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From sex work to women’s rights: A history of the term ‘brotherly love and sisterly affection’ for Philly

The phrase is a time-honored one that’s taken a winding path through history and accumulated niche connotations over time.

The uses of "sisterly affection" have evolved over the years.
The uses of "sisterly affection" have evolved over the years.Read moreLeft: Heather Khalifa / Staff Photographer Right: The Library Company of Philadelphia

The City of Brotherly Love, as we’re so often called, is a name embraced by many. But there are Philadelphians championing the extended slogan: ... and Sisterly Affection.

“Put some respect on women,” says Dyana Williams, longtime radio broadcaster and talent coach extraordinaire.

Williams had a lot to do with the term’s recent growth in popularity. When Mayor Michael Nutter was in office, she lobbied and lobbied him to make “and Sisterly Affection” official. In November 2014, he issued a proclamation honoring her campaign.

“We need to consistently use it and not just ‘Brotherly Love,' ” Williams insists.

The phrase “brotherly love and sisterly affection” is a time-honored one that’s taken a winding path through history and accumulated niche connotations. Based on archival references that stretch back to the 1700s, “sisterly affection” has been used to signal kindness and inclusion, but it’s been used sarcastically as well to discuss women in the city.

The term has shown up in newspapers since at least the late 18th century. In 1813, Jane Austen used the term in Pride and Prejudice after Lady Catherine de Bourgh found it unusual that Elizabeth Bennet’s younger sisters were out in society when Bennet herself had yet to marry. Bennet disagreed: "I think it would not be very likely to promote sisterly affection or delicacy of mind.''

The phrase didn’t become tied to Philly until the late 1830s, said lexicographer Kory Stamper of Collingswood. Before then she said, “It appears in things like sermon texts, where you have more highfalutin, poetic language. But it wasn’t common.”

In the summer of 1837, Stamper found, the New York Daily Herald paid our city this compliment:

“Philadelphia is a pretty city — quiet, demure, and orderly. It looks like a city of brotherly love and sisterly affection.”

Philadelphia made the phrase its own.

The earliest known use of the phrase here appeared on the cover of an 1849 brothel guide. “A Guide to the Stranger” was a pamphlet available for tourists with the fuller title “A Guide to the Stranger, or pocket companion for the fancy, containing a list of the gay houses and ladies of pleasure in the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection.”

The reviews evaluated the ladies’ looks, home conditions, and the safety of the location. Imagine a Lonely Planet guide for Philly sex workers, but with ample class judgments and racist reviews. That, Stamper said, appears to be where Philly’s use of the term began.

“This pamphlet would not be in polite society at all,” noted Stamper, author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. “But the male-female pairing in the title carried onto other uses to describe Philly.”

News articles began using sisterly affection in both tongue-in-cheek and critical ways, Stamper said.

For example, in 1913, the Marion Daily Star reported that a group of women’s suffrage activists marching on the East Coast met mobs who “hurled insults” and peanuts at them.

“Philadelphia does not like suffragettes,” the report began, “Whatever may be its right to the title of ‘the City of Brotherly Love,’ the Quaker town showed no sisterly affection.”

Using the phrase as a double entendre in local reports was typical of the era.

“After the 1920s,” Stamper said, “it becomes more of a general slogan.”

More sororal versions of the motto were spoken in certain sectors. The William Way Center, for example, has lesbian pride buttons believed to be from the 1970s that say “City of Sisterly Love.” In 1980, Diane Kiddy, executive director of the Mayor’s Commission for Women, recommended that city officials adopt “the City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love” or “the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection” for public speeches and releases.

From the 1920s through 1970s, mentions of the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection were rare in most local newspapers, but the Philadelphia Tribune was an exception, publishing the term from the mouths of black leaders and the pens of black writers. The Inquirer and Daily News began capturing this in at least the 1970s, often when quoting black politicians. Nutter used the term in 1986 as a committeeman in the 52nd Ward in an op-ed for the Daily News. But the first such example in Inquirer and Daily News archives appears in a 1978 Daily News column on C. Delores Tucker’s run for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor. Tucker is one of the women from whom Williams learned it in the `70s. The radio host also heard former City Councilwoman Marian Tasco say it.

There was a big spike in references, Stamper noticed, during Nutter’s time in office.

Archivists and researchers couldn’t explain how the term evolved from a reference to sex work to an addendum that feminists, especially women of marginalized backgrounds, would promote.

“The context that I heard it initially was in community settings,” said Williams. “The genie is out of the bottle now.”

Williams said her advocacy of the phrase was always about inclusivity.

“I want young girls growing up in the city of Philadelphia knowing that they’re part of it,” said Williams. “They’re part of the lifestyle, part of the mechanism of what makes Philadelphia such a cultural gem.”

It’s been suggested that more inclusive terminology fusses with the Greek origins of the city’s name. Philadelphia is regularly defined as “brotherly love,” but that’s not its exact meaning. University of Pennsylvania classical studies professor Sheila Murnaghan cited Sophocles, who used the adjective philadelphos to describe a sister’s tears in Antigone.

The ancient terminology “applies to love among siblings of all genders,” Murnaghan said. That Philadelphia would merely be brotherly was more a matter of poor translation.