IRMALEE DAVIS ignored her husband’s complaints and frequented Atlanta’s dance halls at all hours of the night. Hattie Harper publicly accused the city relief officer of demanding sexual favors and threatening to ruin her reputation. Flossie Nealy won fifty dollars from the city council for undisclosed “damages.” Annie Parr and Mae Parkman wore overalls and caps and visited the bars of Decatur Street disguised as men. Nellie Busbee told Atlanta Chief of Police James Beavers to “go to hell.” Mrs. Allen demanded that her social worker not return unless she brought pain medicine for Allen’s aching back and a new hat for her to wear.
In many ways, these are the vibrant, outspoken, working-class women of earlytwentieth-century Atlanta that I had hoped to find when I began my research. I wanted to tell their stories—how they thought of themselves as urbanites and how they used the opportunities and the anonymity of the city to their benefit or at least for their own defense. I assumed that I might find, much like Christine Stansell did in her research on women in early national New York City,1 that these women carved out a life for themselves uniquely suited to their urban surroundings. Although my research would obviously differ from hers in time, region, and race, I fully expected to focus on women and how they constructed a place for themselves within their urban environment. What I discovered about Atlanta’s women both surprised me and compelled me to tell a somewhat different story. Working-class women did indeed profess urban identities, but more importantly the city at large recognized their significance to the community, though not necessarily in ways that benefited the women. City residents were acutely aware of the workingclass women among them, often speaking about them publicly and using their images and experiences (whether imagined or real) as symbols within crucial civic debates. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Atlanta’s workingclass women not only served the “better classes” in their homes and factories but provided city boosters, politicians, and reformers with a common set of images, issues, and language that would help bring seemingly disparate problems into focus. Residents’ public “concern” for the welfare of working-class women became