Dangerous Women and Women in Danger

Ann Forester, 1941
Ann Forrester, “The Black Widow,” 1941 – Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

It’s not often that one finds photographs of prostitutes on our History Department blog, but as part of a March 8-9, 2013 conference at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, “Dangerous Women and Women in Danger,” Ann Forrester will be the means by which a number of UK scholars get an introduction to Bethel University.

The conference is being held in celebration of International Women’s Day, and, according to its website, “will focus on the related theme of dangerous women and women facing peril.” Interested in what I might say about “The Black Widow”?  Feel free to read the abstract:

The “Black Widow’s” Triple Threat: Pandering, Interracial Sex, and Corporate Undermining

In 1938, Los Angeles police arrested Ann Forrester, who newspapers dubbed “The Black Widow” in connection with a so-called prostitution ring.  Using newspaper accounts of the investigation as well as trial transcripts from her trial, it is clear that Forrester was seen as a dangerous woman on three accounts.  First, the testimony of Ann Forrester provides a window into the business operations of a Los Angeles organization called “The Syndicate” which consisted of a small group of men who had, already by the 1920s, absorbed many brothel operators and prostitutes into a more hierarchical business structure which—through its ties with city politicians and police—succeeded in dominating not only prostitution but also gambling and the Prohibition-era trade in illegal liquor in the city.  It is evident in the trial transcript that Forrester’s attempt to deny culpability threatened exposure of the municipally-sanctioned incorporation of prostitution.  Forrester was also portrayed as a threat to the young women of the city as newspapers constructed the prostitutes working for Forrester as “white slaves”—unwilling victims of the “Black Widow” and her associates.  Why was this the case?  One of the alleged associates of Forrester was Charles Montgomery, who newspapers described as “Negro-Portuguese.”  I argue in this paper that just as newspapers (and many other social observers) had used the term “white slavery” during the Progressive Era to denote what was then the ultimate sexual taboo of white women engaging in prostitution, Los Angeles newspapers in the 1930s were reviving the term “white slavery” to denote what was then the ultimate sexual taboo: white women engaging in sexual intercourse with men of color.  The “Black Widow” preyed on the sexual innocence of young women but, worse yet, was associated with interracial sexual commerce.

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