#NYCStripperStrike: Race, Class and Women’s Work

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“Honey, I guess you can sum up this business in one sentence,” stripper Bobbie Bruce told reporter Jack Griffin at Minsky’s Rialto Theater, a hub of early-1950s Chicago burlesque. “You grab as much sex as the law is allowing at the time, and throw it across the footlights as hard as you can.”1

In the 1950s, only seven states, including Illinois and New York, permitted striptease performances. Chicago law gave club owners full discretion about just how much strippers could or could not take off.2 Meanwhile in New York, dancers were limited to uncovering a single breast, for eight bars of music at a time.3

Griffin discovered “a stripper’s life is a tough one, made up of long hours. Although she may be on stage only a total of an hour or so, she has to be on call for 10 to 12 hours a day.” Moreover, he learned, “the private life of a strip teaser, one who takes her art seriously, is about as routine as that of a file clerk in a business office–and often duller. A stripper is doing five or six shows a day, seven days a week, isn’t in the mood for much of anything except going home–alone–and going to sleep.”4

In major cities like New York City and Chicago, nascent strip clubs like Minksy’s Rialto offered women better pay than working the counter at Macys or Bloomingdales. As Moira Weigel argues, retail workers were mostly working-class girls who hoped to entice just the right wealthy man and thus escape a life of wage labor drudgery.5 Strip clubs, meanwhile, stimulated desire and seduction in a manner not unlike the courtship of retail customers or the theatrical fantasies window displays brought to life for urban consumers.6 The women who worked in retail and strip clubs symbolized a new worker, proliferated by a mid-twentieth century boom in the US service industry. Feminized service workers relied on guile, cajolery and flirtation to attract customers and clientele to purchase commodities. As a unique form of service work, strippers turned this allure into the commodity itself. But then as now, stripping was nonetheless work, and hard work at that.

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