The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America 1900-1918 Review

Prostitution is as old as human society but very often it’s ignored or relegated to the distant background of history, which makes a certain amount of sense; we aren’t always good about talking about sex in this country. But think about it, madams, brothels and ladies of the night have been around forever and mention throughout history and literature. The ancient Romans had them, Greeks revered them and Abraham Lincoln might have, probably did partake of their wares in his younger days. But it’s rare that the profession ever gets talked about just for it’s own sake and on it’s own terms. The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America 1900-1918 by Ruth Rosen makes a strong effort to correct that by diving deep into the world of prostitution in America during the early years of the 20th century. While it’s not an overview of the history of prostitution as a worldwide or even civilization wide thing, the book does shine a light on a very important and interesting time in the history of prostitution. This book is not a traditional book with a traditional narrative. It’s a Historical Monograph, which means it’s a piece of scholarly work that is focused on one subject. So in this case, the book is focused on prostitution, in America, during a very specific time. Usually, the author is going to draw larger conclusions from the facts, sources and context they profile in the book. Monograph’s can be hard to read because they can seem unfocused and boring. They don’t often have a central narrative in the traditional sense, like a character, or an event or a singular place. They also don’t usually have a story, as most people would think about it, even though by their very nature they are telling a certain kind of story.

So, the question comes up after that info dump… how do you read a book like this? It’s simple really. First, make an overview of the book; look at the chapters, titles, intro and any images or visual aids that appear in the book. Just take it all in. Than just start reading and don’t really stop. Sometimes things are going to get really technical or get really deep into numbers and statistics and it’s going to feel daunting and ultimately boring. That’s okay because just push through. If it’s a good book, like this one is, by the end you will have picked up more than you realized while you were reading and by the end of the book you will have learned quite a bit about a topic you probably knew something about before you started the book. They are challenging reads but completely doable and are well worth the effort. Plus, if you read the rest of review, I give you hints and guideposts to reading the book itself. See, I’m helpful!

So the main thing of this book, its thesis sort of, is threefold. The Reform movement in this country leveled up in the late 1800s/early 1900s. It gained national prominence and realized that it could use government to pass laws and go after people in a way that it hadn’t before. Prostitution had never been legal per se, but it had been more tolerated than you would think for people who lived in the time of Laura Ingalls and other literary bastions of early American piousness and morality. Brothels were often grouped into red light districts; sections of town easily known and avoided (or frequented) by the denizens of the larger area. Quasi-legal at best, these areas were often avoided by the moral majority of the town or city and therefore were easily forgotten. This changed around the turn of the century and red light districts were outlawed and policed to such an extent that they ceased to function like they had been. The efforts of reform movements, which included early feminist, religious leaders and even scientists and doctors, at different times sought to regulate the trade, suppress it, or destroy it. All these new pressures and laws forced prostitution even more underground because lets face it, it’s never going away fully (whether it should is not really the question here, neither in my piece nor the book itself) and this underground meant the criminal kind. Pimps and organized crime took over the managing of prostitutions from madams and the women themselves. So what you should keep in mind as you read this book is a) prostitution has been a staple of human society since always b) how was prostitution in America before the reform movement of the early 1900s and how was it changed after b) how did these various reform efforts effect the prostitutions themselves. In the case of this book, I think there are pretty clear answers to all three parts. You can make your own moral judgments afterwards, but I think you can come to clear conclusions regardless of how you feel about sex for money.

The book itself is very good. It’s clearly written with a consistent style that is both easy to read and informative. It’s organized in a clear way that addresses many different aspects of prostitution without sounding preachy or condescending. As a good historian, Rosen is providing us with a large amount of context and information from which we can draw our own conclusions. One chapter of the book will talk about the early days of the reform movement, others talk about what life was like for your average prostitute and yet others will talk about the larger context of American life at this time. This clear style and mission statement helps the reader understand things and start to make connections between the seemingly disparate topics of the different chapters. Rosen also takes special note to address the nature of the reform movements of the time and why they pursued prostitution the way they did. If you are a feminist interested in the history of the movement, I would especially recommend this book; seeing the early movements, actions and philosophies of feminism is fascinating and very interesting. If you are interested in government, the Constitution and how it plays a role in our modern life, you should read this book because it shows you an early forerunner to our more modern debates about sex and government. Also, the author doesn’t make the mistake of overstaying her welcome. The book is concise and on point and is not that long. For those reasons, and the somewhat salacious topic, I would recommend this book to pretty much anybody.


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