What is the Mann Act?
June 25th is the anniversary of a popular and quintessential American event: the Battle of Little Bighorn. Everyone knows the story of Lt. Col. Custer’s foolhardy last stand, and all the men who were killed under his command in 1876. Everyone knows that story.
Yet just thirty-four short years later, another important (yet less remembered) event came and went.
On June 25th, 1910, James R. Mann pushed the White Slavery Traffic Act through Congress. More commonly called the “Mann Act,” Mann’s legislation has had a long, colorful, and controversial career. The purpose of the Mann Act is simple: it is a federal law that makes it a felony to engage in interstate (across state lines) or foreign commerce transport of any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution.
Usually, the transportation of goods across state lines is a positive development signifying trade, growth, and commercialization. However, Mann’s measure sought to prevent the wide commercialization of the sex trade. Why? Because great demand requires great supply—and in the sex trade, supply does not volunteer. He also recognized the truth that unlike natural gas, crude oil, and pork bellies, human beings are not commodities.
The law was a response to the surge of foreign women that had begun to be trafficked and sexually exploited throughout the United States. However, opponents heralded it as a knee-jerk moral reaction to an over-embellished problem (an argument we still hear today). Despite the negative press, the bill passed.
While the Mann Act was important in 1910, it is arguably equally, if not more, important in 2016. Given modern transportation and communication, and the ease with which interstate commerce is carried out today, the Mann Act equips federal law enforcement officials with the legal means to prosecute sex traffickers under standards that are easier to prove than modern sex trafficking laws. Unfortunately, the Mann Act is little known among those working to abolish sex trafficking.
James R. Mann
Born in 1857 into the state of Illinois, James R. Mann was recognized as a much-needed congressional asset in a time of political upheaval.
Before he became a legislator, Mann had an eclectic professional and theological career. While studying at the Union College of Law in the 1870s/80s he worked as a printer and a briefly as a teacher. Mann eventually settled down to a career in law. As a young, intelligent, and oratorically gifted young man, James fell in love with Emma Colombia, who was a female activist in the local Women’s Club of Chicago. They were married May 30, 1882.
Mann eventually was drawn to politics to “make connections” and fulfill his civic duty. He then proceeded to begin his slow career in local and state politics that would eventually lead to Washington, DC. The majority of his time in the local politics of Chicago was spent fighting dishonest graft, which was a losing battle. His rise through state politics only created steam for his eventual arrival in DC, where the inhabitants already knew his name. This was largely in part because, while politicking in Chicago, Mann had routinely engaged in shouting matches with local politicians regarding matters of ethnicity and morality.
During his tenure as a Congressman, Mann became known for his skillfulness in adeptly solving problems. John Nance Garner (D-Texas), who served more than thirty years in the House of Representatives wrote that Mann was the “most useful legislator I ever knew.”
All praise aside, Mann had some frankly human moments too. During a suffragist pageant, violence erupted and the Washington police failed to adequately protect the participants and attendees. In the passion of a suffragist debate regarding the issue (Mann who was also known for a heated, verbose personality) stated that it would have been safer if the women had been at home, “where they belong.” The New York Times on Jan 13, 1915 recorded the following narrative events:
“For this utterance Mr. Mann was blacklisted by the suffragists and threatened with bitter opposition (…) The apology was offered that the remark was made in the heat of debate, and that Mr. Mann was at heart in favor of equal suffrage. Today he made a strong speech for the amendment and if any resentment remained among the suffragists it disappeared in the applause that greeted the close of his remarks.”
Though Mann was quick to defend his moral code in a heated fashion, he was also quick to correct his errors: a trait that served him well during his political tenure.
The Time Is Right, The People Are Ready!
Critics of the Mann Act devalue the worth of the bill, pointing to instances where it was used in racist ways, or selectively implemented. However, today, the Mann Act is used to save lives and punish traffickers. Among a plethora of smaller cases, a high-profile case was tried in 2014, where a trafficker in Pennsylvania was selling females, some of whom were minors, for sexual services. This particular prosecution was made possible by the Mann Act.
Moreover the scholarly works that critique Mann’s character, forget that James R. Mann was not only the primary behind the scenes leader of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, but also the man, who in May 1919 introduced the 19th Amendment to the floor and said, “The time is right, the people are ready.” What is more, he also personally helped Florence Fifer Bohrer become Illinois’s first female Member of Congress.
James R. Mann started the legislative fight against human trafficking. He exhibited forethought, passion, and political gravitas in his fight to value the lives and political freedom of the nation he served.
So, whether you’re fighting for the end of sexploitation or for women’s equality, Mann was right: the time is right and we are ready! And, unlike Custer’s battle of Little Big Horn, these are issues worth fighting for. So the next time June 25th rolls around, remember James R. Mann and our shared fight against sexual exploitation.
 Margulies, Herbert F. “James R. Mann: The Illinois Years.” Illinois Historical Journal 90, no. 3 (1997): 191-210. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40193163.
 Margulies, H. F. (1996). Reconciliation and revival: James R. Mann and the House Republicans in the Wilson era. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
 “Suffragists Lose Fight In The House.” New York Times, January 13, 1915. Accessed June 14, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0112.html#article. (ellipses added for clarity)
 Illinois Caucus GOP (n.d.). U.S. Rep. James Mann (R-Chicago) started the fight against human trafficking. Retrieved June 14, 2016, from http://www.thecaucusblog.com/2013/09/us-rep-james-mann-r-chicago-started.html
 McCoy, Kelli Ann. (2010). Claiming victims : the Mann Act, gender, and class in the American West, 1910-1930s. UC San Diego: History. b6851545. Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/8f60q9gt