Prostitution – Then and Now
by Rebecca Now


What does a 19th century St. Louis madam have in common with the sex workers in Thailand?


I suggest it is agency, or the lack thereof. Agency, in this context is defined as the ability to control your own destiny, to be an actor versus a reactor to life, and to have choices. When we think of prostitutes, it is hard to imagine one with a sense of agency. If the trade is illegal, they may be harassed by police, and bullied and controlled by a pimp. One person in St. Louis history, Eliza Haycraft, was the exception, and her rise from penniless, illiterate runaway to prostitute, to real estate mogul, and then to philanthropist, is an amazing story. I wish she would have written her autobiography before she died at age 51.


Haycraft is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery. When St. Louis celebrated the city’s 250th birthday, she had a display in the Missouri History Museum that commemorated her exceptional life.


According to the story, Eliza ran away from home in Calloway County in 1840, stole a canoe and paddled across the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, pulled up between the many steamboats at the St. Louis landing. She had no contacts, or marketable skills. Her employment options, she quickly determined, were to be a domestic or a prostitute. She chose prostitution as the better option.


She excelled, and became a madam for a house, then she started a second house. She invested her wealth in real estate, and steadily amassed a fortune, and considerable influence. From 1840-1870, the population of St. Louis grew from 35,000 to 350,000, so she was in the right place and time to invest.


She became a major benefactor of the poor, and was beloved for her generosity. To the widow, the orphan and the poor, she provided a safety net when there was none, despite the low regard with which prostitutes were held. At the time of her death in 1871, she was worth, in today’s dollars- $30 million dollars.


What does this have to do with Thailand sex workers in 2018, you might ask? I recently returned from a study aboard program with Webster University, studying an interdisciplinary program on “Inequality and the Environment.” In our readings, and visible on the streets, is the consumption of Thai women for pleasure as wives, companions and sex partners. It was an everyday experience to see older Western men from Europe, Australia, and North America, dating or marrying Thai women that were 20, 30, or even 40 years younger. Like the industrialized nations coming in to deforest over 70% of Thailand’s forests, it is impossible to overlook the harvesting of Thai women for comfort and companionship by expatriate men that have left their native lands. In the Thai sex trade, like in St. Louis in the 19th century, the profession attracts poor women with few options to earn a living. A daughter that takes care of her family is considered a “good” woman in Thailand. The social stigma of prostitution is softened, as these women provide income to their poor families. Thailand has a flourishing tourist economy, and sex tourism is attractive to Western men. The beach community of Pattaya is home to over 1,000 bars and brothels and is referred to as the place for “sex-pats” (a play on the abbreviation “ex-pat,” which is short for expatriate). While I was visiting Thailand, an Australian man was in the news, arrested for running “sex orgy” boat parties in the Bay of Thailand.


A Thai women’s group has arisen to help these women, not to flee or be “rehabilitated” from the trade, but to respect their agency. Education Means Protection of Women Engaged in Recreation, or EMPOWER, provides English language instruction, health information and career workshops. EMPOWER has nine centers in four provinces in Thailand.


I want to make a distinction between a sex worker, who chooses the trade (albeit due to lack of education and options) and those that are trafficked. Women who are trafficked are tricked into forced prostitution, which is slavery. The Thai government is cracking down on that practice vigorously, and has made strides in cleaning up trafficking.


Despite cries for reform, the illegal Thai prostitution trade will not close down soon.


I reflected on the situation in Thailand, and Eliza Haycraft came to mind. Granted, she was a unique person in time and place, who made the most of her situation in a booming era. But women developing agency, and control over their income is important. If the trade was legal, woman could be free from bribing police to look the other way, and could form cooperative houses to escape exploitation by their male managers. I have come around to the belief that the trade should be legalized in Thailand and perhaps in other countries.


Since agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices, legalization would lead to more options and better working conditions for these women.

Rebecca Now is a speaker, collaborator, and event planner who is passionate about exploring and celebrating American
Women’s History. More information at






From the Muslim woman wearing a hijab, the Hollywood star wearing a see-through gown, the “modesty” programs of the Catholic Church for young women, the “shoulders covered” policy for reporters at the House of Representatives, or proper make up for aspiring corporate leaders, women continue to be bombarded with opinions on what is appropriate or inappropriate attire. This insistence upon the “correct” forms of female dress and make up is an example of the continued subjugation of women in the public arena.

Over many years and within many cultures insistence that women and girls dress “appropriately” has been a way to control women’s behavior in both the public and private spheres. Imagine trying to run from danger with bound feet, exercising in a hoopskirt, or speaking publicly while half-suffocated by a corset. Nineteenth century feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton made the connection thus: “Her tight waist and long trailing skirts deprive her of all freedom.”

What is more, focusing on a woman’s appearance or dress is a time-honored way of diminishing her credibility. For example, in the 1850s Amelia Bloomer promoted an outfit that later was named after her. The “bloomers” form of dress was basically pantaloons under a dress, so women could wear shorter skirts and move about more freely. While some praised the outfit as being healthy and practical, the wider society rejected it as a “usurpation of the rights of man,” in other words, incompatible with proper women’s roles in nineteenth century society. Eventually, bloomers became associated with the women’s rights movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminists were early adopters, but Stanton quickly abandoned it, as it provoked much public derision and she felt it was distracting from her message.

Things are much the same in the twenty-first century. We have recently observed much public discourse over appropriate and inappropriate forms of dress for women in the United States in the political, corporate, religious, and celebrity media cultures.

In the political realm, during the 2008 Presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton wore pantsuits, and Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin wore skirts.  Clinton was criticized for dressing in a “masculine” style and Palin was made into a quasi sex symbol for her attractive looks and more feminine clothing. Of course, Palin wasn’t immune to criticism either. The cost of her clothing and accessories  was scrutinized. Palin herself recognized the issue and was quoted as saying, " [It’s about] superficial things that they don't talk about with men, her wardrobe and her hairstyles. That's a bit of that double standard.”

Also, in the political realm, a news story recently highlighted the dress code for women covering the House of Representatives, where women were turned away from the “Speaker’s lobby” (a room designated for reporters) for wearing sleeveless dresses. It was considered inappropriate for shoulders to be uncovered, even in a hot and humid location like Washington, DC.

In the corporate arena, a recent issue of the St. Louis Business Journal proclaimed the advancement of women in St. Louis public companies. There were many laudatory articles on local women’s corporate advancement. However, in that same issue, an advertisement for a program on “Manners & Makeovers” offered to educate women on presenting a polished personal appearance, including the application of makeup for a professional daytime look.  The program was part of Maryville University’s “Women & Leadership” offering. Seriously? A University considering proper makeup part of women’s leadership?  Get your makeup right and you, too, can climb the corporate ladder?  Is Maryville’s sponsorship tantamount to agreeing that a woman should be judged by her looks? Or is it simply acknowledging how the world works and teaching women to cope with the (admittedly unfair) standards we are stuck with for the time being?

In exploring several religious areas, the “Manners & Makeovers” expert touts her involvement with a Catholic organization, Pure Fashion, which seeks to create a “fun, exciting and effective virtue formation program” for young girls.  The organization considers itself part of the “Modesty Movement” for women and girls. One of the core members of the Pure Fashion team, Brenda Shaman, shared her testimony of “her conversion to the Catholic Church, and how she invited Christ into her closet!”

Macy’s Department Stores recently discovered the lucrative Muslim market and have created a line of fashionable clothing incorporating the hijab. The hijab (headscarf) is somewhat controversial. Some see it as either positive or innocuous: a part of a religiously encouraged form of modesty, allowing women to be free from the lustful gazes of men. For other women, particularly American women, it is a symbol of oppression.

Looking at celebrities in the media, the female attendees at the Grammys and Golden Globes award shows are criticized for exposed cleavage, thighs and transparent gowns.

What does a modern woman choose—modesty or sexual objectification? How is the female political candidate to balance being likeable and exhibiting strength? Pants or short skirts?  Smiles or strong words? How is the Hollywood aspiring actress to pursue her need to be seen and appeal to casting directors? Is her sexual self-objectification necessary to procure publicity to advance her career?

Who constructs and maintains these dress codes?  Paul Ryan in the House of Representatives? Harvey Weinstein’s successors in Hollywood? The Catholic Church? Islam? A “Modesty and Manners” expert? If women hide their bodies, are they serving patriarchal interests?  Or if women flaunt their beautiful bodies and become sexual objects, who does that serve? I suggest both options serve men.

Do these conflicted attitudes about proper women’s attire mirror our cultural conflict about women as leaders?  Should women adopt the burqa so that our bodies are hidden and only our faces are visible? Or should we just take classes on the proper daytime professional makeup?  These are weighty questions to be considered with the utmost deliberation.   

A better question might be, why are women’s wardrobes being policed? Women have been oppressed by the continual and conflicting judgments of what is and what is not proper attire.    Who invited the patriarchy into our closets?  I don’t think he was invited, but he keeps elbowing his way in.

If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?: Living In The Middle Of History

by Rebecca Now

It was one hundred years ago, 1917, when the first woman penetrated that all-male body, the U.S. House of Representatives. Jeannette Rankin, Republican of Montana, took her seat on March 4, 1917. Imagine her walking to her seat that day. I wonder, did her new colleagues provide her a warm welcome or did they snub her? So here we are, in 2017. Have we “come a long way, baby,” as the vintage 1968 ad slogan for a cigarette marketed to women proclaimed?

The Road Ahead for Women

By Rebecca Now


What was life like for American women 100 years ago? Women couldn’t vote unless they lived in one of 11 states. College education was rare, and only a few colleges would admit women. Most professions were closed to women, and the ones that were open to women paid half of what a man made. Contraceptives were unreliable, if they could be found at all, so most likely life revolved around pregnancy and child rearing.


In 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and 300 others rode their horse and buggies to the Wellesley Chapel in Seneca Falls, NY for the first Women’s Rights Convention, the status of women was decidedly unequal. By law, their wages belonged to their fathers or husbands. They could not inherit property. Children were exclusively the custody of fathers and women were denied access to higher education. Many professions were closed to them. It was not proper for women to speak in public. They had no right to vote. Laws of couverture were in effect, meaning that the husband covered his wife as a legal entity. A woman essentially had the legal status of a child, with the exception that she could be criminally charged, yet unable to serve on a jury, or speak on her own behalf in a court. Women have made enormous gains since then, in the realms of politics, education, economics, reproductive rights and family policy, but have such a long way to go in certain areas.


In the political realm, women won a hard fought, arduous, and long battle to gain the right to vote nationwide in 1920. From petitioning to civil disobedience, with endless referendum battles, lobbying efforts, parades, protests and jail time, the vote was finally granted to women. Over two million women were actively engaged in this movement, a rare moment of coming together over one issue which has not been seen since. After this great victory 98 years ago, nothing much changed. Women were not active voters immediately after the 19th Amendment passed, but now they are more likely to vote than men.


Women have been slow to serve in elected offices. Women before the 1960s were often appointed to congressional offices to fill a term of a deceased husband, until the advent of the trailblazers of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Schoeder, Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan and Olympia Snow. Then, in 1985, EMILY’s List pioneered in fundraising exclusively for women candidates, and Barbara Mikulski was elected to the Senate. The testimony by Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas judicial confirmation hearings in 1991, and her treatment by the all male Senate Judiciary committee, angered and galvanized women to run for office, and a new wave of women were sworn into office the following year. In 2007, Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first female speaker of the house.


In January 2017, women were 19.4 % of the 115th congress, up from 2.8% in 1971. In state legislatures, the picture is a little brighter, with women holding 24.8% of the seats. Yes, there has been progress, but considering that women are 53% of the population, women have made slow, incremental movement, and have failed to achieve critical mass.


According to political science research, there appears to be an “ambition gap” for women running for office, and there is “gendered psyche” among eligible candidates. Women think they must be twice as good as a man to compete, women have lower estimates of their qualifications, hold themselves to a higher standard of qualifications to run, and women tend to doubt they can win if they run. Despite evidence that when women do run, they stand an equal chance with men of winning, women are less likely to become candidates in the first place. Women need to be encouraged to run, and have a supportive partner.


There is evidence that women are angered and galvanized by the 2016 presidential election loss of Hillary Clinton to an inexperienced man accused of sexual harassment. They are running for office in record numbers in the 2018 elections. Many organizations have sprung up to recruit, train, and fundraise for these women.


The political arena is where the action is to effect change in many other realms. In state legislatures, where women hold an average of 24.8% of seats, there are three states with 40% female office holders: Nevada, Vermont, and Arizona. State legislative seats will be vitally important in 2020, when the census is taken, and congressional district lines will be redrawn following shifts in population. If women want to make progress, the state legislatures are the place to start.


Women have certainly made long strides toward equality in the United States. It is in the political realm where the leverage is needed to make further changes in education, economics, fertility and family policies. It is clearly the area of concentration for future gains.

We have come a long way since 1848 on the road to equality, but the road ahead is just as important.


Let’s Celebrate Our History!





Women Who Mean Business – Now and Then
by Rebecca Now


Since the Women’s Journal encourages and supports women entrepreneurs, I thought it would be fun to examine two St. Louis women entrepreneurs from history, one in the 19th century and one in the 20th century, who both made a fortune and became philanthropists.