The Freedom of the Streets

Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City

By Sharon E. Wood

344 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 22 illus., 3 maps, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5601-7
    Published: April 2005
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-7653-4
    Published: March 2006
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7131-2
    Published: March 2006

Gender and American Culture

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Awards & distinctions

2006 Benjamin H. Shambaugh Award, State Historical Society of Iowa

Gilded Age cities offered extraordinary opportunities to women--but at a price. As clerks, factory hands, and professionals flocked downtown to earn a living, they alarmed social critics and city fathers, who warned that self-supporting women were just steps away from becoming prostitutes. With in-depth research possible only in a mid-sized city, Sharon E. Wood focuses on Davenport, Iowa, to explore the lives of working women and the prostitutes who shared their neighborhoods.

The single, self-supporting women who migrated to Davenport in the years following the Civil War saw paid labor as the foundation of citizenship. They took up the tools of public and political life to assert the respectability of paid employment and to confront the demon of prostitution. Wood offers cradle-to-grave portraits of individual girls and women--both prostitutes and "respectable" white workers--seeking to reshape their city and expand women's opportunities. As Wood demonstrates, however, their efforts to rewrite the sexual politics of the streets met powerful resistance at every turn from men defending their political rights and sexual power.

About the Author

Sharon E. Wood is associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She has edited two volumes, The Underworld Sewer: A Prostitute Reflects on Life in the Trade, 1871-1909, by Josie Washburn, and A Home in the West, or Emigration and Its Consequences, by M. Emilia Rockwell.

For more information about Sharon E. Wood, visit the Author Page.


"A meticulous and imaginative use of sources. . . . A remarkably rich and nuanced portrait of Davenport's prostitutes. . . . Packed with compelling and richly detailed vignettes."--Business History Review

"Contributes significantly to the extant literature on prostitution in the late-nineteenth-century United States. . . . A fascinating read."--Journal of the History of Sexuality

"Valuable. . . . A model for grounding us in the larger geography of human interaction that lies at the heart of the history of sexuality."--Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

"[A] skillful excavation of lives of Davenport's middle-class working women/reformers, prostitutes, and public men. . . . Wood's analysis of the relationship of middle-class working women and the city's lower class women involved in sex commerce reveals new insights into the lives of each."--Western Historical Quarterly

"Wood masterfully unearths a striking set of women on the wrong side of Davenport's line of respectability, and she situates these wayward girls and prostitutes in a shared urban space with that other group of independent women of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the civic-minded reformers. Wood's research base is terrific and rich, bringing scores of women to life and putting Davenport's geography of sex and feminism on the historical map."--Patricia Cline Cohen, University of California, Santa Barbara

"This book makes an important contribution to the growing literature on urban women at the turn of the century, the modernization of the city, the history of sexuality, and Gilded Age/Progressive Era politics. Wood has done truly remarkable research that has enabled her to give us colorful, cradle-to-grave portraits of her key characters. These portraits significantly shift our understanding of who local and state level professional women and women's movement leaders were and how they operated."--Sarah Deutsch, Duke University