Prostitution Politics and Feminist Activism in Modern America- Sophonisba Breckinridge and the Morals Court in Prohibition-Era Chicago

Jabour, Anya (2013): Prostitution Politics and Feminist Activism in Modern America- Sophonisba Breckinridge and the Morals Court in Prohibition-Era Chicago, Journal of Women’s History, Volume 25, Number 3, Fall 2013, pp. 141-164.

In 1930, Sophonisba Breckinridge, a feminist social work professor at the University of Chicago, initiated a campaign to reform the branch of Chicago’s Municipal Court system that dealt with prostitutes. A product of an international anti-prostitution movement, the Morals Court was considered a model reform at the time of its inception in 1913. Yet as scholars have observed, reformers’ efforts to abolish prostitution resulted in repressive policies that sanctioned state control and police harassment of sex workers. Although most studies note feminist critiques of prostitution policies on civil libertarian grounds, few have explored this phenomenon, particularly after 1920. Breckinridge’s crusade to secure civil rights for accused prostitutes in Prohibition-era Chicago offers a new perspective on the politics of prostitution, prompts a reexamination of American feminism after the achievement of suffrage, and sheds light on current debates about the international traffic in women.


“Chicago’s Morals Court was the product of a major reform movement in early twentieth-century America in which a coalition of evangelicals, feminists, business leaders, and medical experts demanded immediate and unrelenting repression of prostitution. Nationwide, city-appointed vice commissions prompted raids on brothels and advocated new laws suppressing commercialized sex. At the federal level, the Mann Act of 1910 prohibited the international or interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes.14

The anti-prostitution movement was international in scope. Beginning in the 1870s, feminists, moralists, and civil libertarians on both sides of the Atlantic attacked the so-called “European plan” of regulated brothels and medical inspection of prostitutes. Decrying the sexual double standard, governmental sanction for commercialized sex, misguided public health policy, corruption in law enforcement, and infringements on women’s constitutional rights, self-styled “abolitionists” in Europe, Latin America, and the United States sought to abolish or prevent state-sponsored prostitution and eradicate both domestic prostitution and the international sex trade. Cooperation among denominational, national, and international groups resulted in international treaties to suppress sex trafficking in 1904 and 1910.1


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