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Saving Young Girls from Chinatown: White Slavery and Woman Suffrage, 1910–1920
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In May 1912 Rose Livingston, a self-described missionary working among the white female population of New York’s Chinatown, suffered an attack at a tenement on Doyers Street in the Chinatown neighborhood when she tried to save a young white girl from the clutches of her “cadet,” or procurer.1 A physician’s report stated that Livingston experienced severe bodily injuries, including “serious and permanent damage” to her face and “a fracture of the alveolar process of the upper jaw bone which caused severe neurities [sic] with persistent neuralgic pain both day and night . . . likewise causing the loss of all the teeth of the upper jaw on one side of the face.”2 The attack created a public outcry, with New Yorkers petitioning Mayor William J. Gaynor to prod the police to offer better protection for woman missionaries and reform workers in Chinatown. The police commissioner disputed the complaints of civilians, however, responding that “conditions in Chinatown have never been better than they are at present, nor is any portion of the City as heavily policed as this section.”3 Furthermore, the commissioner claimed that police records did not indicate any report of Livingston having suffered such an attack. Satisfied that the police had handled the situation properly, Mayor Gaynor concluded that “the police are entirely capable of taking care of Chinatown. If Miss Livingston is in any danger there she may very easily withdraw.”4

Although Livingston often worked and traveled alone to minister to the “fallen women” of Chinatown, she received financial aid and social support from the city’s prominent suffragettes, most notably, Harriet Burton Laidlaw and James Lee Laidlaw, who promoted the entry of women into electoral politics to bring forth much-needed social and municipal reform. To the Laidlaws, the mayor’s response to the attack on Livingston was not only inadequate but symptomatic of the larger problem of municipal corruption. In response to the mayor’s rebuff Livingston and the Laidlaws worked with the city’s suffrage leaders to support a petition for increased police protection in Chinatown.

That December Livingston and the Laidlaws further publicized her antagonistic relationship with the mayor and police at a lecture held at the Metropolitan Temple at 14th Street and Seventh Avenue. At the conclusion of his introductory remarks James Laidlaw surprised the audience with the harsh pronouncement that Livingston’s worst enemy in her antiprostitution crusade was no other than the mayor himself. Livingston heartedly agreed, and then, turning to address the audience, she continued: “If you only knew all the meanness that man has done to me you would understand. Just let me tell you.”5 To the mayor’s annoyance the public lecture and Livingston’s constant criticism of the mayor’s policing efforts as merely “keeping vice under cover” led to another round of citizens’ letters and petitions flooding the mayor’s office.6 The City Committee and the board of directors of the Woman Suffrage Party in New York passed a resolution on Livingston's behalf “relative to conditions said to exist in ‘Chinatown’ and alleging that the life of Mrs. Livingston, a social worker, is in danger.”7 Under the guidance of New York’s suffrage leaders Livingston further broadened her antiprostitution crusade in Chinatown, taking the cause beyond New York City and its antagonistic municipal officials to the national political stage of the woman suffrage movement.

Dubbed in the local New York press as the Angel of Chinatown, Livingston, under the sponsorship of suffrage organizations throughout the country, conducted lecture tours to call attention to the problems of “white slavery” in New York City’s Chinatown. Aside from offering her eyewitness accounts on coerced prostitution in that neighborhood, she spoke at length against municipal corruption and ineptitude and for women’s right to vote. By publicizing her ongoing clashes with the New York City police department and mayor in the course of pursuing her antiprostitution activities, Livingston challenged the established patriarchal authority of municipal government to protect female residents from sexual and physical harm. Livingston and her supporters argued that only through women’s moral influence in government and lawmaking could women hope to find adequate protection from sexual predation...