Throughout history, sex work has been a viable option for economic stability and independence. For Maimie Pinzer — whose last name was a pseudonym — a Jewish social worker, sex worker, and writer, it was an option that led to social reform fame.
Born in Philadelphia in 1885, Maimie was a middle-class, Eastern European family member. She was thirteen when her father was murdered, and the family fell into poverty. As a result, Maimie’s mother removed her from school and relegated her to housework. Maimie Pinzer was angry and resentful about being withdrawn from school, and she took a job at a local department store. The position created a tenuous relationship within her family. But the department store was her direct link to sex work. Many of her early customers were men she met at the store, but her employment was short-lived after she spent the night with one of her clients. Her mother had her arrested and enrolled in a reformatory until Maimie turned eighteen.
Maimie walked a rough road in her young adulthood. She navigated multiple hospitalizations for syphilis, lost an eye to infection, and developed a morphine addiction. But how do we know so much about Maimie Pinzer? She regularly corresponded with Boston philanthropist Fanny Quincy Howe. The pair met during one of Maimie’s hospitalizations after introductions from the hospital social worker. The pair often wrote about Maimie’s search for employment and her desire for independence.
Their letters began when Maimie Pinzer was married to a carpenter named Albert Jones. Maimie discussed her struggles finding employment, as most businesses of the day refused to hire a married woman. She spoke of sexual harassment by male employers, living in New York with a former boyfriend, and surviving her mother and family. Only Maimie’s letters survived, but her legacy leaves more. In 1913, she moved to Montreal and established the Business Aid Bureau of Montreal, a firm that provided clerical services to local businesses, and in 1915, she entered social work and operated a halfway house for sex workers and the poor called the Montreal mission for friendless girls. The mission sought to help Protestant and Jewish sex workers who did not receive assistance from the Catholic Church.
We don’t know much about the latter half of Maimie Pinzer’s life, but we do know she returned to Philadelphia, remarried, and died in 1940. Maimie’s correspondence with Fanny Quincy Howe gives us another first-hand account of the lives of sex workers at the turn of the twentieth century, and her legacy lives on today.
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
Pinzer, Maimie. Papers of Maimie Pinzer, 1910-1922. Link to Source.
From the Scheslinger Library at Harvard University: The collection contains correspondence, reports, and photographs of Maimie Pinzer. The bulk of the collection is letters from Pinzer to Fanny (Quincy) Howe about Pinzer’s past, her marriages, her training and work as a stenographer, her efforts to establish and maintain the Montreal Mission for Friendless Girls, the individual girls, how they came to the Home, their problems and feelings, and their adjustment to life at the Home. Pinzer and Howe were introduced by a Philadelphia social worker.
Pinzer, Maimie, Ruth Rosen, Sue Davidson, and Fanny Quincy Howe. The Maimie Papers: Letters from an Ex-Prostitute. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York in cooperation with the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College, 1997. Link to source.
First published in 1978, historian Ruth Rosen shares correspondence between Maimie and Fanny Q. Howe and provides historical analysis and a bit of sleuthing to trace Maimie in her final days.
Carlson A. Cheree. 1995. “Character Invention in the Letters of Maimie Pinzer.” Communication Quarterly 408–19.
Carlson’s article centers Maimie’s story and her correspondence with Fanny Q. Howe as a case study in autobiographical character development.
Panzer Sophie. n.d. “Women’s History Month Spotlight: Maimie Pinzer.” Jewish Exponent 26–27. Link to source.
Panzer offers a short, biographical essay about Maimie Pinzer’s life.