Reading the Archives of the Illicit: Gender, Labour, and Race in Helen McGowan’s Motor City Madam

  • Holly Marie Karibo


This essay explores the gender, racial, and labour politics in Helen McGowan’s Motor City Madam, an autobiography written by a woman who worked as a prostitute and madam in Detroit, Michigan from the 1920s to the 1960s. Using the text as a case study, it examines how historians can utilize autobiography in order to excavate the subjective experiences of women who worked in illicit forms of labour. In blending feminist literary theory with the methodologies of social and labour historians, this essay moves beyond the strict letter of the text in order to analyze how the author tells her personal narrative. It argues that McGowan frames her story first and foremost as one of labour, and in doing do, forms pointed critiques of gender, class, and racial inequality in industries cities at mid-century. McGowan develops a proto-feminist defense of sex work as work, and pushes for legalized prostitution at a time in which vice codes remained strictly intact. By analyzing autobiographies like Motor City Madam as constructions of subjectivity rather than simply empirical sources, we can gain important insight to the voices of working peoples often relegated to the margins of labour history.