Women’s issues are at the forefront of many of the hotly debated concerns in the U.S., but one women’s issue that remains mainly untouched is sex work. While prostitution remains illegal and shunned by society, the oldest profession in the world remains an active industry. But for Devon Angus and Ivy Anderson, a former Ojai resident, the story of one particular sex worker played a key role in their new book, Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute. Angus and Anderson will be hosting a reading and discussion of their book on June 22 at Bart’s Books in Ojai.
Angus and Anderson discussed their book, women’s issues, the current political atmosphere and more this week.
How did you find out about Alice? Her original story was published over 100 years ago.
Our discovery of Alice Smith’s memoirs began with our shared fascination with Jack Black’s infamous criminal memoir, You Can’t Win, an underground classic from the 1920s that later inspired William Burroughs and the early Beat movement. Jack Black was a protégé of the San Francisco Bulletin editor Fremont Older (1856-1935). Hoping to give voice to marginalized and ostracized members of society, Older published a series of memoirs from those who were underrepresented and ignored by the media. Alice Smith’s memoir was one of these, and from what we can tell, few, if any, have read her words in the last hundred years. We had to scan through reels and reels of microfilm before we finally found it. “A Voice from the Underworld” ran for three months in the summer of 1913, six days a week, as a serial. According to the Bulletin, upward of 3,000 letters in response were received by the paper, including hundreds penned by other sex workers and working class women.
Why did you feel it was important to revisit Alice’s story now?
We were immediately struck by the clear feminist narrative of Alice’s story, which stands strong as a rare historical document of a working class woman — a sex worker — during the Progressive Era, reflecting on her role in the world of politics, economics, gender norms and societal standards of morality. “Alice Smith,” which is a pseudonym, was addressing many of the same questions that the women who marched on Washington last January were asking. How do women survive, poor women especially, in a society that has stacked the cards against them? Alice’s era was an idealistic era of reform where women’s voices, after countless years of struggle, were actually listened to, both through the ballot box and through media. What we have discovered through our research, however, is that there were classes of women who were underrepresented or silenced on the larger stage of political and social discourse. Alice Smith, and the dozens of sex workers who wrote into the Bulletin felt that their needs were being dismissed by the greater feminist movement. This conflict brought up a number of nuanced questions about what a truly equitable women’s movement looks like.
What have you learned about the struggles facing women and their personal choices between then and now?
“A Voice from the Underworld” and the many letters written in response cover a lot of ground as far as the many ways women struggled for representation, equality, empowerment and basic survival in society. We learned quite a bit from these stories regarding such wide-ranging issues as access to reproductive health care, expectations of subservience in the realm of marriage and the home, sexual double standards, the vast divide in wages offered to women and men, as well as draconian societal expectations, some of which today seem outdated, but many of which continue to resonate. It is no question that women have gained ground in society since 1913; but Alice’s story really forced us to reconsider the assumption that things are vastly better for women now. . . . When Alice recounts being hit on by her boss, but demuring his advances in order to keep her job (this is before she turned to sex work), we think any woman alive can relate to this experience.
What do you think of the current political climate, lack of respect when it comes to legislating women’s access to affordable health care, etc.?
There is a stunning image of Trump at a press conference announcing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in the House of Representatives, where he is joyfully flanked by a group of white men — and only white men. Once again, we are in the position where a group of wealthy, white men are calling the shots on how women, as well as trans and genderqueer individuals, can regulate their own bodies. This issue just get more nuanced when you think about who will be impacted the most by policies that destroy access to basic wages, basic health care, basic housing rights: the poor. In 1913, women were demanding a voice in politics because they believed that their needs simply could not be legislated upon by those who did not understand the conditions of their lives. And sex workers turned around and began to organize because they felt the same sort of political alienation from women’s rights organizers.
What are some of the highlights from your book that you will share at the event?
Alice Smith’s memoir is an important historical document, but is only a piece of the puzzle. The letters to the editor by sex workers and women from all classes of society published alongside Alice’s memoir are equally important. Due to the constraints of the book form we could only publish 12 of the nearly 300 letters published by the Bulletin during the memoirs run, so we’ll be sharing some of the unpublished highlights. We’ll also talk some about who “Alice Smith” was.
Devon Angus and Ivy Anderson will have a book reading and signing of Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute on June 22, from 7 to 8 p.m., at Bart’s Books at 302 W. Matilija St., in Ojai. For more information, go to www.voicesfromtheunderworld.com.