In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • "Against Their Own Weakness":Policing Sexuality and Women in San Antonio, Texas, during World War I
  • Courtney Q. Shah (bio)

In March 1918 an editorial in the San Antonio Express urged the city government of San Antonio, Texas, to work with the military to clean up the city and make it a fit place for soldiers to train and people to live: "The old proverb, 'What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,' is working out beautifully in those cities where the army camps are located. The army is the goose and the general public is the gander. . . . The Government has determined on certain conditions for the army camps, and these conditions are of necessity forced upon the community." The "sauce" referred to was restrictions on certain "immoral" actions, particularly drinking and prostitution. The editorial advocated prohibiting alcohol in town and ending prostitution not only for moral improvement and for the greater war effort but also for the concrete economic advantages inherent in complying with military orders. "The choice is clear and plain; it is a choice between the liquor business and the army business. . . . The deciding element is the dollar." The editorial also struck a moral argument: "The old idea that patriotism was a Fourth of July celebration, was a narrow view. Now we are exercising the patriotic virtues at the table, the pantry, in the bank, on the train, in moral sanitation, and in temperance reform. . . . The outcome will be seen in a greater and purer city."1

San Antonio serves as a useful case study of vice control because of its large population of soldiers, its triracial community, and the presence there of the Live Oak female detention home.2 The national military and civilian [End Page 458] reform literature often used San Antonio as an example of a town that had successfully cleaned itself up. For these reasons San Antonio could be seen as an ideal but not a typical representative of other southern cities with military encampments. In contrast, the city of El Paso, Texas, was often ridiculed as a failure.

San Antonio's antivice campaign during World War I demonstrates three important aspects of the Progressive Era's sexual agenda and how gender played a crucial role in antivice activism. First, women played on their maternal, pure reputations to carve a niche for themselves as political activists, social workers, and police officers. The government and city activists advocated punishment as well as rehabilitation or education. Second, the antivice campaign clearly delineated differences between women of different classes and ethnic identities. Accordingly, while middle-class white reformers used the antivice campaign as a path to greater political power, in so doing they denied the same right and privileges to working-class and nonwhite women. Third, women who had previously been viewed as the victims of prostitution were labeled (and treated) as a powerful and dangerous force in their own right. Women's "khaki fever" and unbridled sexuality were viewed as threats to the health of soldiers, the war effort, and the very standards of American society.

Sex and the Southern City: Cleaning Up Vice in San Antonio

In 1917 San Antonio stood poised as a major boomtown and center for military activities. San Antonio offered a warm climate, ample railroad connections, and military installations remaining from the army's incursion into Mexico in 1916 in pursuit of Pancho Villa. With good reason, San Antonio expected to be a major base for the training and stationing of troops. The town boasted 133,000 permanent residents, who were joined by the beginning of 1918 by about 80,000 soldiers, 25,000 family members of servicemen, and 20,000 other temporary visitors.3

Such an influx of people—and government money—would surely benefit the town as a whole: "San Antonio is the army center of the United States. We have 70,000 soldiers here—one cantonment, an army post, aviation fields, officers' schools, rifle ranges, and other camps."4 The municipal and economic leaders of San Antonio understood the benefits of keeping a military base in the area. An article in the San Antonio Express remarked: "War, the greatest ill wind creation knows, has...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 458-482
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.