Peppering her impassioned arguments with saucy humor, she fashioned herself a grande dame of what is often dubbed the world’s oldest profession and became an irresistible subject for the local, national and international media in her heyday.
“It’s a service which is demanded by society,” she told Canada’s Globe and Mail in 1980, referring to prostitution. “We have to accept the viability of sexual service as a means of work — it’s just like someone doing your nails, doing your hair, or giving you an enema in the hospital.”
Ms. St. James, who once ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on the slogan “The Lady Is a … Champ,” died Jan. 11 at a nursing home in Bellingham, Wash. She was 83 and had complications from dementia, said her sister, Claudette Sterk.
Ms. St. James was known in San Francisco as the convener of the Hookers’ Ball, a COYOTE fundraiser that for years was one of the city’s most colorful political events. At its height, in 1978, it attracted 20,000 guests, including a sizable contingent of politicians.
“In any other city in America, the photo opportunities alone would ruin a political career,” a Washington Post reporter wrote in 1996, describing that year’s attendees as clad in attire “largely constructed of leather thongs and neoprene, with lots of cutouts.”
“But not in San Francisco,” the dispatch continued, “a city that revels in its tolerance of lifestyles and activities that would be scandalous elsewhere.”
Ms. St. James had moved to the city in the late 1950s from Washington state, where she was born Margaret Jean St. James in Bellingham on Sept. 12, 1937. She grew up on her father’s dairy farm and was married around the time of her high school graduation to an older classmate, Don Sobjack. Shortly thereafter, their son, Don Sobjack Jr., was born.
“I knew that was a mistake,” Ms. St. James told the Guardian in 1986, reflecting on her sudden entry into parenthood. “I knew I would be a bad mother.”
Nurturing ambitions to become an artist, she settled in San Francisco, leaving her husband and son behind. She said she did not engage in prostitution until after she was arrested on false accusations of having done so.
Police had become suspicious of the volume of people going to and from her home, and she conceded to the Windy City Times of Chicago in 2011 that “a lot of friends came over to my house after work, and there was a lot of pot-smoking and sex.”
But “your Honor,” she recalled telling the judge in her case, “I’ve never turned a trick in my life.” His reply, she said, was that “anyone who knows the language is obviously a professional.”
Ms. St. James said she enrolled in law school in part to appeal her conviction, which was ultimately overturned. By her account, she began taking money for sex to pay her tuition. She did not complete law school and said that at various points she earned income by working as a process server, private detective, car parker, restaurant hostess and deckhand on a dinner cruise boat.
Although her tactics at times seemed high on entertainment value — she once made her entrance at the Hookers’ Ball astride an elephant — her mission was deeply serious, part of a broader movement to gain greater health services, legal rights and financial security for sex workers.
“We are trying to funnel sex workers into the mainstream,” she told the Globe and Mail. “We’ve got to demystify it. We’ve got to accept them as human beings.”
In addition to founding COYOTE, Ms. St. James established the St. James Infirmary, a clinic that serves sex workers in San Francisco. In the 1980s, she moved to Europe with Gail Pheterson, a fellow activist and author of the volume “A Vindication of the Rights of Whores.” There Ms. St. James helped organize international conferences of sex workers in Amsterdam in 1985 and in Brussels the following year, hammering out a World Charter for Prostitutes’ Rights.
Ms. St. James later returned to the United States, making her bid for elective office in San Francisco in 1996. (She was said to have sought the Republican nomination for president in 1980, but the extent of her efforts were unclear.)
Claiming to have “the support of the bohemians, the old hippies, the gays,” as well as “the veterans and the longshoremen and the politicians,” she promised to install a red light outside her office, to be turned on when she was present in City Hall.
Her experience in politics, she argued, was greater than many voters realized.
“I’m perceived as an outsider, but I’ve really been on the inside all these years — sitting on their laps in the smoke-filled rooms,” she said on CBS at the time. “So now I want to come in the front door and I want a place at the table.”
Ms. St. James won endorsements from Mayor Willie Brown and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others, but in a race for one of six seats, she came in seventh place.
In the later years of her life, she returned to Washington state, where she lived with her second husband, Paul Avery, a California crime reporter who had covered cases including the serial murders of the Zodiac Killer and the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. He died in 2000 after seven years of marriage.
Besides her sister, Ms. St. James’s survivors include her son, Don Sobjack of Custer, Wash.; a brother; a half brother; three grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Ms. St. James was a unionist to the core. Once, a newspaper reported that she had been a madam, and she agitated for a retraction, according to The Washington Post.
“I was never management,” she declared.