Tuesday, February 19, 2013

War, Prostitution and Protestant Reformers


In May 1919, in  a deferred Annual General Meeting of the Montreal Suffrage Association voted to disband in order that a bilingual group could be set up to fight the Provincial Suffrage Battle.

After all, Borden had given most Canadian women the federal franchise in 1918.

No mention is made in the minutes of who attended this meeting, (against the rules of governance) although a letter to the Editor of the Montreal Gazette questioning the disbandment claimed only 9 members (out of 300 membership) showed up.

There was only one dissenting vote, that of Mrs. Fenwick-Williams, the Press Secretary, an author, and also the only member of the Executive who was a pure suffragist and not a Social Reformer with other fish to fry -as in ulterior motives for wanting women to have the vote.

Perhaps  Fenwick-Williams was the one who wrote that anonymous letter to the editor of the Montreal Gazette wondering about the break up of the Association and asking why the funds remaining in the treasure was going to help 'mental defectives.'

(In 1917 or 18, Carrie Derick offers to give a talk on the connection between mental defectives and social vice, but only as a fund-raiser of the MSA. She believed that about half of prostitutes were mentally defective.)

This little financial item isn't mentioned in the 1919 minutes of the Montreal Suffrage Association, but then something else important isn't mentioned in the minutes, the fact that the  the Montreal Suffrage Association  sent a letter to the Montreal Council of Women in 1918 asking that prostitution around soldiers barracks be halted with active intervention, by women police etc.

That didn't have much to do with woman suffrage (except for the fact that many suffragists, including the British Suffragettes, thought that prostitution or the traffic in women would be stopped as soon as women got the vote. Christobel Pankhurst's the Great Scourge, about venereal disease was a big seller for the MSA.)

As it happens, Rev. Dr. Symonds of Christ Church Cathedral was the pre-eminent man on the Executive of the Montreal Suffrage Association.

During the later war years, 1918, 1919,  he was also the head of the Committee of Sixteen a group looking into "commercialized vice" in Montreal.

The Committee published a  report in 1919 (Dr. Atherton presented it to the Exec of the Montreal Council of Women)showing how widespread this commercialized vice was in the city.

The report is available online and it is pretty DRY. So no one paid attention.  But a few years later in 1923, a  Dr. A.K. Haywood of the Montreal General (and formerly of the Canadian Army Medical Service)  gave a 'sensational' speech to the Canadian Club, describing drug-addled prostitutes in vivid terms, which set a fire under High Society and brought on the Coderre Inquiry into Police Malfeasance and Misconduct, which ended up fingering my grandfather, Jules Crepeau, the Director of City Services, not for abetting prostitution, but for forcing police to look the other way when underage patrons (mostly boys) went to the cinema alone. In the minds of Protestant Reformers, all vice is connected.



Representatives of the Committee of Sixteen, which now included the Rotary Club, stormed City Hall in January 1923 and my grandfather was there to greet them. If the Reformers couldn't change city hall the democratic way, through elections, they'd do it this way, I supposed.

The Coderre Inquiry ended up costing a lot of money - it took two years and covered all aspects of vice in the City, including the evil of the cinema. The final report was 10,000 pages.



I suspect that this all got started with the Wartime efforts to stem prostitution near the barracks of our young impressionable soldiers, who needed to be protected from sex and booze, but not from seeing their comrades blown to bits beside them in the trenches. The Reformers were keen on getting as many Canadian boys to the front as possible.

I suspect the reformers felt this was a cagey way to get social purity reforms through, by starting with the problem of the soldiers. In wartime the rules changed. If suffragists could get their hands dirty doing war work, because it was needed, they could get directly involved with social problems too, especially if you could link it to war work, even if that wasn't exactly their mandate.

The mission of the Montreal Suffrage Association was to Promote Suffrage. That's all. Theoretically, universal suffrage would give a voice to the Prostitutes (however retarded sic) as well as the Society Ladies.

(I'm reminded of a very strange quote from Carrie Derick, in the 1930's. We need laws for the worst people; the best don't need them. Yikes!)

Anyway, the report of the Coderre Inquiry came out in 1925 or early 26 and it eventually ended up being read out in the United States Senate (by a former Ontario attorney general) at their Hearings into Prohibition and the testimony was reprinted full-page in the New York Times.

Milk and Water is my story about 1927 Montreal.

It seems McGill University held an exhibition in 2009 on the Committee of Sixteen's efforts and the write up is here.

They consider it a bi-partisan effort...Protestant/Catholic/Jewish.