By Robert Davis
In early 19th century New York City, sex work was both legal and pervasive but widely condemned by respectable society. Male reform-minded citizens branded all sex workers as irredeemable predators. To them, the industry posed such a lethal danger to society that the only solution was eradication. However, once women began organizing into reform societies devoted to the same cause, they shifted public debate from attacking the supposed evils that single women posed to exposing a sexual double standard. Members of organizations such as the Female Benevolent Society and the Female Moral Reform Society took on the role of amateur sociologists to study the perceived social ill of prostitution. Run largely by evangelical protestants, these societies fought to disrupt the cycle of men abusing women and then blaming their victims. In doing so, reformist women almost accidentally became radical voices for social change as they pushed to hold men accountable for their complicity and inaction.
In a city wracked by persistent unemployment and poverty, a woman’s range of work options were severely limited to marriage, service, or seamstress work. Commercial sex thrived, in part because it offered many women a middle-class income and lifestyle. Writing at midcentury, prominent doctor William Sanger conjured an image of a city overrun by hordes of sex workers. He evoked mainstream beliefs that commercial sex “no longer confines itself to secrecy and darkness. It is in your gay streets and in your quiet, home-like streets; it is in your squares … and summer resorts; it is in your theatres, your opera, your hotels; nay, it is even intruding itself into the private circle.”
This openness particularly upset the elite men of the city. Their dominant response was to preach the “purity” of abstinence, as exemplified by the health regimen of Sylvester Graham, who devised a system where men ate unheated foods, took regular cold baths, and stayed in at night to sleep on hard beds. Graham created “Graham Bread” and its cousin, the “Graham Cracker,” bland, whole grain foods that were designed to discourage lust. Men such as Graham and those who followed him viewed sex workers as morally and spiritually corrupt.
In a city wracked by persistent unemployment and poverty, a woman’s range of work options were severely limited to marriage, service, or seamstress work. Commercial sex thrived, in part because it offered many women a middle-class income and lifestyle.
This singular focus on abstinence started to change in 1831, when a Princeton divinity student, John McDowall, began conducting missionary work in New York slums. America was in the throes of the Second Great Awakening, a widespread Protestant revival movement that encouraged believers to spread the gospel. McDowell did not see his subjects as individuals, rather he subscribed to mainstream beliefs that sex workers were of “the worst character … malevolent, cruel and revengeful” and that “a few courtesans corrupt whole cities.”
McDowall advocated converting sex workers to be “good” Christians, but after meeting with little help from the frightened men in his world, he turned to evangelical women for support. These women — often the wives of the very ministers who preached purity — believed that a proper Christian woman should be out in the world helping others rather than sitting in her comfortable home praying for people’s souls. The women who joined McDowall were by no means freethinkers. Limited by their own prejudices, their initial goal was to “save” the women they considered “fallen” rather than do anything to materially help the sex workers they encountered.
Yet, female-led reform efforts quickly picked up steam and would go on to create public debate about sexual and gender imbalance in the United States. A board of prominent women formed the New York Magdalen Society and hired McDowall as their chaplain. Their initial activities centered around spreading the gospel by protesting outside of brothels, handing out bibles, and founding “Houses of Refuge” for women who wanted to leave the profession.
The women running the Magdalene Society immediately faced opposition for getting involved, as men feared they would be “contaminated” by their proximity to sexual activity. One 1830 pamphlet cautioned against the ability of a “respectable woman” to help a sex worker, proclaiming that “a virtuous female cannot help despising those who have so degraded their sex.” Yet, more women became interested in reform, and in 1832, New York Female Benevolent Society (NYFBS) was created with the explicit mission to “promote moral purity in the city of New-York, in a way both corrective and preventative.” Still mired in concepts of sin and purity, the NYFBS was beginning to articulate that the “problem” of public sex was a complex topic that could not be dealt with by simply banishing bad women from the city. At the same time, however, a group of men formed the 7th Commandment Society solely to encourage ministers to preach abstinence more often.
Their work took on a more sociological perspective when, under the aegis of the NYFBS, McDowall (who was officially an “agent” of the society) published the first attempt to study prostitution in New York as a social phenomenon. Although riddled by poor methodology, the report — which counted a ludicrously high estimate of some 10,000 women residing in brothels — demonstrated to the public that the elite attempts at strict abstinence were having no impact on the sex industry.
The report was met with immediate censure from mainstream citizens. The women reformers were mocked, publicly harassed, and subjected to anonymous death threats. A grand jury was formed to consider whether the study itself was a public obscenity. The backlash was so intense that McDowall lost his ministry and was indicted for damaging public morality. The Society was disbanded and its House of Refuge was closed. However, shortly after, a group of women formed the New York Female Moral Reform Society (NYFMRS) and parted ways with McDowall.
The NYFMRS launched its own journal, The Advocate of Moral Reform. In the first issue of January 1835, the society justified their work to combat licentiousness “for the sole reason, that the men will not do it.” Run by women managers and editors, it rapidly expanded the old scope and distribution. Where McDowall advocated for missionary work, the Advocate contained factual studies of the social context of sex work, such as one piece about theatre audiences and admonishments for mothers to talk to their daughters about sex and seduction at a time when the topic was rarely discussed. In addition, the Houses of Refuge, which were originally founded to offer prayer to “reformed” women, began to collect intake statistics on the background of its members to study prostitution as a social phenomenon.
Rather than solely blame women, the NYFMRS brought public attention to the men who trafficked and exploited women. The Advocate published numerous articles highlighting the stories of women who found themselves in economic predicaments after being seduced by men promising marriage but abandoning them after sex. One article called out such men by condemning the“the gentleman prostitute” deeming the “tyranny of lustful monsters in the shape of men.”
When men had controlled debate on the topic, they solely blamed sex workers, casting them as demonic predators. Once women became involved, they began to address structural imbalances in society.
Over next decade, the NYFMRS would expand to be a female-only organization; its managers and editors, agents and bookkeepers were all women. At the same time, the tone of its reform work gradually shifted to rewriting the relationship between men and women in all spheres of society from the home to the brothel.
In 1835, women of the NYFMRS unanimously adopted a resolution that articulated the new attitude that men were responsible as well: “Let the condemnation of the guilty of our sex remain entire; but let not the most guilty of the two — the deliberate destroyer of female innocence — be afforded even an ‘apron of fig leaves,’ to conceal the blackness of his crimes.” One 1838 Advocate article was outspoken about the role of women in marriages with abusive or cheating husbands in the language of tyranny and resistance, as “a portion of the inhabitants of this favored land are groaning under a despotism.”
By 1838, the Advocate had grown to 16,000 subscribers, making it the largest evangelical publication in the United States. It would expand its focus to include articles addressing wider gender imbalances. Most controversially, it published an essay by Sarah Grimké in its January 1838 issue urging women to interpret the Bible for themselves rather than rely on the readings of men, as “the first duty, I believe, which devolves on our sex now is to think for themselves.” At the same time, the Houses of Refuge expanded their scope to function as employment agencies that provided material aid and shelter.
Although the women of early and mid-century reform societies had negative stereotypes about the women they tried to “save” or “rescue,” their work altered public debate. Despite their prejudices, they changed how Americans thought of gender and sex. When men had controlled debate on the topic, they solely blamed sex workers, casting them as demonic predators. Once women became involved, they began to address structural imbalances in society.
By founding publications, creating networks of sales agents, creating a nascent lecture circuit, and building audiences across the country, these women built a considerable organization centered around social reform. When activists in succeeding decades joined causes like temperance and suffrage, they already had volunteers and vital infrastructure in place. By encouraging women to leave their homes and work for social progress, these early reform societies laid the groundwork for some of the 19th century’s most consequential progressive movements.
Marilynn Wood Hill. Their Sister’s Keepers: Prostitution in New York City, 1830-1870 (University of California Press, 1993).
Carolyn Smith Rosenberg. Religion and the Rise of the American City: The New York City Mission Movement, 1812-1870 (Cornell University Press, 1971).
Lady Science is an independent magazine that focuses on the history of women and gender in science, technology, and medicine and provides an accessible and inclusive platform for writing about women on the web. For more articles, information on pitching, and to subscribe to our newsletter, visit ladyscience.com.