There’s a scene in my novel where the main character, a prostitute known as Diamond Bessie, attends a Sunday afternoon lecture in Chicago featuring Susan B. Anthony. It was the famous suffragist’s first talk on the topic of “Social Purity” and Ms. Anthony attracted a huge crowd of both men and women at the Grand Opera House on March 14, 1875.
It was unheard of for someone, especially a woman, to discuss an issue like prostitution in public. It was so taboo, newspapers at the time used the euphemistic “Social Evil” to refer to the world’s oldest profession.
When Ms. Anthony took the stage, she didn’t just dance around the issue. She shredded the taboo, calling out men for their hand in the perpetuation and proliferation of prostitution, citing the staggering number of women doing sex work in the cities—twenty thousand in New York City alone. “It is a mistake,” Ms. Anthony told the crowd, “to class all fallen women together, under the sweeping censure bestowed upon them by man. They are angels of purity compared with the males who visit them.”
While Ms. Anthony could spout off statistics, she hadn’t walked in a fallen woman’s shoes. To understand what life would have been like for my protagonist—a real person who worked at the best “parlor houses” in Chicago, Cincinnati, and New Orleans—I found the memoirs of three late nineteenth-century demi-mondaines. They were fortuitous enough to pen their stories, but because of the times they lived in, all three had trouble getting their books published.
Nell Kimball never found a publisher during her lifetime. Nell Kimball: Her Life as An American Madam, By Herself was finally published by Macmillan in 1970. Josie Washburn had to self-publish her memoir, The Underworld Sewer, and the publication of Madeleine: An Autobiography by Harper & Brothers in 1919 caused such a scandal that it led to a lawsuit. The company and the president were each fined one thousand dollars for publishing “objectionable matter.” Madeleine was withdrawn from circulation, and it wouldn’t appear again for nearly 70 years.
Even though these women were not writers by trade, their stories are riveting and heartbreaking. Of the three, only one didn’t abhor selling her body, because it earned her a livable wage.
As Kimball recalled, she was “just wanting as a young whore to hunker on to something to eat and something good to wear.”
All three women eventually became madams, a point at which they didn’t have to sleep with callers. They were businesswomen first. Kimball noted that “the sex trade is as full of details as running U.S. Steel.” And it was lucrative. But the madam was still a societal outcast.
To be a “public man” was okay. To be a “public woman” was not. A man could be out and about, go where he pleased unescorted, was expected to work outside the home. A woman who went out in public alone, who traveled by herself and, God forbid, painted her face, could only be one kind. As Washburn noted in The Underworld Sewer, “for a woman to be able to move freely about, it comes at the cost of her reputation, and then she is looked down upon.”
It wasn’t just that women had few rights or opportunities. They were expected to maintain a moral standard that was impossible.
At the time, the idea existed that women became prostitutes, as Washburn wrote, “to satisfy their own unnatural lusts” because of the belief that women innately had less sexual desire than men.
The real reason came down to economics, as Washburn knew, and as Ms. Anthony eloquently said in her speech: “When women are compelled by their position in society to depend upon men for subsistence, for food, clothes, shelter, for every chance even to earn a dollar, this dependence of woman on man gives him the privilege to exact from her a much higher moral code than he is willing to admit for himself, while she is powerless to exact a similar moral attitude from him.”
The third demi-mondaine I read about, Madeleine, got pregnant out of wedlock and her fate was sealed. In Madeleine’s time, there were three choices for a woman in that situation: confinement in a convent for fallen women, suicide, or prostitution.
Madeleine, who assumed a stage name, as most prostitutes did, grew up in poverty. As she related in her eponymous memoir, she had to drop out of school at the age of thirteen because there was no money for books or clothes. Her father was a drunk and the family had to move to the worst neighborhood in a Midwest town, where most of the other houses on the street were brothels. Madeleine saw the nicer clothes the prostitutes wore, that they ate on fine china, and never went hungry.
It wasn’t only the uneducated, those born in poverty, or women who’d had sex outside of marriage who came to the underworld. There were wives who’d been abandoned by their husbands, or widowed, and left with no means to earn a living to support themselves or any children, or women who supported parents or other family members who needed more than the low wages they could find at a respectable job.
Even when a woman had employment, the wages were so low that to make ends meet, a woman might supplement her income from her day job at a factory by meeting men at an “assignation house,” a place for illicit sex.
We don’t know many of the stories of women like Bessie, Josie, Madeleine, and Nell because the majority of 19th century literature, at least what is still read today, is seen through the lens of the wealthy. I’m not knocking authors like Jane Austen, but we have to admit that her characters were mostly privileged, wealthy white women who didn’t have to earn a living on their own, whose main occupation was finding an equally, or more, wealthy, husband. They were at least women who lived at home, supported by a family, and not out on their own.
Ms. Anthony declared the solution during her Social Purity speech. “We need to lift this vast army out of the temptation to sell themselves, body and soul, for bread and shelter, either in or out of marriage. Girls must be educated like boys to do something useful. Women must have equal chances with men
…That equality of rights and privileges is vested in the ballot, the symbol of power in a republic.”
At this point in my novel, Bessie glances at the women around her. She sees some nod in agreement, but also makes the observation internally that she knew there were women who agreed a woman’s rightful place was in the home, that the notion of equal status was frivolous to them. But they could afford those ideals; they were the ones with rich husbands.
One editor with whom I worked on my manuscript felt this observation wasn’t necessary and suggested that I delete it. But it was important to me to keep it. Ms. Anthony could afford a life dedicated to obtaining rights for women. And thank goodness she was able to. But she was the exception.
Bessie’s circumstances didn’t just limit her options, they rendered them nonexistent. She knew she couldn’t speak out; she would immediately be discounted because of her occupation. It would take women like Ms. Anthony, who was seen as radical but virtuous, to speak on their behalf. There’s no proof that Bessie attended the Social Purity lecture, but the famous reformer did give this talk during the time that my protagonist lived in Chicago. I like to think that Bessie was there, cheering on the feisty middle-aged woman who had the courage to fight for women, including members of the unfortunate class.
Jody Hadlock’s debut novel, The Lives of Diamond Bessie, is being published by SparkPress on April 5.
Jody Hadlock’s love of history goes all the way back to junior high, when she was a member of the Junior Historians of Texas—so it’s no surprise her first novel is historical. She studied journalism at Texas A&M University and worked as a broadcast journalist and then in nonprofit public relations before turning her focus to fiction. She also writes screenplays and won the 2020 Dallas International Film Festival’s screenplay contest. Learn more at //www.jodyhadlock.com.