For Immediate Release
23 February 2021
SAVE THE DATE – A Celebration of Margo St. James’ Life Scheduled for
May 1, 2021
Founder of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics):
On January 11, 2021, Margo St. James, founder of the first prostitutes’ rights organization in the United States, died in her hometown of Bellingham, Washington. A trailblazer for the rights of all working women, she will be remembered in an online event on May 1, 2021 beginning at 11:00 AM, Pacific time. It is open to the public. Registration is available at margostjames.com.
On Mother’s Day 1973, exactly one week after J. Edgar Hoover was pronounced dead, St. James founded COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), forming a union of “loose women” committed to defending the rights of sex workers.
St. James’ opening salvo was a press conference in which she announced the formation of COYOTE and called out the hypocrisy of laws that rendered women criminals for what she described as “that which is demanded of all women.” She was immediately termed a radical by the media, police, and the Feds. Reverend Cecil Williams, the Minister at Glide Memorial Church, offered her an office, replete with a red phone. The irony was rich. His was the very church—formerly known as the Central Methodist Church–where 300 prostitutes attended Sunday service on January 25, 1917. Organized by madams Reggie Gamble and Maude Spencer, they were there to call into question what Reverend Smith’s intentions were for the prostitutes of the Barbary Coast after the clergy had successfully advocated for California’s Red-Light Abatement Act, which shut them out of business. Surely Cecil Williams was now also deemed a heretic, along with St. James.
To call attention to hypocritical laws and inane public health orders–at the time directed only at prostitutes–St. James churned out a broadsheet called COYOTE Howls, bringing to light crooked vice cops and illuminating how the laws gave rise to their corruption. She made space in her newspaper for famed cartoonists Robert Crumb and Trina Robbins. Her guest authors described through experience that prostitution was not a “victimless crime” as many main-stream liberals posited, but much more nuanced: Decades before the analysis was commonplace, St. James pointed out that black and brown women were arrested at higher rates, subjected to more dangerous conditions, and often singled out for more punitive prosecution.
In 1975, with Social Anthropologist Jennifer James, N.O.W. Leader Jean Withers, ACLU National Director on Sexual Privacy Marilyn Haft, Anthropologist Sara Theiss, and Legal Scholar Mary Owen, St. James contributed to The Politics of Prostitution, in which authors pointed out that only women could commit a crime of prostitution in Indiana, Louisiana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. (This was the case as late as 1977.) As the authors explained, “male customers are not illegal participants in this so-called criminal act.”
In her chapter “Legal Arguments: Prostitution Laws and the Constitution,” Haft explained, “A Minneapolis, Minnesota, the municipal court in 1971 struck down an ordinance which provided that ‘no female shall offer or submit her body indiscriminately for sexual intercourse.’ The court held that it was irrational to think that a female’s indiscriminate sexual intercourse posed any greater threat to the health, safety or welfare of the community than did similar conduct by a male.”
Meanwhile, the country was getting laid.
And Margo’s Balls were getting attention.
To finance what the press attempted to deride as her “One Woman Crusade” (Margo was the first among many whores who would later come out as having engaged in the oldest profession), St. James produced the Hooker’s Masquerade Balls in San Francisco. The events were a tremendous success, grossing enough for a staff of rabble-rousers who put out her newspaper, answered phones, and worked with the defense bar on tough criminal cases, all of which involved women accused of pimping, pandering, keeping disorderly houses–but fundamentally, all designed to put uppity women in the can. Margo’s One Woman Crusade became so threatening that the FBI assigned their own detail to follow her every move. Margo couldn’t have cared less about the Feds, but she did care about the movement. In her most outrageous Hooker’s Ball, she entered the Cow Palace on Margie the Elephant to 20,000 attendees.
Later, with the International Committee on Prostitutes’ Rights, St. James organized two World Whores Congresses, the first in Amsterdam in 1985 and the second in 1986 at the European Parliament in Brussels. In 1996, St. James ran for public office in her adopted hometown, San Francisco. She came in 7th in a field of 28 candidates seeking 6 City-wide seats. She then founded the St. James Infirmary, the first-of-its-kind occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers anywhere in the world. It’s hometown — San Francisco. While much is said about the name of the clinic, little can be said of how it came to be. Herb Caen, in one of his San Francisco Chronicle columns, made it known that in the 1960s on upper Grant Avenue there was a door with a small emblem which read simply, “St. James Infirmary.” In his column, Caen explained that it was home to a famous woman wrongfully accused of prostitution who successfully appealed her conviction: Margo St. James.
As St. James later explained, “I was never a whore until that misogynist judge labeled me.”
All this history and much more will be a part of the Margo St. James Celebration on May 1, 2021, at 11:00 o’clock AM Pacific time.
Witness history. Register for Margo’s Celebration at … margostjames.com