Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Bessie Mae Boatwright
|Bessie Mae Boatwright|
|Born||Bessie Mae Boatwright|
|Cause of death||Unknown|
|Resting place||Glenwood Cemetery, Houston, Texas|
Bessie Mae Boatwright
Bessie Mae Boatwright (born circa 1920) was a White American prostitute during the Great Depression. She was born in Kentucky, but resided in Paris, Tennessee for at least a portion of her adult life. She was interviewed by Nellie Gray Toler for the Federal Writers Project in 1938.
Boatwright, along with her four younger siblings, was raised by her mother, Cora Boatwright, who was also prostitute. Boatwright was six years older than her sister, Margie; eight years older than her next sister, Ruth; nine years older than her only brother, Billy, and 12 years older than her youngest sister, Ruby Lee. Billy was crippled in an unknown manner. Billy was crippled in an unknown manner, however his benefitted the family — he would receive a free business course because of his disability.
Boatwright frequently assisted her parents in bootlegging as a child. It is unclear whether her parents were ever caught for the act, but Boatwright assumed the majority of the responsibility as she got older.
When Boatwright was young, her parents’ marriage was defined by both verbal and physical conflict. The Boatwright parents often fought, especially when drunk.
While married, Cora Boatwright frequently performed sexual acts for money, but her husband was not angry because he used the extra money to fund his drinking habit. Boatwright’s father was killed after Cora Boatwright had a secret relationship with a married man. The father of the married man’s wife killed Boatwright’s father in retaliation.
Boatwright lived with her mother for the rest of her childhood, and remembered little of her father.
Reaching her teenage years during the peak of the Great Depression, Boatwright found a relatively reliable source of income in prostitution — which she presumed her younger sisters would follow, as well.
Boatwright saw little use in marriage. Instead, she intended to continue her work as a prostitute for the rest of her adult life.
“I could git a job down here at the Shirt Factory because I’m pretty. But why would I work when the men are meal tickets? When I want some money, I git me a date and throw a party,” she said in her interview with Toler.
Boatwright enjoyed her work as a prostitute, and had no concerns of being arrested.
Boatwright initially dismissed any possibility of learning business or working in a factory.In her interview with Nellie Gray Toler, Boatwright contradicted herself in her desire to leave her profession for business. She was not sure if she would continue as a prostitute for the rest of her life or eventually learn business and take up a more legitimate career. Her confidence and success motivated her to remain in prostitution.
Prostitution in the Great Depression
Women faced frequent accusations of stealing jobs from men during the Great Depression. They also experienced difficulties in gaining respect in the workforce. Avoiding these accusations and lack of respect, many women resorted to a profession that reinforced the time period’s strict gender roles: prostitution.
Many poor women shifted to prostitution during the Great Depression, particularly due to its ability to provide a sustainable income in a struggling American economy. According to Allen Tate, it was both notably easier than working in a factory and more profitable. Both white and black women worked as prostitutes during the Great Depression, and even alongside each other. In fact, one of the most prominent cross-racial connections among the working class of the time was sex.
Neither black nor white women during the Great Depression held significant roles of power or influence in society, but black women were worse off. While white women like Boatwright often consciously chose to live a life of prostitution, their black counterparts often had no such choice. It was unsafe for black women to protest their coercion — often enforced by white men — into their career.
Prohibition and Bootlegging
The rise of prohibition is deeply rooted in late 19th century American society. Christian churches gained increased power and relevance in society, which, with the exception of the Catholic church, opposed alcohol consumption. Combined with an increase in liquor consumption in the latter portion of the century, anti-alcohol sentiment grew.
Opponents of alcohol consumption gained notoriety throughout the 19th century. Carrie Nation and various religious and rural-values organizations rose to popularity and further pushed for an alcohol ban.
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was an organization advocating for woman’s suffrage and Christian values. The WCTU advocated for prohibition on the basis of religious and social reform.
The 18th amendment was ratified in 1919, beginning prohibition in the United States.
Prohibition was met with contempt and bootlegging. Organized crime and speakeasies facilitated the distribution and consumption of alcohol during prohibition.
The Tennessee government sought to crack down on bootlegging in the 1920s. Sentiment among people was against prohibition, but Tennessee police officers supported its enforcement and punishment of bootleggers.
The 21st amendment repealed the 18th amendment in 1933.
- "Tennessee Census Population Schedule," Ancestry.com, last modified September 30, 2017
- Interview, Bessie Mae Boatwright to Nellie Gray Toler, December 8, 1938, folder 969, Coll. 03709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Margaret Hobbs, “Equality and Difference: Feminism and the Defence of Women Workers during the Great Depression,” Labour / Le Travail, 1993.
- Allen Tate, "The Problem of the Unemployed: A Modest Proposal." New England Review, 2001.
- Dana Frank, "White Working-Class Women and the Race Question." International Labor and Working-Class History, 1998.
- J A Rogers, “Impressions of Dixie: Garveyism and the N.A.A.C.P. in the South Miscegenation and Prostitution Rampant.” The New York Amsterdam News, December 29, 1926.
- S. J. Mennell, "Prohibition: A Sociological View." Journal of American Studies, 1969.
- John D Erwin, "Tennessee now dryer than ever, says U.S. agent." Nashville Tennessean, December 12, 1922.
Erwin, John D. "Tennessee now dryer than ever, says U.S. agent." Nashville Tennessean, December 12, 1922. https://search.proquest.com/docview/920700614/C396F1D903ED4123PQ/1?accountid=14244.
Folder 969: Toler, Nellie Gray (interview): Bessie Mae Boatwright, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Frank, Dana. "White Working-Class Women and the Race Question." International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 54 (1998): 80-102. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27672502.
Hobbs, Margaret. "Equality and Difference: Feminism and the Defence of Women Workers during the Great Depression." Labour / Le Travail 32 (1993): 201-23. doi:10.2307/25143731.
Mennell, S. J. "Prohibition: A Sociological View." Journal of American Studies 3, no. 2 (1969): 159-75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27552891.
Rogers, J A. “Impressions of Dixie: Garveyism and the N.A.A.C.P. in the South Miscegenation and Prostitution Rampant.” The New York Amsterdam News, December 29, 1926. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/226248566?accountid=14244.
Tate, Allen. "The Problem of the Unemployed: A Modest Proposal." New England Review (1990-) 22, no. 3 (2001): 153-64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40243999.
Tennessee. Henry County. 1940 U.S. Census, population schedule. Digital images. Ancestry.com. September 30, 2017. http://ancestry.com