it is. Issues of gender, intimacy, and agency now occupy respected uncontroversial places in U.S. history. When Ruth Rosen’s observed in The Lost Sisterhood that “a gender system exists alongside a class system, strongly shaping each individual’s psychosexual reality,” she represented a growing tide in United States history. Rosen’s contribution placed her at the forefront of gender as an analytic. Four years later Joan Scott published her famous (infamous?) piece “Gender: A Useful Category for Analysis”. In the hands of Rosen and others gender analysis provides a view of the inequality between men and women, while also proving useful in revealing other societal hierarchies such as those based on race, class, or ethnicity. In this way , the agency of women through a gender analysis enables historians to convey class stratification in the Progressive era while illustrating parallel fears about industrialization, urbanization, and unfettered capitalism. For example, the monopolization of prostitution and its commercialization reflected similar processes occurring in industry and entertainment. Each had been part of private family life but by the twentieth century working class intimacy unfolded in crowded tenements, on the streets, and at sites of leisure. The commodification of sex and leisure mirrored similar developments in labor and work.
With that said, the later works by Clements and Odem clearly benefit from the expansion of cultural, gender, and ethnic studies. While Rosen and to a lesser extent Meyerowitz investigate how race affected black women in the same period, each historian scratches at the surface. The growth of scholarship enables later works to further explore the racial issues affecting women and men of the time.
Finally, the issue of agency both for women and the working classes emerges as a unifying theme. Many historians long emphasized that working class behavior derived itself from middle class influences. These historians question that conclusion. For example, Meyerowitz argues working class fashions and sexual behavior contributed to the popular figure of the flapper. Peiss suggests that working class youth culture, visible in commercialized leisure altered formerly homosocial worlds, influencing gender relations across classes. Rosen’s women did not choose prostitution out of sheer poverty but rather such choices grew from a constellation of factors, but often it remained women’s choice. Furthermore, Rosen points out that many of the popular fashions associated with prostitution, like make up, later emerged as middle class staples. Finally, Odom’s working class parents attempted to utilize state regulatory institutions to control their teenage daughters, while Clement’s single young women policed their own community’s sexual behaviors in part to limit intrusion by authorities. Debates continue over the role of gender as an analytic, what counts as agency, and how representative cultural/intimate history truly are, but such approaches have pushed our understandings of complex processes like courtship, leisure, and prostitution.