Our scholarship informs our work at Omnia History, whether engaging public audiences online, through exhibits, or in classes and workshops. Understanding the past is a critical part of our mission to promote change in the present. In an upcoming adult education seminar at the Newberry Library, we will be focusing on women in turn-of-the-century Chicago to explore the changing nature of gender and violence in an industrial city.Check out this excerpt from my research to get a glimpse of what we’ll be discussing in the course.
“Biler Avenue” was the nickname for a two-block stretch of Pacific Avenue in late nineteenth-century Chicago made notorious by “women without husbands” who “got ‘biling drunk,’ and were in a “state of constant riot and effervescence,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The women of Biler fought, drank, stole, and engaged in sex work to forge tenuous lives in an unforgiving industrial city. Although the women’s economic activity rarely translated into expanded wealth, it did provide the foundation for ward bosses to secure personal fortunes and political power.
Nestled on page 112 of The Leopold and Loeb Files, Nina Barrett features an excerpt from noted social reformer Judge Ben B. Lindsey of the Juvenile Court of Denver who declared that the Leopold and Loeb crime was symptomatic of a “modern mentality and modern freedom of youth, with the misunderstandings between parenthood and childhood…the indifference to the rights of others in the stealing of automobiles, in joyrides, jazz parties, petting parties, freedom in sex relations and the mania of speed on every turn.”
Although Lindsey’s comments were perhaps unduly alarmist, he does hit upon how the Leopold and Loeb case struck a nerve in the historical moment of 1924. The trial became a way to explore fears about modern life in the Progressive Era, including anxieties about:
the limits and risks of science and rationality
the meaning of intellectual, urban masculinity
the effects of improper femininity and maternity
sexuality as action, orientation, and identity
the questionable security promised by wealth and respectability
the proper social and psychological development of children
Congress recently passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), and criticsargue that the legislation will put both sex workers and sex trafficking victims at risk. Even before the bill has become law, Craigslist responded by shutting down its personals section and a Kindle policy change sparked fears about the de facto suppression of erotica.
FOSTA/SESTA harkens back to Progressive Era reformers who routinely conflated sex work with sex trafficking in their cries against “white slavery.” One of the driving narratives of anti-vice crusades, “white slavery” proposed that corrupt urban men seduced white women into sexual impropriety, ultimately trapping women in a life of prostitution. White slavery rhetoric drew on strains of abolitionist language that elevated reformers to white saviors of a weaker population. Notably, fears of white slavery eschewed any concern for women of color participating in commercial sex. Additionally, while some women may have felt trapped or deceived into prostitution, the white slavery narrative ignored the agency and economic choices of women forging tenuous lives in an industrializing city.