Period piece: The San Francisco prostitute march of 1917


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.



Ms. Schiller, please circulate this short story and the info about it author anywhere you like.



Aphrodite Phoenix

Sheila was an escort. Her work was illegal, but she liked it. She had started when she was thirty, and it was her own decision. She had never been pimped or forced.
At thirty she understood things that she never would have at twenty. At thirty, thirty-five, and now forty, she possessed a grown woman’s compassion. She looked into the face and the body of a man, no matter how handsome or ugly, and appreciated the need and the soul there. She took care of men just as a nurse would, yet in ways that a nurse wouldn’t ever, got paid six times more than the nurse would, and left men all stress-free and happy.
Sex work, Sheila knew, was the peeling back of layers, and the enjoyment of hidden rewards. The first layer was always the hardest. She got to the guy’s house or hotel room, or he came to a room she was in, and if she didn’t know him she’d be frightened, with a dread the guy probably felt just as much.
It was the terror of getting arrested. Both of them had to get past it. It was like pulling the bitter rind off an orange, to get to the succulent juice.
“How about a hug?” Sheila always told a new guy. Actually, she hugged everyone. And the guy, if he was a new one, would take all his gut-clenching thoughts of arrest and express them to her in a needy embrace that was just like a child’s or a mourner’s.
That hug was always her cue. Whenever they grabbed onto Sheila like that, she knew all was well, she was safe. She believed a detective wouldn’t do that. Would an undercover cop hold her desperately?
She didn’t think a paid hunter could.
Sheila had once got arrested. On the phone the guy sounded harmless, but there had been two red flags. They were small ones, but still, she should have known. The first one was, he called her a lot. He called her over and over. That was a little unusual. Normally, whenever she put a guy off, he would give up and find someone else. Sheila should have recognized the persistence of a hound dog.
The second red flag was his over-the-top sweetness. There was such a thing as too nice.
When she got to the setup motel room, she found the place horrendously trashed. It looked as though the guy had been partying for a week without the help of maids’ cleanings. The trash bucket brimmed over with beer cans. There were rumpled clothes strewn all over, and ashtrays piled high with butts. Afterwards, Sheila would be asking herself: what did cops think clients were? Did they think they were addicts or lushes, shacked up in this kind of mess? The cops just had it so wrong. They just had so much so wrong. Clients were generally as normal as the suburbs. They were generally nice, neat and clean.
As soon as she saw that mess, she should have turned around and taken right off. It had actually been a third flag. But once you made a commitment, and the guy himself looked okay…
…and the bastard was sitting there rolling a joint, knowing that would work like a hug…
Sheila now knew how to walk out.

“Sheila! I just read the paper! Jeez, are you okay? Is there anything I can do?” There were twenty-some voicemails and texts like that, the day after she got set up. Two of the messages were from her best friends, who lived near the town where they got her, and had read the area news. Neither of them were escorts. They were simply her most loyal of girlfriends, from way back in the day, with liberal mindsets and Master’s degrees and somewhat rewarding jobs, but incomes way less than six figures. They knew that their Sheila had learned something lucrative that they would never take up, but it hadn’t changed how much they loved her.
Most of the other reach-outs were from clients. It was nice that they cared, that made Sheila feel good, but it would be a while before her regulars would make any new appointments. They were worried that she was being followed by the cops, or that maybe her cell phone was tapped. A busted escort had the cooties. But none of their fears were true. Getting arrested for escorting was only a slap on the wrist. The madams and pimps were the people who got tapped and stalked and stuff confiscated. They were the felons in the biz.
But try telling paranoid clients all that. “Is there anything I can do, say they,” Sheila mimicked them to herself. “Yes, you can do something,” she pretended to reply. “Make an appointment, goddamit! Call me and see me and help me pay my bills, just like you always do!”
None of them called her for weeks. To cover her bills and the thousand or so that she had to dredge up for her lawyer, Sheila had to meet with new clients who didn’t know she’d been caught.
New clients, who could all be more cops. When one of them tried to hand her the money, her hands clasped the sides of her head, and she looked like the face in The Scream. The client was an old hand at escorts, and he kindly understood. He turned and put the money on the dresser, and said not another word about it. She reached out to him for the hug then, and he held her, and finally she began to breathe easy. Finally her heartbeat began to calm down, and then came sweet touching relief.


The cop who set her up, the joint-roller, liked to strut and puff out his chest. After she was arrested, he acted so proud of himself. It had taken some effort to get Sheila to trust him, to trust him enough to go see him. Four or five phone conversations.
He had finally reeled her in.
He had kept the motel room door open. He’d been sitting in there, and he’d beckoned. He’d asked her to shut the door after herself, and she had, and then she’d sat down on the untidy bed across from the bed where he sat. A clear plastic bag, a bag full of weed, had been open on his lap.
“Are you a cop?” he had asked her.
“Certainly not,” Sheila had grinned. “I asked you that more than once on the phone, so I won’t put you through that again.”
“Thank you.”
He’d made like a hippy with his tongue on some rolling paper, gluing two sheets together with spit. Watching this had made her completely forget that he sat too far away, and that the hug couldn’t happen while he sat so encumbered. She’d continued to watch as he dropped weed on paper and expertly made a joint with his fingers and mouth.
All her life, starting in high school, she had seen so many guys do that.
Now he offered it to her. No thanks, Sheila responded; she had never been much of a pot smoker. He put the joint down on the stand between the beds, and then, from somewhere in the clutter, he produced a handful of cash. He made eye contact with Sheila, just to be sure she saw the money. He set it on her side of the stand.
She still couldn’t get up and go hug him. The weed bag was still on his lap. Far be it from Sheila to jostle someone’s stash.
He said: “My wife doesn’t care about sex. That’s why I wanted to see you.”
Clients were seldom that straightforward at first. They wanted her to take over, and usually, their words fell away. Confidential talk about their wives came later on, so this guy, with his upfront bluntness, was being a little bit different. A banner so small she didn’t see it unfurled. It took off in her sky, just a dot, like a blazing red kite too far up, and she missed it. Sheila had decided that he was a stoner, and stoners were as open as a child; she figured he was doing what they usually did, he was sharing all the thoughts breezing through him.
“No problem,” she responded, and she started to take off her boots. His partners came in then and cuffed her.

The cops led her into the room next door, where there were a lot more cops, and they sat her down and stood over her and inquisitively stared at her.
The handcuffs bothered Sheila, and they noticed. Someone took them off her and put her hands in front of her and then put the cuffs back on. Sheila said a thank you with gratitude; this was a lot less uncomfortable.
They asked Sheila questions, and she was careful, she knew to say very little. But she did speak up when they wanted to know whether anyone was behind her.
“No, I’m not trafficked. I’ve never been coerced. And I don’t have an agent, never did.”
The cops looked a little bit puzzled by this. The people they really wanted were the monsters who forced teenaged girls. They had fished for a shark and had landed something else, and they didn’t quite know what to make of her.
Sheila could see that these were nice people, habitually polite. These were suburban cops, used to the soft life, used to the soft people they busted. Well, she was a softie, too. Just a nice college-educated callgirl, helping guys stay out of trouble. She made men so relaxed, so beautifully released, that they were less likely to abandon their families or get blitzed and kill someone. They were less likely to be tense and stressed out, at work or at home or on the road. Oh how she wanted to explain that, that in truth she was every cop’s ally, her job was peacekeeping like theirs …but of course she just sat there in silence, because every word was being recorded on that bleeping thing in the corner.
Then the joint-roller showed up, making her realize he hadn’t come in with her and his partners who’d cuffed her. And he didn’t just walk in, it was more like, he arrived. He had a shit-eating grin and a swagger. He paraded himself around in this room full of peers, and it was all about Sheila, his catch.
One of the other cops had started a lecture about all the dangers of sex work, all the chances of her getting hurt. Sheila got hugs and caresses and other things men liked to share, but she’d never once gotten hurt.
The joint roller put in his two cents.
“Yeah, we arrest you to protect you!”
Now that there were others she could look at and hear, his lower-class traits were outstanding. Later, when she read the arrest report, Sheila would learn that this show-off was a setup artist pro who’d been borrowed from a much rougher county. He was here to show the bedroom community boys how to be a slick emmer-effer.
He enthroned himself three feet away from her, and affirmatively nodded his head, acting so sure of the shit he’d just done to her, acting like he’d done her a favor. Sheila looked down and away from him, thinking things she wished she could vomit. She was deep in a silent confrontation.
Do you really all believe all this shit about protection? I need protection from YOU!
Do you really want to protect me? Then why aren’t you employed as my bodyguards?

After that, whenever Sheila got with a client, it felt like a break from persecution. Her known and trusted clients and the just-peeled brand-new ones killed her fear, for the moment, of more cops, and so did the beautiful money. These people were always so grateful, and then they went one even better: as soon as they sensed her deep sweetness, they became just as sweet. Their ways were precisely the opposite of the police and the lawmakers and the religious and the feminists, the people who wanted to net her and cuff her and tell her she needed protection from the people who gave her a break.
Sheila kept thinking about a girl from her adolescence, someone she had lost track of, who came from an intensely Catholic home. Her parents didn’t use birth control, and had had eleven kids. They lived in a house built for three. There were beds in the upstairs hallway, and even in corners downstairs, and there were several more beds in the unheated, un-air-conditioned attic.
The girl was like a terrified puppy. Other kids sensed her fragility, and treated her like dirt. She was easily depressed and insanely claustrophobic; on crowded elevators, she wet herself. She avoided football games and hated the cafeteria; large gatherings made her sick.
Sheila took her under her wing.
But the mother of this girl was the creature who got to Sheila the most. She was as sweet and beatific as Mother Theresa, and even looked something like her. Every time Sheila went over to visit, this skinny little thing with wrinkled face and shining eyes would be sitting on the couch folding laundry from a pile heaped up from the floor, a mountain as high as she was.
Every time.
The father was never around much; he had to work two fulltime jobs. But Sheila had heard about his violence. His wife would politely converse with her, and inevitably the woman would chant:
“If I didn’t have my faith, I couldn’t get through one day.”
And Sheila would keep quiet but she wanted to scream: “Can’t you see that your faith is what got you into this hell? What good is a faith like that?”
Two and a half decades later, Sheila was sometimes in hell. Escorting wasn’t a religion, it was a lifestyle, but she was in the same fix. She liked being an escort almost as much as that woman had liked her church; and each of them had paid a big price. Sheila wasn’t trapped with eleven squashed kids and an overworked half-crazy husband, but she was forced to live as an outlaw.
But I’ve never once had to ask myself: What good is a lifestyle like that?

As the regulars started returning, Sheila knew not all of them would. Some had been effectively frightened enough to never call her again.
But those whom she’d lost were all getting replaced. Prince Charming was multitudinous. Kaleidoscopically plural. This was something Sheila knew well. When Sheila had first gotten into this work, she’d discovered that men and their affections are as duplicable as fresh loaves of bread. She had also learned that this didn’t hurt anyone. Not in this situation. This find was like peering into one of those plain-looking little tubes that amaze with their glorious secret. What pleasant surprises the world had to offer, if you just took the time to peek! If you just found the guts to say: No. I’m not keeping my eyes on the ground. I’m not doing whatever I’m told. I’m going to pick up this kaleidoscope and find out what’s inside.
And then, when she eyeballed it deeply, and happily twisted its front, the brilliant gyrations of patterns went into her. She became twisted, herself. Delightfully, colorfully, and illegally. A female iconoclast was born. She came to understand that she’d taken her place beside all of the people who had ever been born who had rebelled against status quos, not because they were bad people, but because the world got some things wrong.
Sheila understood she was a healer, and that healers take care of the masses. “How are you doing?” she asked every client, after her ministrations. If it was a client who knew Sheila well, then he knew she meant not only how was he doing this minute, but how was he doing with his life.
“I’m fine, now.”
Meaning, before their appointment, he’d been stressed out and miserable, and now he felt absolutely perfect.
“How’re things at home?”
“Oh, the usual. Okay. It’s like, you know, she’s my best friend. But it’s like, you know…we’re just roommates. We’re not even in the same bed.”
Sometimes, with someone else, the response might be a bit darker. Like: “Ah, I’m hanging in there. It sucks, but what can you do? Got to wait till the kids are grown. She feels the same way. Got to keep it going for the kids…for now.”
Or the response could be a lot worse. “It’s not getting any better. We’ve barely spoken in years. But I’m not about to lose my ass in a divorce. I’ve worked too hard for that.”
And then there were the lonely single guys.
“So…” they would shyly begin, after she let them talk overtime and lounge in Edenish bliss, “Do you ever go out on dates? Do you think we could go out, sometime?”
And Sheila would carefully think of an answer that was totally gentle and kind, but not any less of a no.
Most of them, married or single, eventually understood. After they fell a little or a lot in love with her, with her help, they got over that. They got it that Sheila was a therapist, but the kind that guys dream about. Sheila was like having a stripper who consummates the tease. She was also just like a caring sister, who wants to be all helpful ears. But most of all, Sheila imparted self-worth. She made men feel worthy in bed. The married ones whose delusional wives thought their husbands were fine without sex, and the single ones tired of their hands…most of them, no matter how young or how old, needed to feel worthy in bed, and Sheila did that.
It had to be enormously valuable to them, because they paid her so much. Like most of her peers in escorting, Sheila charged the same fee as shrinks---the elite shrinks, the ones with MD’s. Could be she charged even more. And she didn’t earn the cash as a pitiful hole that her “protectors” thought she was used as. They were delusional too. She did it by relaxing and letting men blossom as the sweet, giving lovers they were. She did it by letting them make her feel good.
She heard these words spoken so often that it seemed like a popular song: “You make me feel like you’re mine, all mine, every single minute I’m with you.”
To be sure, there was the twenty-five percent or so who just laid back for her service. But all the rest paid her great money to let them do something for her. She had never felt so appreciated, so rewarded for being herself, and the money felt like more than a fee. It felt like some kind of big gift.
Sheila hid, in that warm cozy place, from the law.

“I don’t feel like it!” Melanie griped at her. She was fourteen now, and impossible. Every single conversation became an argument. Every single one of Sheila’s requests became an exhausting war. Melanie had a bedroom that looked like Katrina, and she wanted to go out with her friends. Sheila had insisted that she clean it up first, and of course, that had started a spat.
“Why do you always bug me when I want to go somewhere!” her woman-child demanded to know.
“I’ve been talking about your room for a week. It’s your fault it’s not done. Now do it.”
Her daughter went rigid and glowered, looking totally able to kill. Then she stalked off to her mess. She shut her door much too hard. A moment later, through the door, Sheila heard her grousing on her cell. Her friends would just have to wait.
Is she obeying me because she respects me? Or just because I’m her ride?
With a teen, you simply couldn’t tell.
Sheila was a single mom with almost no help from the dad. He sent minimal child support payments and was minimally involved. Sheila was out here in Parentville alone, and hanging out with her clients was often a break from her child.
It was hard, but she knew she had a lot to be glad for, like the money she made for that child. She was able to equip her with the things that a two-paycheck family could provide, and perhaps more. Making over two hundred an hour, she didn’t have to work a lot. Eight or ten hours a week as an escort was plenty of income for the two of them, so Sheila got to be mostly at home, almost like a stay-at-home wife, and she got to spend a lot of time on her computer, building herself as a writer.
Sheila was also quite grateful that no one had said something to Melanie, and that most likely, nobody would. Her arrest notice had appeared in only one paper, the one in the town she’d been caught in. It was fifty miles away. Sheila had never worked too close to home, because she had thought of all this.
Someday, maybe sooner than later, she’d have to tell Melanie something more than the sketchy stuff she said now. She’d have to elaborate on her income to an increasingly scrutinizing daughter. But for now, she was feeling a relief so intense that her stomach felt caved-in and squeezed. No social service hawks had descended, and taken her child away.
This had been only her first offense; maybe that was why. Or maybe the children of lawbreakers were getting snatched a lot less, because less and less money was laying around to pay for the foster care.
Or maybe, just maybe---could she dare hope this?---someone out there was being savvy. Maybe someone got it that she was a good single mother, because they knew that an escort had the time and the money to flourish as one of the best.
Twenty minutes later, Melanie marched out of her room. “It’s done. Can we go now?” It was a grumble mixed with a groan. Giving in to her mother was like punching herself in the face. Her mother, however, was missing the triumph of this rare acquiescence in her kid; she was riveted to the TV. CNN was reporting about another trafficking bust.
Several young girls all Melanie’s age had been forced into escort prostitution. Right here in the States, and only two states away. They’d been rescued by getting arrested.
She was talking to a mannequin.
“Wha…? Wait a sec.”
The teen ferociously grabbed herself. She got that murderous look again, and then she started to pace. The segment finally got over, and Sheila was able to move.

Melanie’s friends were waiting for her outside of the main mall entrance. After her daughter got out of the car, Sheila did not pull away. She made the cars behind her go around her.
She needed to linger and study the girls as they strolled into the vast building. It was summer, and there was a lot of bare skin. Two were a little bit chunky, but Melanie and the other one were goddesses. Their flesh was as tight as a drum. Their clothing was designed to accentuate, not hide. Their curves and lush hair were commanding yet fragile, like exquisitely painted eggs.
Such girls drew the whole world unto themselves, without even knowing yet why. Sheila imagined men talking to them, and getting them into a car. Maybe it wouldn’t be that hard to do. Not if they won the girls’ trust. Melanie had been taught to not ever talk to strangers, but did that make sense anymore? It had made sense so many eons ago, when her daughter was small and compliant. Now she was built to meet men.
How did you keep a girl from doing the most natural thing in the world, making friends with the opposite sex? How did you keep her safe from the bad guys, when she was constantly walking away? The media and law enforcement were proving that there were indeed bad guys out there, and they were close to home. The media was blowing it up to the point where it seemed like there weren’t any good guys, and Sheila knew the untruth of that better than most women.
But a bad guy could get at her baby, right here at the mall. And kidnap her and take her to a motel, and turn her into big bucks. Sheila imagined being forced to do what she had chosen to do, and being her child, as well. It was as bad as those three a.m. moments when she suddenly saw her child dead.
Yeah, we arrest you to protect you!
If the joint-roller were ever to catch and bring in her hostage-turned-hooker baby, Sheila would kiss his feet. But then she thought of her sex-workers-rights buddy, and the things she always said.
“They need to see all of us as children. That’s why they net us all. To them we’re not adults, we’re not capable of anything, and we have to be saved from ourselves.
“That’s how they hide from the truth they can’t face, which is we’re the strongest women in the world!”
Sheila had been idling by the mall curb for too long. If Melanie came out now and saw her, she’d be furious. She’d think she was spying on her. Sheila started up and drove off, but she didn’t get very far. She felt too preoccupied to drive. She coasted to an empty parking spot way in the back, behind a million cars.
Wouldn’t the bastards approve of me now, the ones who pull people over? I’m refusing to drive when upset.
Now that she knew more than she wanted to know about hunters sent to snare her by the people in power who “cared’, now that she knew the feeling of being handcuffed and misperceived, she was growing more into her truth. She was ready to stash Melanie at a friend’s house and go to a meeting for sex workers’ rights, all the way in the city. She wouldn’t get in front of the media, she could never go that far; her buddy had done that, she wasn’t a mom, she didn’t have to worry that someone might see her who knew she was somebody’s mother, and take it out on her child. So Sheila would just go and sit in on it, way in the back, and not put her face out there. What a world, to have to go to meetings in secret, and work in secret, too. This, in a country where women were free? Every whore chuckled at that one. In the seventies, women burned their bras in public, and everyone understood. But letting a man take off your bra for great money could get you thrown in jail?
“Mind your own twat!” another friend screamed, whenever they drove by a clinic under siege. Mind your own twat, indeed.
She hadn’t aborted her baby. And she hadn’t got food stamps, didn’t need them. But now she had a record, they had made her unemployable. Not that it mattered, she liked who she was. But she couldn’t get a straight job now if she wanted to.
She wanted to help the cops catch the bad guys. She wanted to help them keep young girls safe. In Brazil, where prostitution was legal, the sex workers and nurses passed out condoms together. Sheila imagined herself in cahoots with the joint-roller, taking down traffickers with him. She figured she could somehow be useful to the cops, being so established in the business. In a world with the courage to face a whore’s wisdom, and let a whore be who she was, she and the cops could get so much done, they could stop so much evil, together.
Suddenly her smart phone let out a chirp. It was signaling a new message in her g-mail, the account she used only for work. She took a deep breath to stop brooding, and checked to see who it was. Ah, good! It was a regular, and he wanted to see her ASAP.
One of the others girls’ mothers would be driving Melanie home. There were plenty of leftovers for supper. Sheila had already taken her shower and freshly tended her face; all she had to do was get home, put on her secret underthings, drive out to see her client, and be back soon after her kid.
She took another deep breath. She blew her nose, wiped her eyes, and thought of how happy this guy would be the second he heard from her.
Then she began to feel better.

For much more to read on this subject by author/advocate Aphrodite Phoenix, visit her book site at

Posted by Aphrodite Phoenix on Oct. 29, 2011 @ 9:00 am

Are what makes the comment section better than the articles sometimes.

Posted by Greg on Oct. 29, 2011 @ 10:01 am

I have post-election copies of the Chronicle and Call from 1915 and two of the issues being voted on were 'Red Light Abatement' and 'Prohibition.'
The former passed statewide by less than than 500 votes and the latter was crushed by 80% to 20%.
Back then SF had the bulk of the state's votes and could carry an election against the more conservative southland and the results reflect that.

By the way, the gentleman in picture #5 is also featured in the opening credits for 'Cheers.' His image appears with the credit to George Wendt.

And kudos to Aphrodite for her excellent piece.

Posted by Stannous Flouride on Nov. 06, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

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