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In the book, ‘The Freedom of the Streets’, Sharon Wood explores the socioeconomic challenges of Davenport’s women in the aftermath of the Civil War. Wood describes the interrelated issues of sexuality, gender and prostitution, which dominated public morality debates during this era. The book explains how in the aftermath of the Civil War, economic hardships forced young women in small Midwestern towns to move to big cities such as New York and Chicago, as well as the smaller Iowan city of Davenport in search of paid employment.
The young women looked for work in factories, offices and storehouses, and formed self-support groups in a bid to establish themselves as single, independent working women (14). Their lifestyles and presence in the city streets had a dramatic impact on urban life, public perceptions and social institutions of the 20th century urban centers.
Important Lessons from the Book
Wood offers a detailed study of the place of young women in America in the 19th Century cities. In particular, the author delves into prostitution in the city streets of Davenport, Iowa, how it was perceived and its ramifications on the society. In Wood’s view, the struggles of the young women forced them into prostitution, which, in Davenport’s context, was considered a form of gainful employment.
Wood’s approach gives the reader an all-new perspective on prostitution that is different from the typical perspectives offered in other studies. From a public morality perspective, prostitution was considered a social evil that contravenes moral values. Though considered one of the dangers of social growth in urban centers, prostitution played a role in shaping the civic institutions and politics of the 19th Century cities.
Another important lesson from this book relates to the significance of small cities and towns in the industrialization of America. Wood focuses on Davenport to emphasize on the role of smaller cities during this era. She contends that their smaller geographical size allowed people to live in defined communities, which “may be lost in the vastness of large cities like Chicago and New York” (4).
The vivid account of Davenport’s women, public lifestyles and prostitution offers glimpses into the forces behind the civic and political transformations of the 20th Century. Moreover, the book shows how the relations involving Davenport’s prostitutes, the public and the city officials determined how social and civic institutions would operate in the turn of the 20th Century.
How the Author did it
The book begins with an account of the struggles of Davenport’s young women, who were trying to establish themselves as working class women by engaging gainful employment. To support one another economically and enhance the accessibility of employment opportunities for women, young women who believed in “the idea of self-support for women” (67) formed a ‘Lend a Hand Club’.
This club, under the leadership of Jennie McCowen, recruited young women from several occupations including clerks, teachers and domestic servants (65). As the working women lived in defined communities, their presence in the city streets when walking to work was associated with prostitution.
To remove this stigma, they forced the city officials to employ a policewoman to tackle the problem of prostitution that was on the rise in the city streets. Through this account, the author shows that social stigma was associated with women workers who dominated public spheres such as city streets and entertainment areas.
In the following sections of the book, Wood focuses on the prostitution in Davenport’s streets. In Davenport, the public perceptions of ‘paid sex’ varied depending on gender, economic class and age. She notes that “men and women, young and old, working and middle class” (78) held different views regarding prostitution.
Wood uses police records of rape cases to explore the common line of defense used by the perpetrators or the “sporting men” (78). The defendants often argued that it was the young women’s misbehaviors in the public sphere that prompted them to assault their victims. Moreover, the young women’s presence in areas such as city streets and entertainment spots frequented by men shaped the public perceptions and justified the “sporting men’s” actions.
Davenport adopted a regulated prostitution strategy in tackling the problem of prostitution. Its approach (regulated prostitution) required brothel owners to pay a monthly fee to the city officials to get a registration license. Davenport banned unregistered ‘paid sex’ in public places such as hotels and lodgings.
Besides banning unregistered prostitution, Davenport’s city officials engaged in strategic anti-prostitution campaigns to prevent teenage prostitution. According to Wood, the “Good Shepherd Home”, served as an informal reformatory center that protected young girls from exposure to teenage prostitution (82). Drawing from cases of girls who were sheltered in this home, Wood explains how Davenport’s novel approach helped reduce teenage prostitution in this city.
What the Author was trying to do
Wood attempts to explore the public perceptions surrounding gender, female sexuality and prostitution in small cities in the 19th Century. Through her account of the young women’s struggles and the public presence of young women, the author examines how public perceptions largely defined the women’s place in society.
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Working women, fearful of being maligned as prostitutes for venturing out into the city streets, had to coerce city officials to remove prostitutes from Davenport’s streets. The author underscores the issue of social stigma and how the anti-prostitution campaigns were discriminatory. The young women’s relations with the city officials and the public perceptions would later define the political, social and civic institutions of the city in the 20th Century.
Wood, Sharon. 2005. The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.