Changes in the Maryland Statutory Rape Laws during the Progressive Era
At common law, having sex with a girl under ten years old was considered statutory rape. It was a capital crime in Maryland until the Act Concerning Crimes and Punishments was passed in 1809. The act gave judges the discretion to sentence statutory rapists to either death or incarceration. The law remained unchanged until the late 1800s, when the state legislature passed laws raising the age of consent to 14, declaring the insane incapable of consent, and stating that having sex with a girl under 16 was a misdemeanor.
Through the first half of the 19th century, prostitution was considered a necessary evil and quietly tolerated. In the mid-1800s, police began to arrest prostitutes and madams, forcing prostitution underground or into the periphery of urban life. Madams could buy immunity by paying fines or not divulging the names of wealthy customers. Red-light districts sprung up in poor neighborhoods, but were often ignored.
From 1870 to 1917, Maryland's economy became increasingly industrialized. The labor of young women became less important in the agricultural sector of the economy. Women flocked to cities to seek employment. Some of those who could not find a legal job resorted to prostitution. At the same time, immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe flooded in. The growth of heavy industry, which employed many more men than women, created a high male to female ratio and a booming market for prostitution.
The developing trends in Maryland and other parts of the country led to increasing concern about prostitution at the national level. In 1874 Congress passed a maritime law making rape a capital crime and allowing the imprisonment of sailors who seduced women with promises of marriage. The next year it enacted a law to prevent the importation of foreign women for prostitution. Congress later added amendments to limit the immigration of young single girls and to punish the importation of women for "immoral purposes." In 1899 Congress passed laws criminalizing sex with chaste women between 16 and 21 in the District of Columbia and the territory of Alaska. These acts defined sex with a girl under 16 as rape, and imposed a punishment of life imprisonment if the victim was younger than 12, or three to twenty years in prison if she was between the ages of 12 and 16. In 1910, Congress passed the Mann Act, which prohibited interstate trafficking of women for immoral purposes.
Two waves of anti-prostitution reform swept the U.S. in the 1800s. The first, starting in the mid-1820s, linked alcohol to prostitution, published names of clients and tried to rescue prostitutes and reform their customers. Men blamed prostitutes for leading them into vice, while women blamed men for seducing girls and women and then abandoning them. Many female reformers also believed prostitutes needed moral and religious education. Other reformers, cognizant of economic hardships, urged the expansion of job opportunities and the payment of higher wages for women. During the middle of the century the reglementationist movement, which urged legalizing and regulating prostitution, sprang up. The second wave of reform was, in part, a reaction to reglementationists. Legalizing prostitution, some claimed, was the same as acceptance of inappropriate behavior.
The raising of the age of consent in Maryland was part of this second wave of reform. Concerns about the seduction of innocent girls and their subsequent fall into prostitution, and Victorian fears that pure and chaste women would be corrupted by exposure to sex, led the legislature to adopt rules to protect young single women. These changes also reflected those economic and demographic factors making prostitution the most lucrative and attainable occupation for some young women.
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