Margo St. James

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Margo St. James
Margo St. James.jpg
Photograph of St. James by filmmaker George Csicsery
Margaret Jean St. James

(1937-09-12)September 12, 1937
DiedJanuary 11, 2021(2021-01-11) (aged 83)
Bellingham, Washington, US
OccupationFeminist activist
Known forFounder of St. James Infirmary Clinic and COYOTE
Don Sobjack
(m. 1993; died 2000)
ChildrenDon Sobjack, Jr.

Margaret Jean "Margo" St. James (September 12, 1937 – January 11, 2021) was an American prostitute and sex-positive feminist. In San Francisco, she founded COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), an organization advocating decriminalization of prostitution, and co-founded the St. James Infirmary Clinic, a medical and social service organization serving sex workers in the Tenderloin.

Early life and education[edit]

St. James was born in Bellingham, Washington, the eldest of three children of dairy farmers, and began a career as a realist painter while still at Bellingham High School.[1]


In 1958 she left her husband and son and moved to San Francisco to pursue her career as an artist,[2][3] but she lost all her paintings to theft and a fire at her studio.[1]

Initially in North Beach, where she frequented jazz clubs with other Beatniks,[2] and in the mid-1960s in the Haight-Ashbury, her home became an informal salon; she lived with guitarist Steve Mann and hosted visitors including Ken Kesey, Dr. John, Frank Zappa, members of comedic improvisational ensemble The Committee, and comedian and publisher Paul Krassner. In the late 1960s, she was the live-in housekeeper and chauffeur for Alan Watts, in Marin County.[4]

In 1962 she was arrested on a charge of prostitution, and convicted after the judge did not believe a non-prostitute would know the term "trick".[1][2][3][5] The conviction excluded her from many jobs, so, she wrote in 1989, she became both a prostitute and a feminist.[1] She took a college equivalency examination and enrolled in law school, successfully appealed her conviction, worked as a process server for criminal defense attorney Vincent Hallinan, and became one of the first women private investigators in California.[2] She listed restaurant hostess, valet parking attendant, and deckhand on dinner cruises as other jobs she had held.[3]

St. James founded COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), an organization for sex workers' rights, in 1973.[3][6] Its forerunner was WHO: Whores, Housewives and Others, the "others" being lesbians.[1] To finance COYOTE and its newspaper, COYOTE HOWLS, she organized annual Hooker's Balls;[2] the highest attendance was 20,000 in 1978.[1][3][5] She also organized similar organizations in other states,[2] lectured in 1974 on college campuses including Harvard, and in 1976 attended both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, organizing "loiter-ins" at the former.[citation needed] In 1984, with the scholar Gail Pheterson [fr] and coinciding with the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, she organized the Women's Forum on Prostitutes' Rights and the COYOTE Convention.[2] She also attended the United Nations Decade Face of Women Conferences in Mexico City, the 1976 Tribunal of Crimes Against Women in Brussels, the 1977 International Women's Year Conference in Houston, the 1977 Libertarian Party Convention, and the 1980 Decade of Women Conference in Copenhagen.[citation needed]

From 1985 to 1994 she lived with Pheterson in the Netherlands and then the South of France. They co-founded the International Committee for Prostitutes' Rights and organized the first and second World Whores' Congresses, held in Amsterdam in 1985 and at the European Parliament in Brussels in 1986, which led to the World Charter for Prostitutes' Rights.[2][3]

After her return from Europe, in the 1990s she was appointed to the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution and in 1999 was one of three founders of the St. James Infirmary Clinic in the Tenderloin, which provides health care to the sex worker community.[1][2][6] She also served on the Board of Supervisors' Drug Abuse Advisory Board.[7]

St. James sought the Republican Party nomination for President of the United States in 1980.[6][8] In 1996 she narrowly failed to win election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors;[1][2] she ran on the slogan "The Lady Is a ... Champ" and promised to have a red light illuminated outside City Hall when she was there.[3]

Personal life and death[edit]

St. James was first married to Don Sobjack, a fisherman; they married soon after she graduated from high school and had one son, Don Jr.[1][6][3]

In addition to Steve Mann and Gail Pheterson, St. James' partners included the psychiatrist Eugene Schoenfeld, known as "Dr. Hip".[1]

In 1993 she remarried to retired journalist Paul Avery, who was fatally ill with emphysema.[1][2] She took him to live in her family's cabin on Orcas Island, Washington, where she remained after his death in 2000.[9] In 2019, after she developed memory problems, her family moved her to an assisted living facility in Bellingham; she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in June 2020, and died on January 11, 2021.[1][10]

COYOTE's and St. James' papers are archived at Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.[2][11]


  • Pheterson, Gail, ed. (June 1989). A Vindication of the Rights of Whores. Seal Press. ISBN 978-0-931188-73-2.


Margo St. James starred in:

She also received a "Special Thanks" screen credit for 1986 adult film Behind the Green Door: The Sequel[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Sam Whiting (January 15, 2021). "Margo St. James, the sex workers' 'Joan of Arc,' dies at 83". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved January 18, 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "San Francisco's Own Legendary Margo St. James Dies". St. James Infirmary. January 14, 2021. Retrieved January 18, 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Emily Langer (January 15, 2021). "Margo St. James, saucy advocate for sex workers, dies at 83". Washington Post. Retrieved January 22, 2021.
  4. ^ Joel Selvin (January 17, 2012) [May 20, 2007]. "Summer of Love: 40 Years Later / Margot St. James". SFGate (San Francisco Chronicle). Retrieved January 22, 2021.
  5. ^ a b Stephen Dyer Wells. "The Unofficial Margo St. James Fan Club". Archived from the original on July 20, 2001.
  6. ^ a b c d Dan Gentile (January 13, 2021). "Legendary SF sex worker activist Margo St. James dies at age 83". SFGate (San Francisco Chronicle). Retrieved January 18, 2021.
  7. ^ San Francisco Board of Supervisors (December 20, 1999). "Agenda & Minutes Archive". City and County of San Francisco. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007.
  8. ^ Don Stannard-Friel (2016). Street Teaching in the Tenderloin: Jumpin' Down the Rabbit Hole. Springer. p. 148. ISBN 9781137564375.
  9. ^ Anne Gray Fischer (February 11, 2013). "Forty Years In The Hustle: A Q&A With Margo St. James". Retrieved May 15, 2018.
  10. ^ Joe Kokura (January 13, 2021). "Margo St. James, Matriarch of the Modern Sex Work Movement, Has Died". Broke-Ass Stuart. Retrieved January 14, 2021.
  11. ^ Dick Boyd. "Margot St. James". North Beach Book.
  12. ^ "Dreamwood (1972)". IMDb.
  13. ^ Hookers on IMdB
  14. ^ "Hard Work (1978) [Short]". MIFF.
  15. ^ "Behind the Green Door: The Sequel". IMDb.

External links[edit]