Philanthropy, Politics, and the White Slave Trade in Belle Époque France

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 2:30 PM
Lenox Ballroom (Sheraton New York)
Eliza Earle Ferguson, University of New Mexico
Around the turn of the twentieth century, an unlikely alliance of feminist philanthropists and conservative politicians made France the leader in creating the first international convention against the so-called “white slave trade.”  Although France was one of the few European countries that still maintained a system of state-sponsored brothels, the French government sponsored a series of international diplomatic congresses culminating in the unprecedented coordination of criminal laws and procedures among fifteen countries in 1910.

This paper contends that France’s leadership in the international arena was the result of longstanding activism primarily by women intent on protecting working-class girls from sexual danger. Women’s philanthropic organizations such as the Union international des amies de la jeune fille (International Union of Female Friends of the Young Girl) directly inspired politicians like Senators René Béranger and Ferdinand Dreyfus, who led government initiatives. This paper analyzes the social relationships and political strategies that made such action possible.  Strategies pioneered by philanthropic women, such as monitoring train stations and creating job placement agencies, were adopted and endorsed internationally following the 1910 Convention on the White Slave Trade.  In effect, women’s philanthropies became government partners as a result of the 1910 Convention, securing public funding and legitimation for their ongoing efforts.

Turn-of-the-century French activism against the white slave trade demonstrates the influence that local and national organizations could have on international politics.  It further highlights the strength and limitations of women’s activism in a context where women had limited political and civil rights, for in spite of their consensus on the white slave trade, male politicians continued to resist women’s calls to end legal prostitution.

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