An Iowa alumna who now teaches history at the University of Nebraska has written a book about a spicy part of Midwestern history. Sharon Wood says she focused on the end of the 19th century in writing “The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship and Sexuality in a Gilded-Age City.” The city in question is Davenport, Iowa. It’s about women’s efforts to shape public policy on regulating sexual conduct. She says she used the city of Davenport, Iowa, as a case study because of its interesting history — from 1893 to 1909, it licensed brothels. She says that doesn’t mean the Mississippi River was the edge of the Wild West in that day. They were looking, instead, back to Europe, as about a quarter of Davenport’s population in that era was people who were German-born. They looked to Europe for models of a modern city and one way they worked in Europe was having licensed brothels. Wood says one of her main sources of information was the jail records. Davenport was the first city in Iowa to have a police matron, who was “kind of a combination police officer and social worker.” She says their records of women arrested and the fines paid on their behalf made it clear there was a system of arresting — or ignoring — professional prostitutes licensed to work in the city. From newspapers and other reports she found the mayor elected in the spring of 1893, Henry Vollmer, announced he intended to begin regulating prostitution — not trying to suppress, but to regulate it. They thought licensing would control disease, and she says people in Davenport seemed to like it pretty well and reelected the mayor several times. Vollmer was a Democrat, but even after a Republican mayor replaced him, the policy didn’t change until a change in state law forced it. Wood notes there was great tension between Davenport and the state over matters including liquor and prostitution. She says that was typical of all the rivertowns. She says we don’t often think of it, but that was a time of great opportunity for women. The first women in Iowa to run for office were elected in 1969, Wood Says. She points out the University of Iowa was proud to be the first public university to admit women and men on equal terms, and when its medical school opened in 1873, a third of the first class were women. Wood says in many ways the West was a place of surprising opportunity for women, though it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. They had hard lives and still faced a lot of criticism, considered almost as bad as prostitutes if they got an education or simply worked for a living. Her book’s been published by the University of North Carolina Press.
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