Karen Abbott is a journalist and author of the New York Times bestseller Sin in the Second City, an exploration of the role of brothels in the cultural and political life of turn-of-the-century Chicago. Prior to publishing Sin in the Second City – which took her three years to write and research – Abbott worked for Philadelphia magazine and for Philadelphia Weekly. Abbott, a native of Philadelphia, received her BA from Villanova University in 1995. The critically acclaimed Sin in the Second City tells the story of Chicago’s Everleigh Club, a famous high-end whorehouse that was known as the “finest brothel in the land.” Abbott lives with her husband in Atlanta and is working on her second book, a portrait of Gypsy Rose Lee and Depression-era New York.
Karen Abbott: That’s an interesting question because it was the first time that women were actually sort of . . . It was acceptable for them to wander out and intermingle with men in a public sphere. You know in the Victorian times it was appropriate and proper for a man to court a woman by coming to her house and sitting in her parlor – and only at an appointed hour, and being monitored, and being chaperoned. And you know you sit on the porch in the parlor and you don’t go anywhere. Well at this point, you know, the turn of the 20th century women were going to the dance halls. Women were seeking work outside the home. Women were leaving their __________ homesteads and coming into the cities in droves. Urbanization was a huge factor in all of this. And so they were . . . And people for the first time too had disposable income. Consumer culture was beginning to form. So all these things were sort of coming to a head, and women were concerned about how they looked. They went shopping. They were . . . talked to men when they were shopping. I mean it sort of changed the whole dynamic of how the sexes were relating, which also I think was something that really scared the reformers. And a lot of the big hype about white slavery wasn’t about sex or about women being kidnapped and raped, but about urbanization in these changing worlds for women and these changing worlds of women,. I mean part of the other thing I was trying to do in the book, this was like a pivotal moment in our sexual culture. You know when you think about developments in our sexual culture you think of Kinsey, which I guess he’s the first person who really decided, you know what? Women like sex. You know and sort of dismissing that whole Victorian idea of the frigid wife. You know you think of Kinsey. You think of Freud. You think of Margaret Sanger and birth control and that sort of thing, but nobody really thinks about . . . about this period when, you know, the whole idea of women’s sexuality was changing, and they were purposefully going out on dates and sort of asserting themselves as human beings who could . I mean what I mean is that women, you know, desire to . . . to intermingle with the opposite sex. And this was something that was acceptable. It was the first time that this . . . this became apparent
Recorded On: 1/22/08