Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2015/Fall/Section 020/Bessie Mae Boatwright

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Bessie Mae Boatwright
ResidenceParis, Tennessee
OccupationProstitute, Buzzard's Roost

Overview[edit | edit source]

Nellie Toler interviewed Bessie Mae Boatwright as part of the Federals Writers Project. Boatwright was a prostitute who lived through the Great Depression. Prohibition and prostitution heavily influenced her life.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Bessie Mae Boatwright was born in 1919. At nineteen years old she was living in Paris, Tennessee. She was the oldest of five children. Her youngest brother was crippled because of a fight between her drunken parents. Boatwright's parents were bootleggers: people who illegally transported and sold alcohol during prohibition in the United States. Boatwright began bootlegging and drinking alcohol from a young age. She learned to carry liquor from house to house in market baskets wrapped in clothes to avoid being caught. When Boatwright was a child, her mother cheated on her father. Soon after, the father-in-law of the man her mother cheated with murdered Boatwright's father. [1]

Professional Life[edit | edit source]

Boatwright dropped out of school after eighth grade and became a prostitute at the age of thirteen. After her neighbors caught her having sex with a man for money, Boatwright served time in an institution. It is unclear whether the institution was a mental hospital or a prison. Boatwright did not believe that the institution was helpful since she intended on remaining a prostitute, but she enjoyed taking business classes during her time there. In order to provide for herself, Boatwright had sex with many different men. She worked at a brothel called Buzzard’s Roost. She also lived in the house and her mother and sisters visited her often. She recalled that her mother and oldest sister were accustomed to seeing her drunk and lying in bed with men and that it was a part of their every day life. Boatwright’s oldest sister aimed to become a prostitute. Boatwright enjoyed her job. She had other professional options, such as becoming a worker in a shirt factory, but chose to remain a prostitute for the stable income. [2]

Prostitution During the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

Causes of Prostitution During the Depression[edit | edit source]

During the 1930s prostitution was on the rise in the United States. One researcher, Holly Allen, writes that prostitution “came to symbolize broader anxieties having to do with urbanization, mass consumption, and class and gender roles.” The surge in prostitution showcased the hardships that came with increased urbanization. Women had sex for money because prostitution reflected their traditional gender role of "sex-object." [3] Many Americans were concerned about the rising rates of prostitution and blamed them on increasing unemployment due to the Depression. Throughout the Great Depression, women found themselves at the lowest ends of the socioeconomic scale. They had to find ways of providing for themselves and the number of legitimate jobs available was limited. Many women turned to prostitution in order to have a place to sleep and to buy food for themselves. [4]

Urbanization and Prostitution[edit | edit source]

In addition to economic reasons, changes in traditional family life and the growing appeal of urban life contributed to the increase in prostitution. A lot of women found that prostitution made them feel glamorous and allowed them an independence that they did not have before. Prostitution during the Depression foreshadowed the possibility of a reversal in established economic roles for men and women. However, many people attributed the rise in prostitution to weak and fallen women. During this time, social policies that affected women reflected these beliefs. They showed that “widespread preoccupation with prostitution obscured women's real relief needs and disadvantaged them relative to men.” [5] Prostitution rates continued to rise throughout the Depression but have fallen since then.

Prohibition in the United States[edit | edit source]

Beginning of Prohibition[edit | edit source]

The idea of prohibition in the United States began in the late 1700s with the Temperance Movement. Tennessee was the first state in the nation to pass a prohibition law. In 1838, it outlawed the sale of alcoholic beverages in all stores and taverns.The History Channel. [6] However, it was not until 1920 that prohibition went into full effect across the US with the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. The Eighteenth Amendment made the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” illegal in the US. [7]

Many people disregarded the Eighteenth Amendment and alcohol soon reached high prices on the black market. While the wealthy spent their time in speakeasies and gin joints, working-class people began to manufacture and sell alcohol out of their homes. Those who illegally transported alcohol were called bootleggers. Bootlegging became increasingly popular and although the practice was illegal, bootleggers were rarely prosecuted because prohibition was hardly enforced by the government. [8]

End of Prohibition[edit | edit source]

The lack of enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment eventually led to its repeal in 1933. After a few years of prohibition it was clear that “the high price of bootleg liquor meant that the nation’s working class and poor were far more restricted during Prohibition than middle or upper class Americans.” [9] Therefore, it was politically feasible to end prohibition. The legalization of the manufacture and sale of alcohol would lead to more jobs for Americans and more revenue for the US government, which was crucial throughout the Great Depression. The Twenty-First Amendment to the US Constitution passed in 1933 and completely repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. [10]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Interview. Nellie Toler of Bessie Mae Boatwright. December 8, 1938. Folder 969. Coll. 03709. Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940. Wilson Library. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://www2.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/f/Federal_Writers'Project.html.
  2. Interview. Nellie Toler of Bessie Mae Boatwright. December 8, 1938. Folder 969. Coll. 03709. Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940. Wilson Library. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://www2.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/f/Federal_Writers'Project.html.
  3. Allen, Holly. “Prostitution.” Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004: 775-777. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.dop=GVRL&u=unc_main&id=GALE%7CCX3404500430&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&userGroup=unc_main&authCount=1.
  4. Post, Ian. Popular Culture’s Ambivalence Toward Female Anatomy: The Great Depression. Scholar Works: 2012. http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1034&context=gvjh.
  5. Allen, Holly. “Prostitution.” Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004: 775-777. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&u=unc_main&id=GALE%7CCX3404500430&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&userGroup=unc_main&authCount=1.
  6. “Tennessee Passes Nation’s First Prohibition Law.” THC, 2015. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/tennessee-passes-nations-first-prohibition-law.
  7. Moore, Andrew. “Prohibition.” Encyclopedia of Religion in America. Washington DC: CQ Press, 2010: 1780-1782. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&u=unc_main&id=GALE%7CCX1725800284&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&userGroup=unc_main&authCount=1.
  8. Anderson, Lisa. Prohibition and its Effects. NYC: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History 2015. http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/roaring-twenties/essays/prohibition.
  9. The History Channel. “Prohibition.” THC, 2009. http://www.history.com/topics/prohibition.
  10. The History Channel. “Prohibition.” THC, 2009. http://www.history.com/topics/prohibition.