Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Roberta L. Wollons

Second Advisor

Vincent J. Cannato

Third Advisor

Benjamin D. Johnson


In the years prior to World War I, the public imagination in the United States became captivated by the “white slavery scare.” Progressive reformers published novels and articles alleging a network of coerced slavery that preyed upon young, working-class girls. However, whether such a syndicate actually existed is debated, and in fact could not be uncovered even at the time. What, then, were the authors of white slavery narratives truly concerned with? Historians have posited that the purpose of these works was to shape the behavior of their targets, namely young working-class urbanites. Some have emphasized the importance of nativist and anti-immigrant sentiment in the narratives, noting the roles that foreign-born men and women played in many of the stories. Others have highlighted the ways in which the narratives furthered the antitrust agenda by lamenting the commercialization of prostitution and change in the economy of women’s bodies. But in this analysis, I argue that above all else, the white slavery narratives illustrate the authors’ anxieties over the changing roles and opportunities afforded to women in the Progressive Era. More so than with immigration and big business, these works indicate that the middle class reformers feared the movement of young women from rural to urban areas, their work from the household to the factory and department store, and their social and romantic relationships from the family parlor to the public sphere. By painting the city, women’s work, women’s housing, and new amusements frequented by young working-class women as dangerous traps for the white slavery network, the authors of these narratives disseminated a clear point: resist the changes underway in society that grant women greater independence. Recognizing this message allows us to better understand the extent of challenges faced by the women’s movement in the early 1900s.


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