Letter From an Ex-Prostitute

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Our Daily Lives page presents excerpts of women’s autobiographies, essays, letters, journals, diaries, oral histories and testimony with the hopes our readers will respond to the authentic emotions and ideas, see a connection to their own lives, and write or email us a note. Women’s Enews will post selected reactions from our readers for all to read.

This week we present an excerpt from “The Maimie Papers: Letters from an Ex-Prostitute,” The Feminist Press. Maimie lived in Philadelphia at the turn of the century and the book is comprised of her correspondence with a prominent and socially concerned woman from Boston. The author turned to prostitution after her father died–first to pay a library fine, and later as one of the few means of support available to working-class women of her period. While hospitalized for syphilis, Maimie was introduced to her Boston friend through a minister trying to convert Maimie from Judaism to Christianity. Mamie never changed faiths but the two women struck up a decade-long correspondence.

February or March 1911

I was so glad for both your letters today. I was anxiously awaiting the mail that would bring your letter. After I have written you my mind will be clear, and I will soon sleep.

I think I shall first answer the questions you ask in your letter. As to why [my husband] Albert had to stop work: He was working for a contractor who had “weather strips” to put on each window and door for one of the largest estates in this city and probably in the U.S.A. The estate is divided into sections, and the men finished one section Saturday week, and they were told to report Monday morning at a second section.

When they came, they found they could not go on, as the “Weather-Strip” had got mixed up into some “red tape” and the men were all laid off and told they would be notified by letter as soon as the work started in again. Of course they all are looking for other work, as this may mean six months waiting.

Now as to the job I wrote you I thought I might get. It was a correspondent’s position with Curtis Publishing Company, answering letters to persons making inquiries about wanting to sell the Ladies Home Journal or the Saturday Evening Post.

I felt I could do that work satisfactorily, so when I was asked to call, I went, and the manager told me that out of twenty-five or thirty answers he had received in answer to his ad, he had only written four of the applicants to come in.

I made out a general application, and then I was given three letters to answer, and while they told me the other three girls would have to answer the same letters, all other things being equal, the girl answering the letters best would have the position.

Somehow, I felt the job was mine, such was my confidence in my answers–and sure enough, the next day, in the first mail, I was told to come in “prepared to go to work provided my references were satisfactory.”

I then went the day following and had to go through a lot of red tape, and answered almost a hundred questions. You see, they keep a close account of each of their employees.

On the top of this printed employees’ record was a bunch of printing in reference to the Curtis Publishing Company, but I did not stop to read it. I handed in my “record,” and when the manager said, “Did you get it all filled out?” I said, “Yes, although I had to leave several questions unanswered because either I do not know just what to say, or for obvious reasons.” He then glanced down it and came to this:

Are you married or single?-Married. How long have you been married?-5 years. Are you divorced?- Are you suing for divorce?- On what ground?- How long is it since you have not been living with your husband?

Of course I left the above questions unanswered for obvious reasons. The manager then said: “Now, here are some you overlooked,” and I explained that I hadn’t, but that since I was living with my husband and there was no separation of any sort, I did not answer the questions.

He looked at me so strange then, and said, “Did you fill out one of the employee’s applications for positions when you came to apply?” and I told him I had. Well, he then told me that had I read the list of rules which the Company had, I would understand his astonishment, for there was quite a few of them printed on the application.

He then got [the application] and, imagine my disappointment when he pointed out a rule, which was somewhat as follows-“the Curtis Publishing Company under no conditions will employ a woman who is married and still living with her husband.”

Of course I was terribly disappointed, for somehow I had made up my mind that the position was mine–for it was one I could have held better than any other sort. I told this to Miss Outerbridge and she said she was glad I had not lied. I was obliged to tell her that I am afraid had I seen this printed rule, I should have lied–for I wanted the work so badly, and coming just as it did when Albert lost work again.

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