A sex work advocate before they called it “sex work,” Margo St. James was the namesake of the St. James Infirmary and founded the old Hooker’s Ball. She also spearheaded a movement to legalize prostitution, and very nearly won a seat on the SF Board of Supervisors in 1996.

Tuesday’s San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting concluded with a series of phrases you do not hear at other cities’ board of supervisors meetings, like “proud prostitute and pioneer,” and “how essential that clinic is for sex workers.” These were the supervisors’ words of memoriam for Margo St. James, the “Joan of Arc” of the sex worker movement who passed a week ago from Alzheimer’s complications, according to a post from the St. James Infirmary, the clinic she co-founded in 1999. St. James’ legacy was acknowledged in an SFGate obituary last week, and she was honored with a terrific New York Times write-up today. She was 83.

“Margo was far from a one-trick activist, so to speak, and she was — from many years of pro-prostitution rabblerousing in San Francisco — very connected to city politics,” Good Vibrations sexologist Dr. Carol Queen said in a statement. “Margo was an extraordinary role model not only for those of us who worked directly with the sex worker’s rights movement — she lit a match to create a flame that hasn’t burned out and has changed the way people across the country think of sex work.”

St. James was first arrested for prostitution in 1962, defended herself in court, and got her charges dismissed. She would later start a Marin County support group called WHO (Whores, Housewives, and Others). “Others meant lesbian,” she told Bitch magazine in 2013. A personal essay she wrote in 2007 describes her era as a Summer of Love folk hero who hobnobbed with Ken Kesey, Dick Gregory, and Frank Zappa, and crusaded alongside Harvey Milk to co-found a legacy activist group called Citizens for Justice.

By 1977, The Atlantic wrote that “No public relations expert could do more for prostitutes than ex-prostitute Margo St. James has done with COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics).” That organization spread nationwide, and while not successful at decriminalizing sex work, made it a fashionable cause, and the organization still has active chapters in several states. They also started up to a notorious 1970s-era Halloween weekend event called the Hooker’s Ball, which would eventually draw crowds as large as 20,000, and served as the inspiration for the Exotic Erotic Ball that would milk the concept for another 30 years.

In 1999, St. James co-founded her namesake St. James Infirmary, a “peer-based occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers of all genders” that continues as the nation’s only primary care clinic for sex workers. A few years before in 1996, she ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, winning the endorsements of the-mayor Willie Brown and then-DA Patrick Hallinan. She barely lost, coming in seventh in a race where only the top six would win seats. Among those who beat her was a promising young legislator named Leland Yee, who was released from prison this past June after a profound fall from grace in the Shrimp Boy scandal.

“I wonder how it would have changed SF history if she’d won,” Dr. Queen said.

Parenthetically, at the close of Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, they declared that February 14, 2021 would be declared “Margo St. James Day.”

Related: Appeal To Decriminalize Sex Work In California Moves To Court [SFist]

Image: St. James Infirmary