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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 1237: T-575: Vt-331: DVD-157

Papers of Margo St. James, 1939-2018 (inclusive), 1966-2000 (bulk)


Correspondence, printed materials, writings, photographs, etc., of feminist activist and sex workers' rights advocate Margo St. James.


  • Creation: 1939-2018
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1966-2000


Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Researchers must sign a special permission form to use the collection. Folder #29.5 contains investigative case files of other individuals and is closed until January 1, 2040. Folder #34.15 contains medical-related information of other individuals and is closed until January 1, 2055. Researchers must contact Research Services for access to audiovisual materials (series VI) and born-digital files (series VII).

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Margo St. James is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


20.73 linear feet ((39+1/2 file boxes, 2 oversize boxes, 2 card file boxes) plus 5 folio folders, 8 folio+ folders, 6 oversize folders, 1 supersize folder, 11 photograph folders, 2 folio photograph folders, 1 audiotape, 3 videotapes, 2 DVDs)
455.76 Megabytes

The collection gives insight into the life and activism of Margo St. James, particularly from the 1970s through the early 2000s. Aspects of her personal life are reflected in the collection, most notably through the substantial correspondence she kept with her mother and various friends and fellow activists. St. James' professional activities, including organizing the Hooker's Ball and her campaign for San Francisco Board of Supervisors, are well documented. However, the COYOTE materials within this collection are by no means comprehensive. Rather, they supplement the Records of Coyote, 1962-1989 also held by the Schlesinger Library. Materials in the Papers of Margo St. James include correspondence; clippings; printed materials; published and unpublished writings; photographs; memorabilia, including COYOTE t-shirts and banner, audiovisual materials, etc. The collection was not in any clear order when it arrived at the Library, however the archivists have maintained original folder titles and order wherever possible. Titles in brackets were created by the archivists.

Multiple terms related to sex work are found throughout this finding aid and within the collection. Terms include prostitute, hooker, whore, harlot, and sex worker. St. James and fellow activists used all of these descriptors, choosing to reclaim terminology that others might interpret as anachronistic or derogatory. The archivists often used the term sex worker in the narrative sections of this finding aid due in part to its emphasis on work and professionalism. However, they acknowledge that this term has also been sometimes criticized for the language's implication that engaging in the sex trade is always a choice.

Series I, BIOGRAPHICAL, PERSONAL, AND WRITINGS, 1942-2018 (#1.1-18.2, FD.1-FD.3, F+D.1-F+D.5, OD.1-OD.3), includes extensive correspondence, as well as clippings and articles about St. James and COYOTE; printed materials, including flyers, invitations, and awards; and published and unpublished writings by St. James. Correspondence consists of letters, greeting cards, postcards, invitations, and e-mail print-outs. Correspondents were former lovers, including Greg O'Kelly and Morris Silverfield; friends and family, particularly St. James' mother Dorothy Wachter, artist and sex worker Carol Leigh, psychotherapist and partner Gail Pheterson, sexologist Carol Queen, friend and fellow activist Carol Stuart, satirist Paul Krassner; and activists or individuals who were interested in St. James' work and organizing. Early correspondents included artists, musicians, and writers who, like St. James, were part of the counterculture in Northern California. Letter topics include general greetings, life and relationship updates, current projects and activities, and requests for advice. Sometimes there are folders by correspondent name; however, letters from these individuals may be found in the chronological sorting as well. Folders of correspondence with Dorothy Wachter, which include letters to and from Margo and others, provide information about Wachter's life, daily activities, and her husband Louie. They also reveal Wachter's close and supportive relationship with her daughter. Wachter advocated for St. James and sometimes reached out to politicians and others on behalf of her. In St. James' letters to her mother, St. James shared information on her lifestyle, relationships, jobs, health, and money issues, as well as observations and self-assessments. E-mail printouts in the correspondence section are often group e-mails, announcements, forwarded articles on current events, essays, news stories, jokes, etc. These were written or forwarded by friends and others, including Annie Sprinkle, Priscilla Anderson, Catherine La Croix, and Paul Avery.

Other materials in this series include legal files related to court cases involving St. James or her mother. Of note is United States Department of the Interior v. Margo St. James, which pertains to St. James' application for seasonal employment with the National Park Service (NPS) at North Cascades National Park in Washington state. St. James was assured of being hired as a lookout on Copper Mountain through the Volunteers in the Parks Program of the National Park Service, but her earlier arrest record made them rescind the offer. She sued with help from the Seattle American Civil Liberties Union. This series also contains one disassembled scrapbook that consists mostly of clippings, cards, illustrations, and photographs (not of St. James). Many of these items were not attached to pages. Clippings relate to issues such as crime and scandal, corruption of police, murder, drugs, local San Francisco events, and prostitution. Also included are publicity photographs of professional athletes with inscriptions to St. James.

The writings in this series are mostly autobiographical or are about current social and political issues and sex workers' rights. Writings include letters to the editor, essays, opinion pieces, book proposals, television or film ideas, contributions to publications by others, speeches, notes and notebooks, a journal, and many drafts. This section also includes correspondence, agreements, etc., related to potential books, writing projects, publishing, and book ideas, as well as correspondence with writers and publishers. Notes within this grouping include notebooks and notepads containing draft writings, thoughts, ideas, lists, contacts, "to dos," and random jottings. See also Series VII for additional correspondence and writings. Series is arranged alphabetically by groupings and chronologically within each grouping, except for the "writings" folders, which are listed alphabetically and the named correspondence folders, which are listed at the end of the correspondence section.

Series II, PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES AND ACTIVISM, 1951-2012 (#18.3-35.27, FD.4-FD.5, F+D.6-F+D.8, OD.4-OD.6, SD.1, 41CB-42CB), gives insight into Margo St. James' participation and interest in a variety of organizations and groups throughout her life. This series is primarily comprised of material related to Margo St. James' campaign for a position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, organizing and hosting the Hooker's Balls, and Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE). In 1979, COYOTE declared itself The National Task Force on Prostitution (NTFP), ostensibly to nationalize its campaign. In 1993, the NTFP changed its name to the North American Task Force on Prostitution to acknowledge the inclusion of Canada. This series also includes materials related to the St. James Infirmary, the North American Task Force on Prostitution, the Women's Foundation, the San Francisco Prostitution Task Force, the California Prostitutes Education Project, the Coalition on Prostitution, the San Francisco Drug Abuse Advisory Board, the Harvey Milk Lesbian Gay Bisexual Club, the Victoria C. Woodhull Foundation, and the AIDS Prevention Action Group. It also contains a small amount of material related to St. James' work as a private eye.

Materials include correspondence, flyers, newspaper clippings, interviews, meeting minutes, conference and event programs, press kits, transcripts, interviews, endorsements, speeches, reports, rolodexes, phone lists, donor lists, financial information, legal motions and briefs, and photographs. Series is arranged alphabetically by grouping and chronologically within each grouping.

Researchers should note that due to the interrelated nature of St. James' work, materials relating to specific topics can often be found spread throughout the collection, including in Series VII.

Series III, SUBJECT FILES, 1966-2011 (#36.1-40.10), includes clippings, writings, press releases, printed materials, and limited correspondence that are within folders by topic. Topics relate to civil liberties, feminism, and sex workers' rights, and are occasionally filed by name of organization, event, or country. Materials include newspaper clippings, correspondence and listservs, case studies, articles, reports, printed materials, and flyers. Loose articles on the topics of AIDS, Harvey Milk, Dan White, and marijuana that did not also directly touch on the topic of sex work were weeded from the subject files. Series is arranged alphabetically.

Series IV, PHOTOGRAPHS, 1939-1996 (#PD.1-PD.11sl), includes original and copy prints of St. James and her family and friends. Included are personal photographs of St. James as a child on her family's farm, posing with her school band in the fourth grade, and crossing the finish lines in road races; as well as photographs of St. James and others at the Hookers Masquerade Ball, and marching and speaking at rallies. For additional photographs, see also Series VII. Series is arranged alphabetically.

Most of the photographs in this collection are or will be digitized and available online.

Series V, MEMORABILIA, 1974-1997, undated (#40.11m-40.13m, 43OB.1m-43OB.15m, 44OB.1m), contains a COYOTE banner; buttons relating to women's rights, safe sex, and St. James' political campaign for San Francisco supervisor; t-shirts, many of which were designed for COYOTE and the Hookers Masquerade Ball; a safe sex sticker; and an embroidered COYOTE logo on fabric. This last item may have smoke damage from the fire that destroyed the COYOTE headquarters in August 1978. The large decorative banner for COYOTE was used in rallies and was prominently displayed in COYOTE work spaces. Photographs of the banner and how it was used can be seen in Series IV. Series is arranged by format.

Series VI, AUDIOVISUAL, 1976-2008 (#T-575.1, Vt-331.1-Vt-331.3, DVD-157.1-DVD-157.2), includes video of St. James on television talk shows as well as participating in a reunion gathering of North Beach, California, residents along with author Dick Boyd. St. James wrote the foreword to Boyd's book Broadway North Beach: The Golden Years (see also #14.18). Of additional note is a profile St. James and the Hooker's Convention in Washington, DC, in Hard Work by Ginny Durrin.

Series VII. BORN-DIGITAL FILES, 1985, 1991-2015 (#E.1-E.26), gives a glimpse into Margo St. James' activities and interests later in her life. Items in this series relate to her professional activities and activism as well as her personal life. Topics include COYOTE, St. James' campaign for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, St. James Infirmary, and activities and reflections of St. James and friends and family. Included are writings by Margo St. James, Paul Krassner, and others; correspondence and e-mail, including letters written to San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown; interviews; meeting minutes; financial materials; legal materials; contact lists; biographical statements written by St. James; and photographs. Of note are photographs from the 2005 Hooker's Ball and photographs from "Dredgetown," which was likely the Sausalito, California, houseboat community. Folders #E.1-E.3 contain a mix of files related to both professional or activism work and personal life. Due to the large number of items within these folders the archivists left them in their original order instead of further arranging and sorting the files.

Electronic records were received on 19 3.5" disks, five compact disks, and two hard drives. Disks were imaged using FTK Imager. Data on one of the hard drives was unrecoverable. Selected data has been converted to PDF/A for preservation and delivery.

See also Series I, II, and IV for related content. Series is arranged alphabetically.


Margo St. James was born Margaret Jean St. James on September 12, 1937, in Bellingham, Washington, to George Lawrence St. James, a dairy farmer, and Dorothy (Evelyn Wellman) St. James, a homemaker and secretary. St. James had a brother, George Robert, and sister, Claudette Sterk, who became a gospel singer. St. James lived on a dairy farm in Hopewell, Washington, until her father joined the United States Army in 1942. Her mother and father divorced when St. James was young. In 1955 her mother married Louis B. Wachter, with whom she had one son, John. That same year, Margo St. James graduated from Mount Baker High School in Deming, Washington. She worked on her father's dairy farm after graduation and married a high school boyfriend. They had one son together but divorced in 1958. After a brief stay in Seattle, Washington, St. James moved to San Francisco, California, where she held a variety of jobs, joined the Beatnik scene, and pursued an art career.

In 1962, while living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and working as a cocktail waitress, St. James was arrested and convicted on false prostitution charges and spent a short time in jail. After her conviction St. James was excluded from many jobs due to having a criminal record. This both drove her into sex work and inspired her life-long activism and feminism. While working off her bail, St. James met defense attorney Vincent Hallinan, who convinced her to go to law school. She took the college equivalency examination and enrolled at Lincoln University in San Francisco (1963-1964). While she never finished her legal studies, she used them to successfully appeal her conviction.

St. James lived in San Francisco for most of her life, working at times as a waitress, restaurant hostess, deck hand on dinner cruises, process server for Vincent Hallinan, gardener, carpenter's assistant, and dance instructor, and was founder of Margo's Miracle Maids, a domestic service. She also became licensed as a private investigator in California in 1976.

St. James founded or was involved in numerous organizations advocating for free speech, sex workers' rights, decriminalization of prostitution, and sex-positive feminism. Seeing the need for a dialogue between feminists and sex workers, St. James organized WHOM (Whores, Housewives, and Other Mothers) in 1971 to bring together "straight" women (non-sex workers) and sex workers to identify and work toward common goals. Although WHOM met only a few times, it became the forerunner of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), which Margo St. James co-founded with anthropologist Jennifer James on Mother's Day in 1973. One of the first civil rights organizations for sex workers, COYOTE called for the decriminalization of prostitution and protested police harassment and entrapment of sex workers. It also sought to provide legal and medical services for sex workers, as well as health and financial counseling, a hotline called SLIP (Survival Line for Independent Prostitutes), gave classes on survival skills for sex workers in jail, and worked to educate the public about sex work through publications, speeches, and seminars.

COYOTE used multiple slogans, including "My Ass Is Mine" and "The Trick Is Not Getting Caught" to argue that sex work should be considered a legitimate occupation, with sex workers given equal protection under the law. From 1974 to 1978, COYOTE put on many events designed to both raise money and raise awareness of their platform. The two most successful events were the Annual Hookers' Convention and the Hooker's Ball. The first convention was held in June 1974 in San Francisco, California, and the first Hooker's Ball was held in October of that same year. The Ball was billed as "the social event of the year for heterosexuals, bisexuals, trisexuals, nonsexuals, homosexuals, and other minorities who feel discriminated against." A film entitled Hookers documented the 1975 ball, which became an annual event in San Francisco for a number of years and inspired similar functions in other cities.

Although it was widely perceived to be a sex workers' union, in 1975 only 60 of COYOTE's 8500 members admitted to being sex workers; most members were educated, white, middle-class women. Within two years of its founding, two sister chapters were formed: ASP (Association of Seattle Prostitutes) and PONY (Prostitutes of New York); by 1979 there were nearly twenty sister organizations in the United States and abroad. A newspaper entitled COYOTE Howls appeared irregularly between 1974 and 1979.

In 1976, feminist Florynce Kennedy founded the Victoria C. Woodhull Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit corporation "designed to be a funding tool for decriminalization of prostitution and related issues: violence, rape, incest, abortion, childcare, welfare, etc." Margo St. James served as its executive director and Priscilla Alexander, a former schoolteacher, became chair of one of the Victoria C. Woodhull Memorial Foundation's ad hoc committees, the National Task Force on Prostitution. After a fire destroyed the COYOTE headquarters in August 1978, many of its functions were absorbed by the National Task Force on Prostitution (NTFP). A national network of sex workers' rights advocacy organizations, the NTFP worked for the decriminalization of prostitution and "the removal of stigmas associated with female sexuality." It sought to influence state policy makers, conducted research and compiled statistics, and prepared position papers on topics related to prostitution. COYOTE Howls became NTFP News, but still bore the COYOTE logo.

With COYOTE as the lobbying arm and the National Task Force on Prostitution promoting international networks and legitimizing the movement, the Victoria C. Woodhull Memorial Foundation set up the Masquerade Corporation to produce balls and other fund-raising events. The Victoria C. Woodhull Memorial Foundation achieved non-governmental organization status at the United Nations late in 1979, and in October 1980 the NTFP was adopted as a project by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. In 1984 the NTFP held its first national convention in San Francisco, coinciding with the Democratic National Convention. Most active chapter members were current or former sex workers, although other advocates also participated. A similar network in Canada, CORP (Canadians Organized for the Rights of Prostitutes), worked with the National Task Force on Prostitution on a variety of projects.

In 1985 St. James and her partner Gail Pheterson formed the International Committee for Prostitutes' Rights (ICPR), based in Amsterdam. The National Task Force on Prostitution and its affiliates were members of the ICPR, which sponsored the World Whores' Congress in Amsterdam in 1985 and in Brussels in 1986. Margo St. James moved to Europe in 1986 to live with Pheterson, first in the Netherlands and then in the South of France, where she cut grapes and firewood, and did painting, plastering, and stonework for a house restoration company. Priscilla Alexander, who had worked with Margo St. James in various capacities since 1976, and Gloria Lockett, a former sex worker who joined the organization in 1982, continued the work of the National Task Force on Prostitution in San Francisco as co-directors.

Reflecting on a growing concern about AIDS during the 1980s, members of COYOTE formed CAL-PEP (California Prostitutes Education Project) in 1985 "to provide public education on prostitution, and to provide education and counseling to prostitutes, ex-prostitutes, and sex workers within the San Francisco Bay Area." Its first project, funded by the State of California Department of Health, United States Centers for Disease Control, and Project AWARE, was an AIDS-prevention project that culminated in the publication of Prostitutes Prevent AIDS: A Manual for Health Education in 1988.

In the mid-1990s Margo St. James returned to San Francisco and married journalist Paul Avery in 1992. She worked as a member of the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution and the mayor's Drug Abuse Advisory Board. In 1996 she unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Three years later she, along with activists such as Priscilla Alexander, Carol Leigh, and Johanna Bryer and Dawn Passar of the Exotic Dancers Alliance founded the St. James Infirmary Clinic. The clinic was the first occupational health and safety clinic in the United States run by sex workers for sex workers. Johanna Breyer became the first executive director; Dawn Passar was its first outreach coordinator, and Dr. Deborah Cohan became the first medical director. As of 2023, the infirmary continues to provide health care for sex workers.

In 1998, St. James and Avery moved to Orcas Island. Avery died December 10, 2000. St. James stayed in Washington after Avery's death and died in January 2021 from complications of Alzheimer's disease.


The collection is arranged in seven series:

  1. Series I. Biographical, Personal, and Writings, 1942-2018 (#1.1-18.2, FD.1-FD.3, F+D.1-F+D.5, OD.1-OD.3)
  2. Series II. Professional Activities and Activism, 1951-2012 (#18.3-35.27, FD.4-FD.5, F+D.6-F+D.8, OD.4-OD.6, SD.1, 41CB-42CB)
  3. Series III. Subject Files, 1966-2011 (#36.1-40.10)
  4. Series IV. Photographs, 1939-1996 (#PD.1-PD.11sl)
  5. Series V. Memorabilia, 1974-1997, undated (#40.11m-40.13m, 43OB.1m-43OB.15m, 44OB.1m)
  6. Series VI. Audiovisual, 1976-2008, undated (#T-575.1, Vt-331.1-Vt-331.3, DVD-157.1-DVD-157.2)
  7. Series VII. Born-Digital Files, 1985, 1991-2015 (#E.1-E.26)

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 2019-M121, 2019-M103, 2020-M57

The papers of Margo St. James were acquired by the Schlesinger Library from Margo St. James in June and July 2019 and August 2020.

Related Material:

There is related material at the Schlesinger Library; see Records of Coyote, 1962-1989 (81-M32--90-M1).


Donors: Margo St. James

Accession numbers: 2019-M121, 2019-M103, 2020-M57

Processed by: Emily Mathay and Laura Peimer

Published materials that were removed from the collection have been transferred to the Schlesinger Library books and printed materials collection and will be cataloged separately.

Processing Information

Processed: September 2023

By: Emily Mathay and Laura Peimer, with assistance from Janin I. Escobedo Garcia.

The Schlesinger Library attempts to provide a basic level of preservation and access for all collections, and does more extensive processing of higher priority collections as time and resources permit. Finding aids may be updated periodically to account for new acquisitions to the collection and/or revisions in arrangement and description.

St. James, Margo. Papers of Margo St. James, 1939-2018 (inclusive), 1966-2000 (bulk): A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description
Processing of this collection was made possible by the Susan Parkman Atkinson Fund, Mary Brown Milbank Fund, the Patricia M. King/Schlesinger Library Director’s Fund, 1933-1934 Alumnae Fund, and Mary Mitchell Wood Manuscript Processing Fund

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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