(De)sexing prostitution : sex work, reform, and womanhood in Progressive Texas, 1889-1925



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This dissertation examines the participation and regulation of African American and Mexican women in the sex industry during the Progressive period of Texas to complicate ideas of womanhood. Between 1889 and 1925, sex workers survived, resisted, and contended with several shifts to their industry caused by the interventions of religious leaders, civil servants, community members, and reformers. Red light and related vice districts were socially- and legally-sanctioned tolerated forms of amusement and leisure throughout the state. Although black and brown madams, inmates, and prostitutes were not the most visible sex workers, they were often pivotal to that social and cultural fabric of numerous cities such as San Antonio, Fort Worth, Houston, and Laredo. The white slavery and antivice campaigns reshaped the discussions and reforms from the local to federal level. They created a social, economic, and political climate of stringent policing of vices that led to the eventual abolition of commercialized sex, where prostitutes of color embodied the worst tenets of womanhood. In contrast, the Mexican anarcho-socialist and African American progressive women’s club movements more broadly enhanced the views of women of color, demonstrating the ways that they (re)defined themselves. In this study, I argue that the intersection of prostitution and progressivism in the South/west represents a peculiar juncture in race- and sexual-making. At stake were the contested meanings of sexuality, race, and modernity under the growing vilification of vice by the national government and local groups in the Jim Crow Borderlands.

While this dissertation contributes to the diverse historiographies of progressivism, the New South, and U.S. West, it also has important implications in enriching and facilitating the intersection of the histories of Mexican American and African American women in new and unconventional ways. Its significance is that it advances knowledge in topics of sexuality, race, and gender formation from a transborder and transregional framework. Moreover, it expands conceptual and methodological paradigms that presently exist in the field of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, by coupling them with the study of Jim Crow segregation of the Southwest.