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May “Maimie” Pinzer (1885–1940) was an American prostitute and social worker who lived in Montreal from 1913 to 1918. “Maimie”—who may have written under a pseudonym, has been immortalized in her letters to Boston author and society matron Fanny Quincy Howe, composed between 1910 and 1922. The Maimie Papers, first published in 1977, provide a rare record of a working-class woman’s transience in and out of the world of sex work in the early twentieth century. Born to an educated Philadelphia family, thirteen-year-old Maimie was compelled to leave school after her father was murdered. Alongside her first job as a salesgirl, Maimie turned to sex work to support herself. Her teen years were largely spent in a reform home, jail, and various hospitals (where she recovered from more than thirty surgical operations, including one that removed her left eye). Despite her curtailed formal education, Maimie was a skilled writer who reportedly spoke five languages. In the 1910s, Maimie overcame her morphine addiction, left prostitution, and became a stenographer and fledgling businesswoman.
Upon arrival in Montreal in 1913, Pinzer observed some substantial deterrents for aspiring businesswomen. Noting that “this is the most expensive place in North America to live,” owing to a “land boom,” she also wrote that “all the forces of the business world in Montreal are arranged against a woman developing a real business.” Maimie nonetheless launched the briefly successful Business Aid Bureau of Montreal. Canada’s entry into World War I and the ensuing economic upheaval caused her to change careers and start an informal halfway house for young women. Active from 1915 to 1917, the “Montreal Mission for Friendless Girls” (so-called by her benefactors—Pinzer despised the stigmatizing title) marked the beginning of her career as a social worker. The home was explicitly aimed at Jewish and Protestant sex workers because, as Maimie wrote, “what help is extended to girls at all here is thru the Catholic Church.” While Pinzer’s Mission responded to a need in the community at the time, Jewish involvement in prostitution in Montreal was comparatively much lower than in places like New York or Buenos Aires.
Compiled by Sarah Woolf
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*Images courtesy of Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University A166-34-.1