The Traffic in Women: Early Twentieth-Century Debates in France, Argentina, and Vietnam

AHA Session 234
Coordinating Council for Women in History 5
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Lenox Ballroom (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
Rachel Fuchs, co-president, Coordinating Council for Women in History and Arizona State University
Philanthropy, Politics, and the White Slave Trade in Belle Époque France
Eliza Earle Ferguson, University of New Mexico
Rumors, Lies, and Unreliable Narrators: The Crafting of White Slave Narratives
Elisa Camiscioli, Binghamton University (State University of New York)
Grace Peña Delgado, University of California, Santa Cruz

Session Abstract

This panel considers the interrelated themes of migration and activism with three readings of the early twentieth-century debate on the “traffic in women.” Each paper analyzes how the bodies of female migrants, most of whom were prostitutes, came to symbolize a wide variety of racial, national, and anti-colonial meanings in the texts of social reformers, feminists, and even participants in the trade itself. Together the panelists consider the racialized forms of sexuality already implicit in the problem of “white slavery,” the movement of labor in the form of sex work across national boundaries, as well as the response to this perceived social crisis by activists, governments, journalists, and people involved in the trade.  Moving between and across Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, each paper is fully engaged with global narratives of social hygiene, vice culture, activism, and gendered modes of labor.

Eliza Ferguson explores how efforts by European feminist activists to protect girls in search of legitimate employment translated into the 1910 international legal reforms sponsored by the French government against the “white slave trade.”  Alliances with male politicians brought public funding and legitimation for philanthropic women’s ongoing efforts, while revealing cleavages around the issue of legal prostitution.  Navigating between discursive constructions and social experiences of trafficking, Elisa Camiscioli examines stories told by and about women it involved in early twentieth-century Argentina.  Camscioli demonstrates that women strategically employed concealment and disclosure in crafting their narratives in response to the expectations of their interlocutors.  In the context of interwar Vietnam, Christina Firpo finds that the international traffic in women was a key site of articulation around issues of colonialism and gender. Drawing on accounts of trafficking in the Vietnamese-language press, Firpo interrogates the connections between discourse and place by using a Geographic Information System to map reports of white slavery and human trafficking.

Together these papers document social circulation on a variety of levels: from local women’s groups to state-level legal reform, from Europe to Latin America, and from metropole to colony. Moreover, they are attentive to the movement of people and ideas within and across national boundaries, the lived experience of women and men involved in the trade, together with the official discourses produced around them. In light of this research, the phenomenon of the traffic in women in the first half of the twentieth century is particularly illuminating: women’s activism generated governmental responses, European frameworks produced local responses in other parts of the globe, and metropolitan discourse were employed in anti-colonial rhetoric. But in all contexts, women involved in the trade were defined as an endangered resource to be recuperated. In order to serve a reinvigorated nation, the “unproductive” labor of prostitutes was to be rehabilitated into “legitimate” work, and commercial sex transformed into reproductive maternalism.

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