Margo St. James (born September 12, 1937), a self-described prostitute and sex-positive feminist, founded the organization COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), which advocates decriminalization of prostitution.
Margo St. James (Margaret Jean St. James) was born in Bellingham, Washington.
St. James founded COYOTE in 1973. The forerunner of COYOTE was WHO: Whores, Housewives and Others; Others in this case meant lesbians. The first meeting of WHO was held on Alan Watts's houseboat; and the name COYOTE came from novelist Tom Robbins who dubbed St. James the coyote trickster.
St. James began attending international conferences: 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 Covention, the 1980 Decade of Women Conference in Copenhagen, the 1976 Democratic Convention in New York—where St. James organized loiter-ins—and the Republican Convention in Kansas City. In 1974, St. James lectured at Harvard, among other campuses.
In 1976, COYOTE, led by St. James, filed a law suit against Rhode Island. In the case, COYOTE v. Roberts, the argument was based on how much power the state should have to control the sexual activity of its citizens. The law suit also alleged discrimination on how the law was being applied. Data was submitted that demonstrated selective prosecution, the Providence Police were arresting female sex workers far more often than the male customers. St. James testified in the case. Although the case eventually was dismissed when the General Assembly changed the prostitution statute in 1980, COYOTE and St. James are given credit as one of the reasons prostitution in Rhode Island was decriminalized, prostitution was outlawed again in 2009 (see Prostitution in Rhode Island).
Other documentaries detailing St. James's activism include Hard Work, directed by Ginny Durrin, Ain't Nobodies Business, and Hookers. Hard Work, which is set in Washington D.C., was filmed in 1976 during the Bicentennial. The short documentary won the NYC Golden Eagle Cine Award in 1978 and the Edinburgh, Scotland award for Best Documentary in 1979.
St. James claims to be a former prostitute and has been criticized by the anti-pornography feminists, including Dorchen Leidholdt. Her claim to have been a prostitute is based on a 1962 prostitution conviction. According to St. James, her conviction was based on her knowledge of the word trick. From 1974 to 1979, COYOTE published its newsletter, COYOTE Howls, from St. James's office in San Francisco. Fund-raising involved an annual hosting of the well-attended Hooker's Ball, which nabbed 20,000 attendees in 1978.
In 1985, COYOTE’s records were archived at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, in the prestigious Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.
In 1993, St. James returned from France, where she had organized for decriminalization internationally, and married journalist Paul Avery. Avery, who died in 2000, was best known for his investigation of the Zodiac Killer and Patricia Hearst cases.
In 1996, St. James received approximately 76,000 votes in her bid to become a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, finishing fifth in a race where the top four were seated. In the late 1990s, she served on the Board of Supervisors' Drug Abuse Advisory Board.
St. James sought the Republican Party nomination for President of the United States in 1980.
In 1998, Margo St. James founded the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco to help provide health care to the sex worker community.
As of May, 2009, St. James is reported as living in Orcas Island, Washington with her cat, Lovey Dovey.