Feminism and the Politics of Prostitution in the 1970s and 1980s: Professor Judith Walkowitz discusses her latest research and forthcoming visit to Manchester!

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Torso Installation, ‘Prostitution: What’s Going On?’ Exhibition at the Women’s Library, Whitechapel, 2006. Image courtesy of Professor Walkowitz.

In 1972 I joined a small cohort of feminist historians who insisted that prostitution had a history.  At the time, prostitution remained low on the agenda of women’s liberation on both sides of the Atlantic.  Women liberationists  were  reluctant to take up the topic, in good part because they were disposed to regard women who sold sex as anachronisms, purveyors of a commodified sex, the very antithesis of their own utopian ideals of female self-expression and unalienated pleasure. They were also anxious to distance themselves from Victorian traditions of  philanthropic Lady Bountifuls who devoted themselves to saving fallen women.

Nonetheless, intellectual and political ferment around the body and gender made a new history of prostitution thinkable. It helped to challenge and destabilize, however slowly, unexamined assumptions about the social divisions of good and bad women, masculine and feminine and even sex and gender. If there were ‘No More Nice Girls’, to quote one radical feminist street theatre group of that name, surely that presaged no more ‘bad girls’?  If gender and sexual codes were constructed rather than innate, did they not have a history? And where was prostitution in that history?  How, for example, did  the ‘whore stigma,’ to quote feminist scholar Gail Phetersen, affect all women and keep them under control?

Feminist thinking along these lines propelled young feminist historians of the 1970s into uncharted territory.  Our research was certainly framed in part by the intense preoccupations with prostitution on the part of our historical actors and the archives they bestowed to posterity. When we went into the archives to uncover the sexual politics of an earlier era, we found a treasure trove on prostitution and venereal disease. Our feminist contemporaries might observe a studied silence on the question, but our historical protagonists were exceedingly loquacious about the ‘social evil’.

We created a distinctive body of scholarship that continues to have a lasting influence on historical work in the field. This enduring consensus involves three key features of female prostitution’s modern history.  First, feminist historians see female prostitution as sexual labour, an integral part of the survivalist strategy of the poor over many centuries. Second, they argue that intensified policing had negative effects on women in the trade. Finally, they cast doubt on political campaigns, including feminist campaigns that repeatedly ended in legislation and other state actions that marked off sex work from other forms of labour. This shared assessment across generations of feminist historians in the US and UK stands in contrast to the fierce disputes around sex work raging in other fields of study today. Indeed, these three points of agreement remain flashpoints in current political controversies around reforming prostitution laws today.

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English Collective of Prostitutes. Image Courtesy of Professor Walkowitz.

 I like to think that my first book,  Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State, (1980) made an early contribution to this distinctive scholarly tradition. Here I explored a mid-Victorian feminist campaign against the state regulation of prostitutes, as established under the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1964, 1968, and 1869.  The successful repeal campaign not only  involved a striking cross –class alliance between middle-class feminists and radical workingmen, it also precipitated a feminist mobilization of  Plymouth women registered as common prostitutes to resist the requirements of the Acts. My own second-wave commitments to ‘personal politics’ certainly informed the questions I pursued in my  research: I  was anxious to explore how diverse social actors, including prostitutes and feminist reformers, made sense of their world, how did they imagine they could change things? What were the points of connection and conflict between groups of women who were so differently positioned by class?

In my two presentations at the University of Manchester, I revisit  the difficult history of prostitution and feminism in the last  decades of the twentieth century.  ‘The Spatial Politics of Reading in the Archives: A Memoir’ focuses on my  experience of doing research in the Fawcett Library in London from 1972 to 2016. At the Fawcett Library, I consulted the Josephine Butler Collection, the main repository of sources for the mid-Victorian campaigns against the Contagious Diseases Acts.   Between 1978 and 2013, the Fawcett Library moved three times across London—from a townhouse in Westminster, to a basement of an East End polytechnic in Whitechapel, to a purpose-built structure down the street in Whitechapel, and finally to an elite university library in London’s West End.   As a consequence, my visits to the Fawcett Library and to the Butler Collection took me to different social worlds in London, where I overheard conversations and forged varied connections within the library. In big and small ways, these spatial displacements provoked me to reframe my research questions and interpretive framework.

This archive memoir/travelogue builds on an important insight enunciated by historian Seth Koven that ‘the physical location of an archive matters’.  According to Koven, ‘Where we read affects how we read. Location profoundly shapes the meanings we find in an archive and the conversation it provokes between past and present’. But what might  location signify?  It certainly encompasses the built environment of the archive as a material remnant of the past. It also gestures to the protocols that govern social relations in that space. Location could also mean the spatial ordering of knowledge within the archive, especially the material arrangement of documents on different floors, in distinct files, drawers, entry catalogues, and catalogued piles. Finally, location involves an imaginative geography and spatial memory suffused with affect and emotion, oscillating from alienation, to boredom, to the excitement of discovery, to a sense of belonging.

My lecture, ‘Feminism and the Politics of Prostitution in the 1980s: a Tale of North and South’, looks at King’s Cross, London in the early 1980s as a staging ground for the contending politics of prostitution in the late-twentieth century.  It addresses the following question: what did it take for prostitution to move up the feminist agenda by 1982? For answers, it looks at a striking conjuncture of events, practices and forms of knowledge that powered new understandings of prostitution and a greater sense of urgency about it. These developments include prostitute rights groups and their ethnographies of the ‘voices of prostitutes’,  Margaret Thatcher and austerity cuts,   the Yorkshire Ripper and the mass migration of Northern women to the streets of London, conflicts within feminism between  Northern anti-violence activists  and London municipal feminists allied to Ken Livingstone’s Labour left government.

Judith R. Walkowitz

Professor Emerita of History, Johns Hopkins University


We are delighted to host Professor Walkowitz as Simon Visiting Professor at the University of Manchester from April to May 2017. Join us at the following events: 

Tuesday 25 April, 5p.m., Mansfield Cooper G21: Lecture, ‘Feminism and Prostitution in the 1980s: A Tale of North and South.’ All Welcome. (Jointly hosted by CIDRAL/SALC/Modern British History Research Network)

Thursday 27 April, Samuel Alexander A215: Seminar, ‘The Spatial Politics of Reading in the Archives: A Memoir.’ All Welcome. (History Research Seminar Series/Modern British History Network Event).

Wednesday 3 May, 10a.m.-12p.m, Graduate School, Ellen Wilkinson, Room C1.18: Masterclass for MA/PhD students. (All MA/PhD students in SALC are welcome, on a first-come-first-served basis. Please sign up with Professor Frank Mort: Frank.Mort@manchester.ac.uk).  

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