Mary Jane Coggeshall

Social Purity - c. 1886

Mary Jane Coggeshall
January 01, 1886— Polk County, Iowa
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This speech was presented before the Polk County (Iowa) Woman Suffrage Association.

Mrs. President, Members of the Woman's Suffrage Association, and Friends:

I was requested at the last meeting of this society to present a paper upon the slavery of women to the great social vice of the world.

Leaving out of this discussion the heathen nations and their practices, we find enough of social degradation in the civilized and Christian world to cause every woman's heart to sink before the appalling picture. Through the long and dreary ages out of the darkness of which we are just emerging, so dominant has been this master passion in man that the historian, Lecky, coolly records that the virtuous woman is safe only at the expense of a pariah class. Out of this base and fiendish doctrine has come as a natural result the effort to license its practice, and that half of humanity which holds the law-making power in its hands, has seen fit to make the traffic in the bodies of women, and the police and medical supervision of them, as lawful as the trading on sugar or salt.

This system of white slavery has existed in continental Europe for many years; it was instituted in France under the first Napoleon, late in the eighteenth century, and was introduced into Great Britain by act of parliament between 1866 and 1869. As a necessary accompaniment to the establishment of houses of prostitution under patronage of government, there exist all over the world an extensive traffic in this vice. All around the globe, and up and down our great highways of commerce, may be seen the sad procession of these youthful victims of human cruelty. Throughout the whole of Europe, especially in Germany and Austria, the exportation of white slaves is conducted on a large scale.

Mrs. Josephine Butler, of England, the leader in the formation of the "International Federation for the Abolition of the State Regulation of Vice," in her report to the International council at Washington, says; "numbers of those victims are embarked at Hamburg, whose destination is South America, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires. Others by the Straits of Magellan to Valparaiso. Other cargoes are sent to North America, sometime descending the Mississippi to New Orleans and Texas. In the market of California they are so1ied and sent to provision the different localities on the coast as far as Panama. Others go from the New Orleans market to Cuba, the Antilles and Mexico. Others are taken from Germany, Bohemia and Switzerland, across the Alps to Italy and south to Alexandria and Suez; eastward to Bombay and Shanghai. The Russian official houses of vice draw their slaves largely from eastern Prussia, Pomerania and Poland. The most important station is Riga. It is there that the traders of St. Petersburg and Moscow sort out and get ready their cargoes of women for Nijni­ Novgorod, and from this place they are sent on to the more distant towns of Siberia, the victims being sometimes sold and resold in the long passage. But perhaps the strangest and saddest spectacle in all Christendom may be seen in one of the great trade arteries of London, the Whitechapel Road, where sexual vice is the chief industry of the population, and where hundreds upon hundreds of your sisters and mine walk the streets from dark to daylight, with no home, seldom sleeping twice under the same roof; and since the recent revolting murders in the district the police are ordered to rout them from their slumbers in stairways and cellars, and they are obliged to tramp about all night and all the next day until they can get fourpence to hire a bed."

But in our own beloved land with its blood-bought freedom from Negro slavery we find even here the servitude of woman assumes a blackness beside which southern slavery seems almost a worthy institution. In all our great cities like New York, St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati and others, thousands of women haunt the streets at night as their chief business in earning a livelihood; a careful estimate placing the general proportion of the whole number in the United States to be one for every fifty-two adult males.

It has come to the ears of authorities at Washington, that terrible wrongs are committed upon the native women of Alaska through the agents of employees of the Alaska Seal Fur Company. The poor Indians, having lost all patience, have addressed an appeal to the people of the United States for protection from the passions of these unprincipled white men. Senator Dawes has introduced into Congress a resolution "calling on the Secretary of the Interior for information and whether steps have been taken by the department to protect these India women."

But in the discussion today, I wish to call your attention especially to the present outrages in the great "new north" of Wisconsin and Michigan. There, there exists a systematic organization of intelligent business men, which has for its object the amassing of fortunes by trading in the virtue of young women. In obtaining these facts I am greatly indebted to the report of Dr. Kate Bushnell, evangelist of the "White Cross and White Shield," and who was commissioned by the W.C.T.U. of Wisconsin to ascertain the facts concerning the notorious dens of this region, and who spent about four months of last year in the investigation. After the attention of Governor Rusk of Wisconsin, had been urgently called to the matter, he sent a detective to the northern part of the state who claimed to have investigated these iniquities, and in his report, which was published in a Milwaukee paper, he said that there was "no necessity for state interference."

In a private conversation with Dr. Bushnell, this detective confessed that he never made the tour through northern Wisconsin; never entered but one den, or interviewed but one set of inmates. But his report tended to quiet the public mind, and having in a sense an official stamp would seem to exonerate Governor Rusk. But the terrible facts as witnessed by the brave woman who made a personal investigation of most of the principal cities and towns on all the railroads of northern Wisconsin, proves how misleading were the assertions of the pretended detective. The doctor visited or obtained information of some fifty-nine dens, which were but a part, and of about 575 degraded women: dens of both the ordinary and stockaded kind. The dens are generally situated on the outskirts of the town, in the woods, the dance house proper being the joint product of the saloon and the brothel. The bar room is supplied with piano, violin and girls, in number from ten to thirty, of even fifty. Besides these are managers, bartenders, musicians, watchmen and bulldogs. The girls are hired to dance for their board, receiving one-half the proceeds of their prostitution and half the proceeds of the drinks to which they are treated; but they are required to pay over all the money into the hands of a clerk, who credits one half to the house, the other half to the girl.

The "frequenters" pay twenty-five cents each per dance, and the girls must respond to the call for a dance at any hour of the day or night, and should one refuse to take to her room and man who makes a demand for her, she is fined the share due the house. The girls must be kept in debt, in order that they may be more easily controlled. The whip, the fist, the boot, the revolver and the bull dog are used to keep them in subjection. Broken bones and murder are common, and recruits are a necessity, and agents scour the country in search of poor, pretty and defenseless girls. The busy season of this horrible trade is in the early spring, when the lumbermen from the pineries come into town, when a den made to accommodate a dozen girls will be crowded to hold thirty or fifty, with three or four inmates to a single room. At the town of Merrill the doctor learned of a half dozen girls of a den who were so bruised and mangled that they were a sickening sight.

An inmate of Hunter's den, at Nassau, tell of a sick girl who was dragged down stairs head foremost. But when this den was raided last summer, Hunter lay in jail only three hours, while the victims lay in jail two weeks. A former inmate of Press Wade's den, at Washburn, says he would make the girls go down on their knees and beg with a loaded revolver at their heads, but when his den was raided the girls were marched through the street in shackles and locked up in cells, while he walked the streets free as any man; and when the den was closed out he simply took his girls over to Ashland, and sold them to another den keeper at $40 apiece. In Ashland a girl was murdered by having her clothes saturated with oil and set on fire. All of these dens are saloons, and most of them are licensed; and the keeper knows that he has his victim as soon as he gets her drunken.

When a girl first arrives her clothes are taken from her and she is obliged to wear the regulation short dress. They generally find as soon as they enter that their traveling expenses are charged against them, the traveling expenses of the procurer and procurer's fee inducing them to come.

In spite of the showing which den keepers and municipal officers attempt to make that these girls are not detained against their will, the facts remain. As an instance, the doctor visited a lady residing in Hurley, whose veracity was vouched for, who related that last winter between 7 and 8 o'clock in the evening, coming along Second Avenue from town, she heard the clinking of a chain and saw a girl running from the direction of Le Claire's den. Her circular cloak spread out in the wind, her eyes stood out in horror, her dress was caught up at one side, and in her hand was a ball that was fastened around her ankle by the chain which she had heard rattling. She was running as hard as she could and dashed across the railroad just in front of a train; behind her were two men in a cutter. They had to wait a little for the train, and she ran up the embankment and across the Lake Shore railroad, but the men drove rapidly, and overtaking her, thrust her into the sleigh and took her back to Le Claire's den. From one den two escaping girls were captured by the chief of police and brought back: the mistress of the den administering a beating in his presence, the chief making no effort to interfere. Later on one of the girls managed to get out a complaint for assault and battery, but it appears she was mysteriously made away with before the case was prosecuted, and dead women tell no tales.

That these outrages are permitted might be set down to the laxity of the laws of Wisconsin; but we find that they are equal in many respects to those found anywhere in the United States. In Wisconsin a brothel keeper may be arrested on a degree of evidence not considered sufficient by the laws of any other state, and the punishment for procuring or detaining women of previous chaste character is imprisonment in the penitentiary for five to fifteen years. The "age of protection" is 14 years, and penalty for assaulting a woman is imprisonment for life; yet cases are cited of girls under 14 years being kept in these dens, without prosecution against the keepers. In many cases, the officers of the town are men who have kept either dens or saloons in times past, and den keepers who have amassed a fortune can readily influence a certain class of newspapers to whitewash them - their money commands votes, and under the notion that these dance houses improve businesses, merchants and other sometimes aid and abet these keepers.

One who was present at a meeting of the "Business Men's Association," last summer, relates that it was decided to notify a notorious den keeper, who had been driven out of town, that it would be agreeable for him to return, and when his place was rebuilt, printed invitations were to be sent to each business man of the place, with the heading: "Opening of the Summer Sporting Resort." Contagious diseases acts, patterned after those of England, gotten up by the local authorities are enforced in almost every town, the board of health authorizing physicians to make regular examinations of the girls. In one case the mayor of the town was the physician and issued the certificates.

Though few dens were found with the very high stockades that have been reported, yet the system of fines is so rigid, and the shrewd management that keeps the girls almost constantly in debt to the keepers, renders them virtually slaves. Besides, against them is a total lack of sympathy on the part of men and officers, and the determination to maintain these places as a "necessity" and compelling all girls whose appearances are against them to live in these houses, but alas! that it must be said that even some virtuous women demand that their virtue must be protected by the degradation of young girls. A large class of young women have been entrapped into these dens by this tempting offer: "Come north, servant girls are wanted in hotels, and good wages will be paid and no questions asked." Pure girls have been thus caught.

But the law to punish the capture of innocent girls leaves a loophole by which those who can be 1"'.1ade to appear as having been previously un-chaste may be enslaved, and guilty men stand by each other in efforts to prove that a girl was "fast" previous to entering the den, and thus they evade the law. These den keepers are almost wholly foreigners, while the inmates are almost wholly American girls.

Do you ask why these atrocities are allowed to go on month after month and year after year? Do you suppose, my sisters, that if in Ashland, Marinette, Washburn, Hurley, and those other towns, the wives and mothers sat in their municipal councils, were represented upon their boards of health, managed all the interests of those towns equally with men, that such a state of affairs could exist three months?

These den keepers have votes, and make and unmake city officers. They are often money kings and carry large amounts of city bonds.

The wives of all these men are helpless the political slavery of all women, good and bad, makes this vilest of sex-slavery possible. Some atrocities committed are said to be too black for public print, and we know the world's policy has been to keep pure women from the knowledge of these things; yet today all over this land of ours, the spirit of God is moving upon the hearts of women and they are combining their forces and turning a calcium light upon these plague-spots in our midst. Can any woman with the love of Christ in her heart say, "I have all the rights want," while such slavery of women exists? Suppose we have all the law necessary for the suppression of these dens of vice. It is not enforced. Why? Because too many of the class that makes and enforces law want things to remain as they are.

In a government like ours, a public sentiment must stand behind the enforcement of all law, and public sentiment means here the sentiment of men only; and there are not enough of good men to balance the preponderance of evil men.

While we do not blame men for having come into this legacy of power, yet we believe it has been to them a positive curse. Mark how every step in enlarged opportunities for women has been contested. One of the latest developments of this tendency being the opposition to the appointment of police matrons. The common objection on the part of the officers, say the New York World, is that the women arrested are too depraved to merit consideration, but adds, that the lack of matrons at the police stations is an unnecessary barbarism. Mrs. J.K. Barney, of Rhode island, at the late convention of Christian Workers at Detroit, state that matrons have been appointed in twenty-five or thirty cities, but that every possible impediment is thrown in the way of adopting the system. A few intelligent, virtuous women, jealous of justice to their sex, might prove great stumbling blocks to the machinery of many city governments.

The city of Omaha points with pride to her public schools, which the yearly revenue of $24,000 from her 340 self-confessed prostitutes goes to support.

But what can we as an organization do? So world-wide is this vice of prostitution, so world-old is the history of its existence, and so universal is the idea of its necessity, that it seems like attempting to take down a mountain with our toy shovels. One of the saddest facts which meets the man or woman who attempts to work for the suppression of this sex degradation, is the idea which pervades our religion, our literature, our politics, that the woman must be in subjection. That the maternal function is the chief object of her creation, and must be exercised no matter what the result to herself. Even the great reformer, Melanchthon, says, "If a woman becomes weary of bearing children, that matters not; let her only die from bearing, she is there to do it."

Whether the time be long or short when women shall have political power, in the meantime let us work with such tools as we have, and make our mark upon the age in which we live by a combined effort to make smoother and purer the pathway of our tempted sisters. Shall another year pass and find our own city still without a branch of the "Women's Protective Agency?"

Shall the women and girls who fall into the hands of our police be dealt with only by men? May our continued walk together "make the beaten track appear a little greener where our feet have trod."

Transcription from Ferris, J. N. (2017). Mary Jane Whiteley Coggeshall, Hicksite Quaker, Iowa/National Suffragette and Her Speeches. Milton, IN: Kids at Heart Publishing LLC.