“I wish I was born a man, I know what I’d do this morning,” wrote May “Maimie” Pinzer to Fanny Howe in the early 1900s. “I’d button up my coat and jump on the tail end of a train and steal a ride to wherever it was going and then when I’d get there, I’d stop to consider, ‘What’s next?’”
Pinzer, whose last name is a pseudonym, was born into an Eastern European Jewish family in Philadelphia in 1885. The Pinzers fell into financial straits when Maimie’s father was murdered, and her mother struggled to support the family. She forced Maimie to leave school at 13 and devote herself to housework.
Pinzer, resentful of being deprived of an education and not paid for her labor, took a job in a department store. This created even more friction in her family.
“The daughters of immigrants faced suspicion when they went dancing, stayed out late and interacted with men. They wanted to be American girls, while their parents held them to their own European standards of behavior,” said Professor Ruth Rosen, the scholar who edited and compiled Pinzer’s letters into the 1978 book, “The Maimie Papers.” “Maimie struggled with her desire for independence throughout her youth and into adulthood.”
Pinzer also began earning money through sex work with men she met at her job. Her mother had her arrested when she spent the night at a man’s house, and she was sent to a reform school until she was 18.
“Throughout history, prostitution has been a rational economic choice for poor, unskilled women who have no other way to bring money into their households,” said Melissa R. Klapper, professor of history and director of gender studies at Rowan University. “It should be seen as a rational decision made by woman in constrained circumstances, not through the lens of moral judgment.”
She was hospitalized frequently throughout her teenage years for ailments ranging from syphilis to an eye infection to morphine addiction. While overcoming her addiction, she met a social worker who introduced her to Howe, a wealthy Bostonian philanthropist. The two women wrote to each other for 12 years.
“Her letters function as a personal diary,” Rosen observed. “You sense this is a person who feels rejected by her family, who is seeking comfort.”
A large portion of Pinzer’s correspondence with Howe is devoted to her quest for employment. However, as a working-class woman, her options were mostly limited to factory work and domestic service.
“Both were grueling work with very little autonomy or control over the working environment, and both also left young women, in particular, vulnerable to sexual harassment,” Klapper said.
Pinzer experienced this firsthand.
According to Rosen, “It was almost impossible for Maimie to keep a job, since she would face bosses demanding sexual favors in exchange for her wages at the end of the week.”
When the manager at the Curtis Publishing Co. interviewed her for a job, he inquired about her marital status, and she disclosed she was married to the carpenter Albert Jones.
“Imagine my disappointment when he pointed out a rule, which was somewhat as follows — ‘the Curtis Publishing Company under no conditions will employ a woman who is married and still living with her husband,’” she wrote to Howe in early 1911.
Pinzer eventually succeeded in her goal to leave sex work behind. She moved to Montreal in 1913, where she launched the Business Aid Bureau of Montreal before the economic chaos of World War I led her to social work.
She operated the Montreal Mission for Friendless Girls, a halfway house for poor and homeless sex workers, from 1915 to 1917. The name came from her benefactors — she hated the title and believed it further stigmatized struggling women.
Pinzer started the project specifically to help Jewish and Protestant sex workers, noting “what help is extended to girls at all here is thru the Catholic Church.”
She would later return to Philadelphia, but little is known about her life after she reached age 37, married for the second time and ended her correspondence with Howe. Rosen believes she likely died in Germantown.
“Long before the women’s movement and the #MeToo movement were bringing attention to these issues, women didn’t feel safe at work or at home and struggled to earn their own money,” she said. “Pinzer’s letters reflect this.”
According to Klapper, Pinzer’s story has been of great interest to scholars of gender and working-class women because her letters are among the only firsthand accounts of prostitution during the early 20th century.
“She was able to write with great fluency and spark about her life,” Klapper said. “She was also quite self-aware about the role that gender norms and limitations on women, especially economic, had played in her life.” JN