White Slave Crusades: Race, Gender, and Anti-Vice Activism, 1887-1917. By Brian Donovan. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006). x, 296 pp. Cloth, $30.00, ISBN 978-0-252-03025-3.

Reviewed by Alison M. Parker

       

   Brian Donovan's White Slave Crusades provides a fascinating account of the crusades against forced prostitution, or "white slavery," in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Donovan shows how women activists brought the movement to the United States from England in 1885 but lost control of it by the early 1900s as men, especially doctors, transformed it into a social hygiene movement. He uses narratives of white slavery to establish that race and gender are inextricably linked as cultural constructs.

   Two theoretical chapters bookend this short book, each of which is meant to establish "that gender and sexuality must be placed in the foreground when explaining racial inequality, racial group-making, and the concept of race itself" and that "cultural production and reception are constitutive elements of racial group-making" (132). Narratives of white slavery, in other words, are a form of cultural production that white native-born Americans used to respond to societal changes at the turn of the century. Immigration from southern and eastern Europe and China as well as the migration of southern African Americans to the nation's largest cities coincided with the rise of employment opportunities for young rural native-born women in these cities. These young rural women were vulnerable, so the story went, to becoming ensnared by a procurer for a house of prostitution, at which point they would become "white slaves" (and reform advocates the "new abolitionists"). The white slavery genre could be modified according to the political and social interests of the storyteller, Donovan argues, and so was mobilized for a variety of incompatible ends.

   Woman's Christian Temperance Union's president Frances Willard first brought the "white slavery" crisis to the forefront in the United States by drawing on the English example. In England, journalist William T. Stead published an 1885 article describing forced prostitution and huge London protests against this phenomenon had inspired Parliament to raise the age of consent to sixteen. When Frances Willard discovered that most states set the age of consent at ten, she determined that the WCTU needed a new Department of Social Purity to change these state laws. Willard enlisted Katherine Bushnell, a medical doctor and Methodist missionary, to run the department. Bushnell began with an investigation of Midwestern lumber camps, and her subsequent testimony to the Wisconsin legislature was instrumental in the passage of a state law that criminalized procurement of prostitutes. Although in reality many of the prostitutes in the lumber camps were foreign born (as were the lumbermen), Willard emphasized the risk to native-born white women in 1890 in A White Life for Two, which advocated a single (chaste) standard of morality for both men and women as well as protective laws and the vote for women. Donovan demonstrates that "Willard's idea of sexual purity invoked a racialized villain" who was usually imagined as an immigrant or an African American (46).

   The WCTU did not fight against immigration, nor did it exclude immigrant or black women from membership, as Donovan suggests. It was, however, inconsistent and troubled in its relations with both groups. Until they were properly assimilated, as the WCTU expected they would be, male immigrants were perceived as a threat because of their supposed propensities to drink and to hold women's purity in lower regard than Anglo-Saxon males did. The organization reached out to immigrant women in mothers' meetings and elsewhere but rarely as equals. African American women joined the WCTU, especially in the 1880s, when it was one of the few white-dominated women's reform groups to accept them as members. Black women's hopes for equality within the WCTU were dashed, however, by the 1890s, when Willard and WCTU convention delegates refused to strongly condemn lynching, even after Ida B. Wells and black WCTU members such as Frances Harper pressed them to do so. Racist fears of black men as violators of pure white women combined with Willard's determination to expand the WCTU's membership base in the white South to significantly undermine (but not end) interracial cooperation.

   Women reformers approached white slavery as an issue of women's rights. The WCTU insisted that women needed protection in the form of woman suffrage, which Willard brilliantly termed the "Home Protection Ballot." The WCTU also advocated better working conditions, higher wages, safe boarding houses, legitimate employment bureaus, and free reading rooms and clubs as ways to protect young white native-born women from poverty and the temptation of false promises of higher wages that could lead to entrapment.

   Donovan argues that Jane Addams picked up on a similar set of themes but emphasized that women's precarious economic conditions led them to prostitution. Relying less on the trope of the innocent native-born rural young woman who was seduced or tricked into a life of ruin, Addams instead noted that most women prostitutes in Chicago were immigrants who were forced to choose prostitution because of their very low earnings. She advocated protecting immigrant women by paying them higher wages.

   Donovan argues that in contrast to efforts by women activists to protect working women and prostitutes, men who became social purity advocates often had a more repressive agenda. In particular, they blamed the women more often for the lack of purity and willpower that would have ostensibly kept their procurers away. They did not advocate woman suffrage or higher wages as a solution to the white slavery problem. Instead, they advocated increased restrictions on the immigration of Chinese women, for instance. By about 1915, female social purity campaigners and male social hygiene advocates had managed to close down many red-light districts with state laws. By World War I, doctors had taken over the social hygiene movement and turned it into a campaign to protect soldiers by eliminating venereal disease. Instead of prosecuting men who used the services of prostitutes, social hygiene reformers instituted highly coercive measures such as forced physical exams of prostitutes and the quarantining and detention of thousands of suspected prostitutes. As Donovan so aptly concludes: "By the beginning of World War I, agitation against white slavery had been transformed into a system of state surveillance." (139) Progressive women reformers and their agenda had lost to the men who saw prostitutes as a source of pollution who needed to be regulated and punished, not rescued.

   Donovan's White Slave Crusades offers a cautionary tale whose message is that women's interest in involving the state in reform can produce unintended consequences that take their goals and their social movements out of their control. It is also an excellent case study to help students understand how race and gender are culturally constructed.

   Alison M. Parker is the author of Purifying America: Women, Cultural Reform, and Pro-Censorship Activism, 1873-1933 (Urbana, 1997) and co-editor with Stephanie Cole of Women and Unstable State in Nineteenth-Century America (College Station, 2000) and Beyond Black and White: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the U.S. South and Southwest (College Station, 2004).

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