(WOMENSENEWS)–In the 1970s, feminists were prone to disrupting all-male groups considering legislation affecting women and insisting that they hear from actual women.

In 1971, the question on the table in New York City was prostitution, which some liberals sought to make legal. Demonstrators interrupted a legislative committee hearing to argue against legalizing what, in Susan Brownmiller’s words, was not a victimless crime.

“There is a victim,” she said, “and that is the woman.” No one should have the right to buy another person’s body, she believed.

Women’s groups called a weekend conference in December for further exploration of the subject. Speaker after distinguished speaker theorized about economic injustice, male privilege and exploitation.

When actual prostitutes walked in, a near-brawl ensued. The prostitutes saw the feminists as “judgmental, meddlesome and ignorant,” called them
“tight-a—-” and yelled about threats to their livelihood. Chaos descended

A more productive outcome occurred in California, where Margo St. James–calling herself a feminist and a “whore” organized a group called WHO–“Whores, Housewives and Others,” soon to become an international advocacy organization for prostitutes’ rights called COYOTE–“Call Off Your Tired Old Ethics.” By 1973, the National Organization for Women was calling for “decriminalization” of prostitution.

The provocative issues raised in the 70s ranged from whether it was “better” for a woman to be a wage drudge or to sell her body, to whether “sisterhood” could be embraced between sex worker and non sex worker, to questions of police harassment, court penalties and safety. Most of these debates were swept away by the AIDS epidemic, the anti-pornography movement and the growing conservative quality of American life.

Margo St. James left the country in the mid-80s, but returned in recent years to run for municipal office in San Francisco and to start a health clinic for “sex workers.” To some activists, placing “feminist” and “prostitute” in the same sentence was a quixotic dream; to others, it may still come true.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.”