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By the end of the fair, Lola Baldwin was convinced that the real problem was not smooth, sinister foreign agents. It was a homegrown problem. Which meant that it was not going to go away when the fair ended. It would just go back underground. Local recruiters and pimps would go back to catching a girl here and a woman there, on the street or at a lunch counter, and luring them into a life of exploitation from which it would be very difficult to escape.
If anything, the end of the fair made things worse. Job opportunities for single girls and women became scarce, which raised the spectre of girls being forced to accept a dangerous gig in a sleazy saloon to ward off starvation or eviction. At the same time, many of the donors whose support had made the job possible now stopped, thinking the job was done. The Traveler’s Aid Society struggled to meet the challenge.
Finally, in 1908, Lola Baldwin got in front of the City Council to make a proposal.
“I beg to submit to you a few facts,” she told them, “in regard to the work of the Travelers’ Aid for the protection of girlhood in Portland.”
Then she laid out a very lucid overview of what she and her team had been up to for the previous two and a half years, including some statistics: 230 “special girls” assisted in 1906, 322 in the first 11 months of 1907, and no end in sight.
This, she submitted, was evidence that the Portland Police Department needed a program to safeguard Portland’s at-risk girls. She asked for a budget of $3,000 for the job.
Finally, she closed her speech with one of the more brilliant rhetorical gambits of Oregon history:
“We notice,” she said, “that there was $5,030 used this year for the dog pound, and an additional thousand is asked for 1908.”
Would the Council consider, she asked, allocating half that amount “for practical, positive protection for the growing girlhood of the city of Portland”?
Well, when one put it that way, how could they have said no?
At the beginning, her primary goal was to prevent girls from falling into the clutches of vice operators, rather than punishing them after they did; so she maintained her Travelers’ Aid office at the YWCA and dressed in plain business clothes, keeping her star in her purse where it could be deployed only when needed. At-risk girls who needed her help would, she knew, be very reluctant to visit the police station.
And she was very successful in this. In large part that was because of her relentless focus on the girls. She made connections with saloon owners and even bordello madams, who would actually contact her to come and rescue underage girls. She was feared by some, loved by many, and respected by all … at least, at first.
In fact, if Lola Baldwin had been run over by a streetcar in 1909, a year after taking on her job, she would be remembered today as an untarnished hero, a Mother Teresa figure … a Rescuer like Bianca, from the Disney movie.
But this focus shifted fairly quickly and led Detective Baldwin to a darker, less noble place. Although she never lost her focus on providing support for girls at risk of making bad choices, she became increasingly harsh toward those who had already “fallen.”
Mostly this was because of one of the more toxic trends in Progressive Era thought: the moral authoritarianism of the Social Hygiene Movement.
The Social Hygiene Movement, a.k.a. the Sex Hygiene Movement, was a movement led largely by doctors, and it was a reaction to new medical evidence of the damage caused by various forms of vice – especially prostitution.
At some point just before the turn of the century, doctors confirmed that prostitutes were a disease vector. Young, horny men would patronize them in their 20s, acquire a venereal disease, and pass it on to their innocent future wives. This, obviously, was a serious public health issue. The solution, according to social hygienists, was to stamp out prostitution entirely, for the protection of the innocent. There could be no more consideration, or not much more, for the plight of the poor “fallen woman,” the unfortunate creature to be pitied rather than judged, as earlier Progressives like Baldwin had felt.
It took a while for this shift in perception, from “prostitute as tragic figure” to “prostitute as filthy disease vector,” to percolate into Lola Baldwin’s practice as Portland’s first policewoman. But by the early 1910s, it pretty much had. She still was all about saving the innocent girls from a “life of shame,” but when it came to the girls who were already living the dream, as it were, her focus shifted from saving them to saving society from them.
So Detective Baldwin vigorously moved against anything that seemed like it might lead to prostitution: Massage parlors, variety theaters, shooting galleries, and even dance halls. In 1911 and 1912 alone, her team raided 216 establishments on vice charges and arrested 1,900 people. She followed up on them afterward, advocating for stiffer sentences to break the “catch, fine and release” cycle that the city had used for decades to rake off a cut of sex-industry profits without slowing them down.
This shift in focus from saving girls to saving society was at its apex during the First World War, when Baldwin received federal police authority and a mandate to enact a sort of moral martial law everywhere on the West Coast within five miles of a military base, to keep soldiers safe from venereal disease.
After the war, popular opinion rapidly shifted away from Baldwin’s style of progressive authoritarianism, and she started having to defend her job. By now, of course, she was in her 60s. The ragtime era had come and gone, ripening into the jazz age — musical styles that she disdainfully associated with Black culture and “degeneracy.” Flashy clothing styles that she had once associated with prostitutes were now standard fashions for a rising generation of flappers. Things just seemed to be getting worse and worse.
So, increasingly discouraged and out of touch with the times, Lola Baldwin retired from police work.
Afterward, she remained active in various charities dedicated to keeping girls safe, but her days of supervising the kicking-in of bordello doors were over. She finally died at the age of 97 in 1957.
That’s why I like Disney’s “The Rescuers” so much. It captures the spirit of an earlier aid-society movement, before it had been corrupted by the drive to perform social surgery, back when it was all about saving the girls and empowering young women to choose their own destiny. Back when women like Lola Greene Baldwin were untarnished heroes.
Like so many other Progressive Era figures, Lola Baldwin was a trailblazer. She was venturing into spaces that are very well known to us, but which she was seeing for the very first time. It’s probably not too surprising that she made some bad calls, and hurt some people along the way.
But one thing nobody can dispute: Throughout her life in Portland, Lola Greene Baldwin did her level best to leave the world a better place than she found it. We should all aspire to such an epitaph.