A Sensitive and Fragile Threshold: Jane Addams’s A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil
Dr. Dawn Flood
A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil written at the turn of the twentieth century features Jane Addams, the founder of the socially and culturally philanthropic Hull-House, as the antagonistic narrator of a longstanding gender-based issue that augments with the growth of the “Windy City”. This “social evil”, as it is referred to, is promptly exorcised as Addams formats her thematic arguments around the traps and social snares of the city and the most desirable solutions for them. She critically reveals the modernity of the ancient social and economic evils within the web of “commercialized vice” in Chicago at a time when Addams was becoming the national voice for American women.
Addams rigorously exposes shocking and abhorrent in-detail accounts, narratives and statistics of Chicago’s exploited young females within the grasps of prostitution up until the book’s completion in the winter of 1912. Her message to readers may be more than a hairy and flagrant case of city-wide gender-trafficking. With all of prostitution’s ethically questionable motives, Addams inflates Chicago’s prostitution trade as a deadly and grotesque state-of-affairs, run within the broader context of the dark, manipulative world of surreptitious men who took advantage of women - especially girls under the age of eighteen.
Young girls between the ages of thirteen and eighteen were the primary range targeted for the “white slave trade”. Making lucrative profit by running brothels and “five cent theatres” was two-fold. Men profited, along with the entire city economy, and helped to expand the trade, while women were initially convinced that they were going to be making more money for themselves, or their families, and ultimately benefitting. Addams not only sheds light on these enticements, but also the “scars” of prostitution. Mental instability from traumatic experiences perniciously affected girls as they grew older and matured. Health problems that were associated with long term involvement also surfaced later in life. These outcomes of prostitution further provoked action and protection for young girls, as Addams argues proactively to reshape city-wide opportunities so that females of all ages can flourish in a moral and ethical manner. As Chicago grew to over 2.1 million by 1912, Addams argues, in context, of a formula which should be mandatory for helping to keep young women safe from commercialized vice. Included was increasing the city’s sanitary control and implementing a mandatory educational standard to inform urban youth of the dangers of the dark topic.
What is to be understood by this example is that there was many tricks-of-the-trade in prostitution. Fundamental is the selection process, targeting the most vulnerable young women. Those young enough who initially do not understand what entails the underground trade or are psychologically prone to men or young trade boys were all primary targets in the selection process, while internal ties within the girls’ workplace and even the police force, who helped to keep the vice running smoothly (while being paid by city officials under-the-table for this monitoring) were important affiliates of the vice. Exposing her not only to many new sexual decadences but the most important upside of prostitution: an increase in weekly income. Money is something Addams attributes to the mentality of women, in their ways of forming ideas around prostitution. Girls either kept quiet about their “busy lives in the city” (if they were from rural areas, other cities or countries) while supporting family and loved ones, or decided to live lavishly. An example of the lavish life can begin with “trade” boys. These boys first introduced themselves at social institutions such as dance halls. Gradually, on behalf of the local white slave circuit, he exposes her to the systematically encroaching vice within the ever-expanding commercialized city - one which is meretricious enough to give the girl a sense of opportunity.
Addams subtly but cleverly integrates a perspective that the ‘fallacy of composition’ is at work within the minds of men involved in tempting the girls into prostitution. There are many aspects hidden within the white slave trade that do not lead to guaranteed prosperity for every individual prostitute. Methods to convince a girl include first a rhetoric of trust, then to seamlessly integrate and expose her to the trade and its associating sub-vices including alcohol. The “Income Idea”, as I will informally call it, is the vice’s true fallacy. If the girl, who is being pressured into the vice, understands the possibility of making double or more in a week (to that of her wage in the previous or current average job), or is in dire need of money for supporting herself or her nuclear or extended family, would she not hesitate to think of only one aspect of the offer (quick and easy money!) and consequently the immediate gain?
When money is made in this business, it would seem to thrive on grabbing up females in a desperate state, or those who can preserve their diligence to the business. Intrepid or selfish young girls in comfortable middle class homes, the poor or financially desperate girls, or the immigrant who perseverates on the thought/mentality to find high paying work and believe they will come out of it in better shape financially (since their arrival to America’s “cog in the wheel” economy) all comprise the vice’s demography. They are the ones who are get caught up in the fallacy that if money is made “quickly”, which is only one component that makes up the deranged schema of prostitution, their personal liberty is surely on the horizon. Little do they know how cyclically damaging this mentality is. This demands the question: was there at one point no gendered decency or sexual morality to be found in Chicago?
Surprisingly, Addams bundles up enough evidence, including some verbal portrayals of victims she had spoken to, to prove the fallacy’s effectiveness within the early stages of invading the mind of a potential candidate. More shocking yet is the how she portrays the “booster” rhetoric of early twentieth century Chicago as alive and well as ever: vices contributed to the economic well-being of the city. As vanity-fanatic businessmen exposed little innocents to a disgraceful trade, Addams grapples with the contradictory nature of men and the twisted side of their mentalities in running a legitimate business on the engine of sex