Monday, June 14, 2010

Jean O'Hara

My memories of Memorial Day and the 4th of July include parades through downtown Jamestown, fireworks, and visiting the cemetery to place flowers on relative’s graves. Now that I live in Chicago, I look forward to the long weekends away from work and get-togethers with friends. This year is no exception, although I now think of more than just fun holidays.

As I've gotten older, I have become more and more interested in war history and this is the time of year providing new ways to learn about our patriotic past.  WWII especially interests me because it was a period of time connecting the world while simultaneously ripping it apart. There are countless stories from so many different perspectives and many of them are collected in an endless trove of History Channel specials. One in particular that I watched recently was about sex during the war appropriately titled "Sex in World War II".

BoB: LOVE IT!!!!
I've heard stories from different documentaries about sex workers in Hawaii during the war who serviced the soldiers as they came in on leave but I've never watched an entire program devoted to the subject. I'm more interested in actual battle history than the civilian history which is probably the effect of countless Band of Brothers viewings. (I'm watching it right now actually.)

As I watch and rewatch my beloved miniseries, I grow more frustrated with lack of women portrayed. There is one supportive female role and she doesn't even represent a real person, just a general character that could have existed. Renee, who appears in my favorite episode "Bastogne", was a french nurse who worked tirelessly to save wounded soldiers. She was killed in a bombing raid which was also the end of her character.
Renee, the nurse

There are a few other mentions of women, but nothing substantial. You aren't made to believe women were non-existent but you aren't led to believe they were very important either.  There is one sex scene in BoB involving a soldier and a German woman that Major Winters (the real person the lead character is based on) was not happy about because he didn't feel it was appropriate. He doesn't claim sexual relationships between soldiers and civilians to be historically inaccurate, he just doesn't think it's right to show sex in the miniseries. My complete admiration for this man aside, the idea of this is semi absurd because the entire show is graphically violent. The sex scene lasts for maybe 30 seconds but intense bloody battle scenes go on for entire episodes! 

This seems to be the norm in dealing with what is and is not appropriate. It's OK to speak of and recreate the physically detrimental horrors that choked the entire globe for years because the Allies were fighting for a noble cause. But sex? No no, that’s crossing the line. This is probably why we don't see/hear/or learn about sexual politics during WWII. The idealized version of America during the late 30's and early 40's imagines a pure, wholesome, and patriotic nation. Is this a rational historical viewpoint? How can the period when our global population decimated itself so profusely be considered wholesome? If sex is so bad, why isn't war?

This is what intrigued me the most about this History Channel documentary. It quite literally was the only time I have come across this topic. And it turned out to be incredibly fascinating.

During the war, women from the mainland headed out to Hawaii specifically to become sex workers. Jean O’Hara was one of these women. She came from Chicago and was the daughter of a doctor. The brothels in Honolulu did exist before the war, however, they grew and thrived with all the soldiers coming to port. Sex work was of course illegal but the system in the "vice district", as it came to be known, was regulated by local authorities. The sheriff operated it under what was called the 10 commandments. This was a detailed list of rules and regulations the women had to obey in order to remain in Hawaii. If they broke just one commandment, they were immediately sent on a ship home. The restrictions implemented against the women included being prohibited from owning or driving vehicles; banned from owning property; they  could not visit "nice" establishments including bars and restaurants; banned from beaches; could not have bank accounts or boyfriends; or be seen in the daylight, etc. Basically, they were restricted from having a life in exchange for not being arrested or beaten. Most women couldn't handle this system for more than a few months.

WWII VD PSA: Subliminal messages blamed women
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Marshall Law went into effect in Hawaii. This meant the military was now in charge of keeping order and setting up rules. They had been supportive of the regulated sex work system because it helped keep venereal disease within the troops down. Apparently, after WWI, more men left the service with VD than had been injured in battle so military commanders wanted to make sure the spreading of disease was prevented as much as possible. The police and military understood prostitution was going to happen whether or not the vice district was shut down and at a price that could lead to more problems than letting it remain semi-legal. The police department also received huge payouts and had control over the majority of the decisions made within the system.

The war offered a huge financial boom to the sex-for-sale industry and the need for more women skyrocketed. Women could make upwards of $30,000 to 40,000 a year and the madams could make almost half a million dollars. If you think about the other job options available to women during this time, especially non-white women, it’s not difficult to understand why they would sign up to work in the brothels. Everything was very highly organized as well, to ensure maximum profits. Basically, they were sex factories to be completely blunt about it. It's a sexually graphic part of history, but history nonetheless.

Photo Credit: Ted Chernin

The women proved to be more than "whores", however.  During the attack on Pearl Harbor they left the houses and served as nurses. The madams converted the brothels into makeshift hospitals to serve the wounded. This sparked a quiet revolution leading the women to break the 10 commandments and move out of the shadows of society. They purchased property and did so for a while undetected by the authorities. Because of the support they gave during the country's time of great need and because of the control they had under Marshall Law, the military allowed them to break the rules. 
O’Hara, the most entrepreneurial of the women, made it a point to tell her neighbors what her line of work was when she bought property. The neighbors would then pay a huge premium to buy her out. This earned her quite a fortune and gained her serious authority. She was able to encourage the other women to keep disregarding the rules and initiated a battle between the police, who were frustrated with their war time lack of authority and the military, who sided with the women.  She was arrested and faced great scrutiny, but never backed down. 

It’s interesting to research Ms. O’Hara because there isn’t much out there about her that is credible. She did publish a memoir after the war which pulled the rug out from under the military and the police in regards to their involvement in the illegal activities of the vice district, but her credibility is described as “questionable”. I’m pretty sure her chosen profession is the only thing discrediting her and I wonder what history would say if she had been a nurse. If you think about it, aside from being allowed to go to beaches and be seen in public, nurses were similarly restricted like the sex workers simply by their gender. They weren’t able to do certain things in society either and were restricted by a different set of gender based rules. 

O’Hara lead a major reformation campaign to gain rights long before the women’s movement and civil rights were even in the minds of most Americans. In fact, her determination to be recognized as a person was an influence to many who would lead the charge to change our societal structure in later decades. She created the need to consider our previous ideas about sex workers and race as well. Before the war, many of the women who worked in the brothels were non-white and financially disadvantaged. This allowed people to think white women were too superior for this type of work and it provided a lot of fuel for racist and classist beliefs about white dominance. O’Hara’s coming out quickly put this logic into question because she was white and from an upper class family. She was a trailblazer in creating societal waves and I believe she knew exactly what she was doing.
"Honolulu Harlot"

Sex workers in general are often thought of as less than even today. Sure, I don’t believe sex work is necessarily an essential part of a healthy society, but I don’t believe war is either. And history proves no matter how we want to remember things, war and prostitution seem to be a part of every culture. The soldiers these women were servicing were coming back from long battles where they bombed and attacked and killed other people. I logically understand why their efforts were important to the protection of America, but I don’t see these actions as being any more just than having sex for money. 

One interesting thing in the documentary was the way in which the former military men remembered the girls from the vice district. It was with a fondness and a need to describe them as more than “hookers”. O’Hara saw herself and the women she worked with as people and demanded equality. She had been restrained for so long by overbearing, slave-like mandates and was still able to see her life’s worth. She was incredibly intelligent with the way she used her money. She didn’t squander her opportunity to gain respect which she ultimately accomplished.  

I'm new to understanding and researching the rights of sex workers today, but learning more about Jean O'Hara is a good place to start.  This is something affecting a lot of women, both free and those who are forced against their will. We so often write off sex work as part of a seedy underbelly when in reality it's far more main stream than we admit.  The fact that the police tried to regulate the prostitution in Honolulu without real laws was what ultimately led to their loss of authority over the system.  As long as she was a tax paying citizen, O'Hara argued they had no grounds to restrict her rights, especially if they weren't going to prosecute her for her job.  I would imagine there is a fair amount of quasi-legal prostitution in this country today, which creates a need to worry about who is benefiting from this system.  The situation in Honolulu and what Jean did supports the case for examining how we regulate sex work. 

What I like about studying war the most is the ever changing ways in which we see certain events. It’s taken years for the Holocaust to be thoroughly studied and we are always finding out new details reshaping our previous understandings and perceptions. Race in the military wasn’t considered until after the Civil Rights Movement was well underway and the more the glass ceiling is raised the more we are finding out about the contributions women have made to our country. Now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is on the chopping block, we will uncover more about the real history of gay people in the military as well. It’s important to always keep an open, honest mind when thinking about the way in which major historical events happen. What is history if it isn’t the truth?

Most of the research I did for this post came from Google searching "Jean O'Hara", reading her Wikipedia entry, and regurgitating facts from the History Channel documentary "Sex in World War II".