The anonymous woman above starred in an erotic featurette film in the 1920s. Like her, and most of the sex workers of the time, Alice Smith's true identity remains unknown. (YouTube/@ChristopherWest)
Nobody knows the true identity of Alice Smith, or exactly where she came from. But in 1913, her account of living on the margins of society as a young woman, and selling sex to survive, shook the foundations of Bay Area society. In her first-person column titled "A Voice From the Underworld" for the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper, Smith humanized sex work and changed perceptions about women in “the life” for thousands of readers. And it happened just as California brothels faced unprecedented legal threats.
Smith hailed from a small town in the Midwest, where she was raised on a farm by her maternal grandparents after her mother died and her father moved away with a new wife. At 11, Smith dropped out of school, having fallen behind in class because her “eyes started to get bad,” and her grandparents “didn’t know about such things as glasses for children.” Later, in her teens, and frustrated by the limited employment options in her hometown, Smith accepted an invitation from her paternal grandmother to move to Northern California.
Once on the coast, Smith was stunned to find that the available work was woefully underpaid. Despite working long, exhausting days in a laundry, she was forced to skip meals in order to pay rent. In a moment of desperation, while still in her teens, Smith fell into sex work almost entirely on a whim. Early on, she made her own schedule, making brief returns to waitressing when jobs were available. But within a couple of years, she was residing and working full-time in brothels. At the time she shared her story with the Bulletin, Smith was living in a brothel on Commercial Street, close to the newspaper offices.
Smith's story—which ran six days a week for almost two months—was remarkable in its scope, candidness and relatability. "Evidently a prostitute was one who sold herself for money," Smith pondered after having sex with a client for the first time. "Well, I wondered, was there anybody in the world, according to that, who didn't sell herself or himself for money? Didn't everybody supply some demand, in some more or less disagreeable way?"
Reading Smith's account, one is struck by how few choices were available to women at the time—especially working-class women. Marriage to the first man who came along and a life of household gruntwork didn't appeal to Smith. ("As soon as a girl married, she stopped growing, stopped learning, stopping thinking, stopped going ahead any; just gave up and became a drudge," she wrote.) At the same time, living alone in boarding houses and tolerating a life of underpaid manual labor was also grim. ("I would go to bed at night so tired I could hardly walk," Smith reported of her time at the laundry. "I would get up in the morning pretty near as tired—with all the time that empty gnawing feeling at my stomach.") Selling sex was literally the only means Smith found, as an uneducated single woman, to crawl out of poverty.
Smith's columns also explored how simply being a woman meant being subjected to the sexual whims of men, whether one was in the sex trade or not. "There was always something that seemed to come into the minds of men whenever I was alone with them," she reported. "It gave me the queerest feeling—as if I was always going to be sort of hunted. As if I was never going to be safe, never off my guard, always bound to be chased by some man."
For Smith, almost no topic was off the table. She talked plainly about corrupt police officers; about the list of people that brothel madams had to pay to keep their doors open; and about her own harrowing experiences with illegal abortion. "Underworld women don't have any friends who will prosecute in case of death," she said of her first termination. "I didn't come far from dying. Of course, that doctor didn't think I was worth much to the world, and didn't give me proper care after the worst part was through; and it was just luck that brought me out finally without blood poisoning."
In her accounts, the only details Smith ever shied away from were the ones related to her sexual encounters with clients. But one of the things that made her column so impactful was its ability to relay brothel life without resorting to salacious details. "Night after night it was the same," she said of her first group house. "Men coming in, with their talk, ordering drinks ... and that constant flow of dirty language from both men and women—curses, vile songs, the smell of whiskey and of disinfectants; and later in the evening, the 'work.'" At times, she admitted, her reliance on alcohol and tobacco made her "miserably ill."
Despite reliving some of the most painful parts of her life there, Smith was said to have liked coming into the newspaper's office to tell her story. (She dictated it to Bulletin employees, whose notes were then passed to senior journalist Ernest Hopkins, who ghost-wrote it.) The newspaper staff, in turn, is said to have adored her. Years after the column ran, newspaperman John D. Barry described Smith as "a girl of medium height, slim and quietly dressed, with refined, rather pretty features and a gentle manner. [She talked] briskly and smiling. What chiefly impressed me about her was the sincerity of all her remarks and her ways."
Bulletin publisher Fremont Older was so enamored with Smith, in fact, he is said to have openly wept after his first meeting with her. Older subsequently developed a greater interest in creating a platform for marginalized voices in his newspaper. This is, in part, what led to his decision to publish so many of the letters that poured into the Bulletin once Smith's "A Voice From the Underworld" column started running.
All told, the paper received 4,000 letters—an unprecedented outpouring—and the Bulletin printed 291 of them. Of those that made it into print, 114 came from Smith's fellow sex workers who, inspired by her straightforward manner, wrote in to speak their minds. "You like to save us," one told the general public. "Pray, why do you not save the factory girl, who works from eight to twelve hours a day for a mere pittance? She ruins herself as quickly—I mean in body—as we do."
Other women wrote in to share their own impossible living situations, and the temptation to stray into the underworld. "When one goes to bed hungry many times," one wrote, "the demarcation between right and wrong becomes much less in evidence."
For the San Francisco Bulletin to give a major platform to so many of the city's sex workers was important in 1913, and not just for the personal expression of women in the profession. It also gave them voice at a time when their fate was being determined by moral crusaders, politicians and people who knew little about them. Just two months before Smith's series began, on April 7, 1913, the Red Light Abatement and Injunction Act—designed to shut down brothels—was signed into law by California Governor Hiram Johnson. In San Francisco, where 63.9% of residents opposed it, the law was greeted with vocal objections and legal efforts to block its passage. "A Story From the Underworld" highlighted just how much the law would endanger women who were reliant on the sex trade for survival.
In the end, Smith's essays weren't only essential in humanizing and understanding the motivations of sex workers. They also instantly started an open conversation about the damage wrought by sexism, classism and gender double standards in not just the Bay Area, but the entire United States.
In one column halfway through the series, Smith casually noted: "People can never understand the class below them." But by the time her story was done, she had single-handedly changed that. Nowhere was that more obvious than in a letter printed in the Bulletin in response to Smith's story.
As the letter-writer 'A Married Woman' wrote, "I obey [my husband] because he supports me. I don't know how to earn a living in any other way. So I have a great sympathy for women who must depend not on the whims and passions of one man in a day, but of ten ... I sometimes think that if we wives ever told our story it would be as horrible as that of Alice Smith ... For the first time, women of the upper world really understand how much they have in common with women of the underworld."