100 Years Ago Today, Sex Workers Marched for Their Rights in San Francisco

On the morning of January 25, 1917, the anti-vice crusader Reverend Paul Smith opened the door of the Central Methodist Church in the Tenderloin, surprised to find 50 prostitutes bearing down on him. And the women kept coming, until they numbered more than 200. In the photograph that ran in that evening’s Bulletin, they looked like proper ladies going to church, in hats, long coats, and low heels. It was an unusual public campaign by “women of the underworld”—as that evening’s headline in the Bulletin called them—who had come to speak against a crackdown on brothels planned for Valentine’s Day. In a speech directed at Smith, a madam named Reggie Gamble proclaimed: “Nearly every one of these women is a mother, or has someone depending on her. They are driven into this life by economic conditions. . . . You don’t do any good by attacking us. Why don’t you attack those conditions?”

Tonight, to mark the centennial of the march, sex workers and their supporters will march from the Tenderloin Museum to the location of the church, O’Farrell and Leavenworth Streets, which is now the site of a liquor store. A century later, “there is still no such thing as accepted sex workers’ rights,” says Ivy Anderson, who is the editor, with Devon Angus, of the book Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute. Anderson and Angus will kick off the evening at the Tenderloin Museum with a talk on the history of sex work in San Francisco from the Gold Rush to 1917. Afterward, when the marchers reach the church, sex educator and equal rights advocate Carol Queen will deliver Madam Gamble’s 1917 speech.

Gamble, of course, did not succeed in persuading the reverend to back down. On Valentine’s Day, police descended on the city’s brothels—which were concentrated in the Barbary Coast—and evicted them one by one. “They went door to door to all the brothels and just dragged the women out, locked up the buildings, and locked up all their belongings,” says Anderson. “The main result was not that prostitution disappeared; it just moved elsewhere, to a more dangerous underground.”

“200 Underworld Women Plead with the Rev. Smith at Church,” blares the headline in the Bulletin on the day of the march.

For the prostitutes who had lost their workplaces, this was much more a labor battle than a moral one. Wages for single women in legitimate jobs—say, as a domestic, a laundress, a secretary, or a stenographer—maxed out at about $6 per week, says Angus. “In today’s money, that equates to about $2 per hour, for 10-hour days, six days a week,” he says. “The expectation was that you weren’t supposed to be a single woman. Your wages were supposed to add to a family’s, not support a family.”

The march was the first glimmer of what eventually became the sex workers’ rights movement. “In the early ’70s you see the first real sex workers’ rights organization form, COYOTE, which stood for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics,” says Anderson. Since 1917, the main thing that has changed—absent any actual rights gained—“is the visibility of a sex workers’ rights movement.” And COYOTE was, fittingly, a San Francisco creation. Anderson calls the 1917 march a “uniquely San Francisco action”: “There was prostitution happening all over the country, yet San Francisco is the place where you see an organized group of sex workers try to organize for their rights.”

Talk begins at 6:00 p.m. at the Tenderloin Museum; march gets under way about 8:00 p.m.

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