Social Reformers in the Early 20th Century
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: Well there’s two main reformers in the book. One is Ernest Bell who is a reverend. And I always say that if I had written a novel I couldn’t have named him Ernest, because he was earnest and that would be bad. But I really do think that he believed that the Everleigh Club and other madams were ruining the moral fabric of America and were causing . . . endangering the lives of young girls across the country. And this had to be stopped, and the only way to stop this nefarious business was to wipe out red light districts altogether. And you know, so I do think that he sort of really believed in his cause. The other reformer, Clifford Rowe, was the lawyer and the politician sort of. And I think he was pretty much the polar opposite of Ernest Bell. There was a great profile of him in the Chicago Tribune that sort of summed him up better than anything I could have said. And it begins, “On the day of Mr. Rowe’s birth, he gave a speech on the wrongs of infants. And he’s been speaking on the rights and wrongs of someone or another ever since. He has his ideas and has made up his mind that the world is going to hear them.” So I think that he was really motivated by political ambition and a chance to make a national name for himself. And he was really effective. I mean he was someone that pretty much singlehandedly spread the white slavery panic across the United States, so . . . Well the women were more interesting because they obviously didn’t have a political voice. You know they couldn’t vote. And as I said I think earlier, they were even barred from saloons where people discussed politics. So the white slavery scare was the one way they could insert themselves in the political discourse and sort of make the argument that, you know, America’s women are best able to protect America’s girls, so why don’t you let us take the reins? And I do think this was . . . this movement and the way women were able to sort of give themselves a voice collectively – the Women’s Christian …Union, among others – paved the way for suffrage in, what, 1920 I guess it was, so . . .
Recorded On: 1/22/08
What motivated the social and political reformers in early 20th-century Chicago?
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