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Dressed for a formal visit, Chinatown, San Francisco. Arnold Genthe, photographer. Between 1896 and 1906. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-G403-BN-0387 (b&w film dup. neg.).

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The Immigration Act of 1875 was the first immigration law that excluded groups of people from the United States—and women were part of that exclusion.

Commonly referred to as the Asian Exclusion Act, this legislation prohibited the importation of Chinese laborers who did not voluntarily consent to come to work in America and Chinese women for the purposes of prostitution: “Sec. 3. That the importation into the United States of women for the purposes of prostitution is hereby forbidden.”80

In 1903 the immigration law was amended to exclude any woman or girl, regardless of her country of origin. The 1903 law read: “Sec. 3: That the importation into the United States of any woman or girl for the purposes of prostitution is hereby forbidden.”81

Not until 1910 were the words “woman or girl” removed from the law, and it was amended to read, “That the importation into the United States of any alien for the purpose of prostitution or for any other immoral purpose is hereby forbidden.”82 The same year, the Mann Act, or White Slave Traffic Act, was passed, which punished those who imported or transported women across state lines for immoral purposes.83

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Italian immigrant family at Ellis Island, ca. 1910. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-67910 (b&w film copy neg).

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Although the laws were enacted to limit the trafficking in women for prostitution, they were used in a negative way to prevent women who were single and unemployed from entering the United States when they did not appear to have a means of support. The immigration laws enacted from 1875 to 1910, in conjunction with the prevailing opinion that the European countries were encouraging their paupers and undesirables to emigrate, assumed that single women would become wards of the state or turn to prostitution in order to make a living.84 Even though these laws were passed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some of the views they supported remained entrenched well into the late twentieth century.

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