Mapping Power and Privilege Through Prostitution

Antebellum Chicago: 1855

In the early nineteenth century, the lives of women in Chicago centered primarily in the home. Women interacted with the city in a utilitarian way, rarely engaging in Chicago for the purposes of entertainment. They had little power in social and political realms and the vast majority did not work or own land. However, this was not true for prostitutes. In many senses, they were the most powerful women in Chicago in the 19th century. They owned land, earned income, and developed social standing through the influential men with whom they had relationships. They were successful and well-regarded, and were much more engaged in the goings-on of Chicago than their married counterparts. Many public officials and citizens viewed prostitution as a “necessary evil” that should exist only in the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago, while the rest would be protected. While these “vice districts” were known to have existed, there remains little evidence of their existence in historical census data or directory information. Although women gained power and influence through prostitution, records and census data do not reflect this. What about the nature of prostitutes’ relationships with Chicago inhibited them from being recorded in general records and what structures were in place to keep them invisible from historical information? Women were able to achieve freedom and power through prostitution, changing their lived experience of the city; however, this is not reflected in historical records due to ingrained patriarchal structures and the aim to reduce any visible female influence.

My research about Chicago complicated my understanding of the experience of women and prostitutes in the 19th century, but in a way that most likely corresponded more accurately with the lived experience. Since women were encouraged to live their lives in the private sphere, there are not many records of their experience, despite their sheer existence. It is challenging to speculate about how their lives really were. While prostitution provided me one window to look through, it was a very narrow one. And, women’s’ relationship with prostitution also wasn’t straightforward. For some, it was empowering, but for others it was damaging. While prostitution was a way of gaining a level of freedom and power, it was not attainable for all women or for all prostitutes. Some of the most powerful women were prostitutes, but the most powerful people were not women. While prostitutes gained freedom far beyond what many women at the time could attain, this level was still well below men. 19th century Chicago was a male-dominated society, thus it was inherently limited for women. Yet, through prostitution, women started movement towards gaining autonomy and began to experience a richer Chicago.

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