While doing research for a western series I’m planning, I combed through my wide and varied western library and came across a book titled “No Step Backward.”
This book is about women and family on the Rocky Mountain Frontier, Helena, Montana, 1865-1900.
What particularly caught my interest was a long chapter on the city’s “soiled doves.”
Several others on this blog have delved into this fascinating subject, but what amazed me was how successful these women became in this western outpost.
According to this book, “one group of Helena’s working women – the prostitute – created an economic empire within the city, and the chronicle of the expansion and contraction of their holdings . . . mirrored Helena’s own development between 1865 and 1900. These capitalists . . . represented the largest class of working women until 1900 and assisted in redefining frontier womanhood both for themselves and other women.”
When the secretary of the Helena Board of Trade submitted his first report in 1876, he included mention of wages: Laborers wages, $2.50 to $4.00 per day; miners, $4 to $5 dollars per day; mechanics, $5 to $7 per day; farm laborer, $50 per month; female labor, cooks and general house work, $30 to $40 a month.
Compare that to the monthly earnings of seven prostitutes who maintained bank accounts in the city’s two major banks. They ranged from $179 a month to $337 per month.
Unlike the oft-portrayed poor and mistreated “soiled doves’ in films, the real life prostitute in Helena did very well and often ended up owning substantial real estate. The majority of Helena’s prostitutes were native born and had property. Twelve women, or one-third of the white demimonde population, reported having an average of $2,500 in personal wealth and fifteen of them owned property.
These women of the demimonde accumulated capital and became a real force in the community. Quite a few bought property that became saloons, a ‘hurley gurdy’ or a simple prostitute proprietorship. One even bought a piece of new property by mortgaging all she had, plus all her underwear (three dozen pair underclothes) for $3,000 at two percent per month.
There were also instances of more than a few prostitutes who moved out of that field and up into the tenderloin’s hierarchy.
But by 1886, a growing concern for moral improvement spread in Helena. The Daily Independent reported numerous complaints against Ming’s Opera House, charging the house with the indiscriminate seating of members of the demimonde in the dress circle and ‘parquette.’ In response the manager replied that he had no wish to bar the ‘soiled doves’ but their seating would be confined to a less conspicuous area.
Five indignant ‘doves’ stole habits from the Sisters of Charity and, so disguised, presented themselves and tickets for the five demimonde seats at an evening performance.
I think what amazed me was the long acceptance of these women as an integral part of the community. Some took their money and disappeared, probably to establish a “respectable” live somewhere else. But others were integrated into the community, their children went to private schools and they became an accepted part of the community.
It gave me a glimpse of a side of the west we seldom see in films or books, although one of my westerns, “Notorious”, has an ex-prostitute heroine who owned a saloon. I love strong heroines, particularly those who overcome huge obstacles.
So, in recognition of Helena’s soiled doves, I would love to send a copy to two of those who post on this blog. I’ll announce the winners next week.