In The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, Ruth Rosen investigates how gender and class affected the lives of men and women who were involved in the issue of prostitution in the early 20th century. Her project is to write a history of prostitution from both above and below, so that she can combine the perspectives of the reformers and of the prostitutes into a broader picture of prostitution as it was understood and practiced. Using a range of primary sources that include committee reports, surveys, studies, official public records, census data, vice committee reports, prostitutes’ memoirs, and social workers’ and missionaries’ records, Rosen argues that prostitution as lived history primarily affected the working classes, prostitution as cultural symbol encompassed all classes of women. Whether a woman had to sell her body in a loveless marriage for economic protection, for wages as an unskilled worker, or as a “sporting woman,” “whatever the choice, some form of prostitution was likely to be involved.”
Modern prostitution was a by-product of industrialization and the growth of new urban centers, where many people were far from home and relatively disconnected from one another. For middle-class reformers at the turn of the century, it was a symbol of the new modern industrial culture in which even the most private areas of people’s lives could be invaded by the marketplace. While Progressive reformers were not the first group to fight prostitution, they were the first to campaign against modern prostitution, which Rosen defines as the “large-scale commercialization and rationalization of prostitution by third-party agents,” including “property owners, politicians, police, procurers, doctors, cab drivers, and liquor agents.” Reformers entered the public sphere and fought prostitution and other forms of vice primarily to protect the sanctity of their homes, which did more to police the boundaries of the middle class than to help prostitutes.
Conversely, for prostitution and other people who lived in red light districts, prostitution was a form of work, and it was subject to rationalization and commercialization. While some forced prostitution did exist, its prevalence was way over exaggerated; instead, the vast majority of prostitutes took up the work voluntarily because it was easier and more lucrative than other job options. Working from the prostitutes’ point of view, Rosen discovers not a “lost” sisterhood but a group of (often) influential people embedded in a web of social, economic, and family connections who saw themselves as rational actors, not fallen women.
Unfortunately, though Rosen works to recover the “lost” voices of early 20th century prostitutes and to situate them within larger social structures, she never quite resolves the tension between reformers and prostitutes, except to say that the class and gender hierarchy that supported prostitution in the Progressive Era is still very much alive today, and prostitution is even more disempowering now than it was a century ago. That may be true, but Rosen is clearly against prostitution, and this bias makes it difficult to read her otherwise interesting book without a grain of salt.