«Cundiff 1 Introduction On any given day in the year 1900, Mrs. J. C. Ottinger would wake in her plush home near the bustling downtown of Memphis, ...»
On any given day in the year 1900, Mrs. J. C. Ottinger would wake in her plush
home near the bustling downtown of Memphis, Tennessee. She would dress in a long
silk gown, fitted tightly to emphasize her waist, created by her corset. Upon fixing her
hair and leaving her home and children in good order, Mrs. J. C. Ottinger would begin
work as the corresponding secretary of the Women’s Christian Association, concerned
about finishing this years annual report and bringing the many project supervisors together to ensure a productive meeting. She would spend the day socializing with her fellow reformers, discussing the latest cases at the Ella Oliver Refuge or reviewing applications to the Anne Brinkley Home. By mid-afternoon, Mrs. J.C. Ottinger might be returning to her home, visiting with her children, setting the menu for dinner, and awaiting her husband’s return from work.
While Mrs. J.C. Ottinger began work at the Women’s Christian Association, Dilla Bohu might be just waking at Biddie Sayer’s brothel on Gayoso Street. Starting the day later because of her long evening, Dilla might begin her morning with some time to herself, reading her favorite book or drawing. Soon, breakfast would be served around noon, followed by chores such as washing the used sheets and dresses from the night before, and finally, dressing again for the next evening. Dilla’s evening would just be beginning on Gayoso as Mrs. J.C. Ottinger prepared for bed just down the road. While Mrs. J.C. Ottinger slept, Dilla would be asked to entertain gentleman in the ballroom of the brothel. Her dress would be tightly fitted and cut low to reveal her physical assets.
Soon, after being chosen by one of the men, she would retire with him to her bedroom, sometimes having a client stay all night and only sleeping a few hours alone before her Cundiff 2 day began again. Beyond the names, this scenario is fictional but it highlights the different worlds in which reformers like Mrs. J.C. Ottinger and sex-workers, like Dilla Bohu lived. Rather than simply coexisting, these women represented two competing definitions of womanhood during this period. Soon, their lives would clash over issues of morality, sexual purity, and most of all, power.
In examining the relationship between female reformers in Memphis, Tennessee and their targets, the question of power and who wields it consistently arises. At first glance, it would appear that the reformers exercised power over the sex-workers they were attempting to rescue. Yet, this answer is reductive. Both the sex-workers and reformers believed they had power. Within their separate society, prostitutes wielded power through the sale of their bodies for profit. Control of economic resources, in turn, allowed some measure of autonomy from masculine domination. But, by virtue of their occupation, sex-workers gave up power and control over a part of themselves – separating their emotional ties to their bodies in order to make money from them. Female reformers also believed they had power, which can be easily recognized by their desire to reform, which became a route to gain public influence, and thus represented resistance to the confines of domesticity. Assuming the role of reformers, these women immediately indicated their belief in their own moral superiority, by claiming that their social mores were superior to the groups they targeted. Given the negative stigma connected to prostitution, the reformers might appear to be correct – rescuing women from sex-work seems like a noble cause. Yet, in examining their motives closely, reformers utilized their power not simply to rescue sex-workers but also to enforce hegemonic norms
reformers did not acknowledge the domination forced on their own bodies through their own social mores and definitions of womanhood. The late Victorian ideal of womanhood stressed female sexual purity and exaggerated feminine characteristics, particularly in dress. Thus, despite both groups’ belief that they wielded power, neither actually claimed power without cost.
Power can be defined as control over one’s own individual agency and that of subordinated groups. It is more easily wielded by those in hegemonic positions – meaning those occupying the social positions of white, heterosexual, Christian men – a social truth appearing both in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century and today. In Patricia Hill Collin’s Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, she coins the term “matrix of domination,” which she defines as “intersecting oppressions,” wherein “race…class, gender, sexuality, religion, and citizenship status” are “significant [markers] of group difference.” 1 That is, gender, race, class, and sexuality function as categories of privilege and exclusion. Once an individual is demarcated as “deviant” or “different” from the empowered, he/she is then oppressed in varying degrees, depending on where he/she is situated in the hierarchy. Hill Collins’ terminology is particularly useful in understanding white female reformers’ focus only on other white women. A majority of the female reformers in Memphis working on sexwork eradication were white. Thus, they benefited from white privilege, however unwittingly. Identifying as white, these women employed that social position to express their superiority to prostitutes of color whom they dismissed as unredeemable. They believed in the notion of “white slavery” to justify their reform work. White slavery was
the idea that young, white females were being lured into sex-work by other deviants for the purpose of destroying their moral purity and turning them into sexual predators.
White, female reformers framed their rescue mission with this idea, claiming that they were working to save True Womanhood. 2 The club records of these reformers contained no information about helping African American women. Given the period, it can be assumed that clubs were segregated and as a result, it is notable that these there were not separate reform activities targeting women of color. The reformers reflected this matrix of domination as they defined by race which female bodies were to be considered deviant and morally depraved and which were worth “saving.” Still, the matrix of domination does not fully explain the gender oppression occurring during this period. According to Hill-Collin’s theory, both reformers and prostitutes were subordinated because they were female – i.e. not male. But, in examining their relationship closely, it is apparent that it was fraught with the struggle to define womanhood. Thus, a new term needs to be employed in order to understand the ways that the meanings of womanhood were being contested between prostitutes and reformers.
Here, Michel Foucault’s idea of a “discipline” fills the intellectual gap. But before explaining this construct, Foucault’s idea of power must be acknowledged.
Foucault believes that power is a coercive form of domination that exists on every level of human existence. He does not necessarily believe in the binary of the oppressor and the oppressed, wherein one group holds all the power and the other holds none. Yet,
power differences are fundamental to understanding the complicated relationship between reformers and their targets. Although the reformers do not hold all the power over their targets, they do have more power than the prostitutes in this particular situation by virtue of their membership in a hegemonic race and class, as white, middle-class, “respectable” women.
Foucault explains the more complicated details of this relationship better than Collins. A “discipline” as defined by Foucault is the “[method] which made possible the meticulous control of the operations of the body, which assured the constant subjection of its forces and imposed upon them a relation of docility-utility…” 3 That is, the performance of certain behaviors and the presentation of one’s body through posture, clothing, or deportment are learned activities that reinforce a person’s subordination within established power relations. As such, from the madam to the lowliest prostitute, the sex-work industry had a discipline through which each person signaled their involvement in sexual commerce and thus, their place in a social hierarchy. Discipline means something different depending on a person’s social situation. 4 Similar to Foucault’s example of the soldier being formed, prostitutes must be “made” so that “posture is gradually corrected, a calculated constraint runs slowly through each part of the body, mastering it, making it pliable, ready at all times, turning into the automatism of habit.” 5 Like a soldier, a prostitute is taught through attention to detail and “discipline” that she must be ready to sacrifice her body at any point.
Prostitutes are not given the same reverence as soldiers because they sacrifice their
bodies for money, not the glorified notions of heroism. Within Foucault’s understanding, the body is a site of power, in a world where all bodies are made “docile” through discipline. 6 According to Foucault, these disciplines work on the individual level, working to control the efficiency and activity of the body, and are a “constant coercion.” 7 In other words, prostitutes practiced the discipline of displaying themselves and acting in ways that they knew would invite male customers. Although a prostitute’s decision to enter the sex trade sometimes reflected her own agency, this occupation was itself a symptom of women’s sexual and economic subordination.
It must be acknowledged that disciplines do not solely affect those in entirely demeaning social positions, like sex-workers. Rather, disciplines can be seen at every level of life. As such, the reformers also had a discipline governing their power: True Womanhood. 8 Utilizing Foucault’s construct, it is clear that the reformers were also trained to play a constructed role in society as “docile bodies.” They were obsessed with female sexual and moral purity, presenting this idea through their dress, manner, and speech. The reformers believed so greatly in their discipline that they attempted to make women, like sex-workers, conform to True Womanhood. It is here that Foucault is particularly useful in understanding the deeper reasons behind misunderstandings between reformers and their targets. Both groups of women believed their respective disciplines were necessary, and both remained caught in a web of domination that positioned women as subordinates.
Overall then, the relationship of reformer to sex-worker was fraught with
Neither group arrived at a means to get out of this form of domination, despite their illusions. Still, with this project, I do not want to convey a post-structuralist fatalistic outlook. 9 Rather, through employing Hill-Collins concept of the matrix of domination by gender, race, class, and Foucault’s notion of “discipline,” I hope to show the interplay of female agency and larger systems of hierarchical order. This study will expose those complicated relationships in the hope that they can be recognized and combated.
Moreover, this thesis eradicates the binary of saintly reformers and sinful sex-workers and illustrates that both groups of women faced domination in some fashion and neither demonstrated freedom from subordination. Still, both groups contested their subordination, leaving a poignant record of female agency.
Ultimately, this project both weighs in on the historiographical debate about the nature of the Progressive era and more broadly, the implications of female subordination and lack of power during this period. Arguably, the female reformers were conservative in their efforts to eradicate prostitution, working within a construct of womanhood that lacked sexual and individual freedom on many levels. Indeed, rather than be viewed as “Progressive,” the Women’s Christian Association and the reformers within it, might be seen as one example of how the Progressive era was not progressive but instead, a period of imposition of manners and mores by the middle class onto the working class. What is more, the story of the reformers and sex-workers in Memphis shows the strength and Although I utilize Foucault as a major theorist in this work, his arguments about power have often been viewed as fatalistic. He does not provide a way out of the system of power governing individual’s bodies and life. As a historian, I cannot entirely remove agency from the picture, as that would be reductive.
Thus, when utilizing Foucault, I employ his ideas but temper them with those of Hill-Collins, showing through this project how women, despite their subordination, worked within the system to survive and sometimes, thrive.
Cundiff 8 pervasiveness of gender hierarchies. Neither group of women could transcend the
Before engaging in specific discussions about prostitution and reform, the history of Memphis must be explained to demonstrate how Memphis developed during the period that the city industrialized. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, industrial success brought a double-edged sword for Memphis. It increased productivity but at the same time, increased the number of women in the working class. The migration of working-class women to the cities resulted in an increased number of sexworkers, as many young women did not have other options for economic survival. In seeing the demographics of the city, its industrial boom, and the reaction of women’s clubs, it can be more easily recognized as to why, at this particular historical moment, women’s clubs decided to reform prostitution.
After the Civil War, Memphis prospered more than many other Southern cities because it did not see the same destruction from the war as the rest of the South. As a port city, Memphis held a unique position on the Mississippi River, becoming a center for cotton growers to ship their products from throughout the Mississippi Delta.