When we think about prostitution in the West, several images come to mind. The good-hearted saloon girl like Miss Kitty is one archetype, although in Gun Smoke there was never any suggestion she might head upstairs for anything except a nap. Then there are the prostitutes in the Gem saloon of Deadwood. These girls are obviously the drudges of the business, they have little self-esteem and their pimp treats them badly. There were also the famous “houses of ill-repute” which could be small cottage businesses or operated in large mansions. From saloons to bordellos, cat houses to cribs, there were always women in the mining camps, towns and cities willing to sell their bodies to survive.
Madams owned lucrative businesses and were even known to support local charitable causes. Of course, this life was harsh and the women recruited into it had no other choices. There were few opportunities for employment in the Victorian era, and single women often found themselves forced into prostitution to survive.
There is also the ugly underbelly of prostitution, the addiction to drugs such as laudanum and alcohol. Many of the women had been abused as children or by their husbands. The oldest profession wasn’t exactly taken up as an option, generally when there was just no other choice women became prostitutes to survive.
In many frontier towns, there was a gulf between respectable and disreputable women. Victorian society generally accepted the belief that women were physically and intellectually inferior to men, but morally superior. Good women were also considered sexually indifferent, and prostitutes were assumed to be overly sexed. They were accused of tempting men – who could not control their sexual urges.
The good girl/bad girl divide in society meant that prostitutes were excluded from respectable boarding houses and hotels. They were also often forbidden to attend the theater, dances and social events if “decent women” would be in attendance. Many towns segregated prostitutes into specific areas, often referred to as “bawdy” or “red light” districts.
There were women who became wealthy and later invested in other businesses and even some who married. But, the life of a prostitute in the West was neither glamorous nor easy.
I’ve seen Regency set historical romances that feature “courtesans”, but I don’t believe I’ve ever read a Western that features a prostitute in the role of the heroine. I know there must be some out there, so I’m hoping this blog post will generate some titles. Can you suggest a book?
A lifelong love of American history led Deborah Schneider from teaching high school to writing novels. She won the Molly award for “Most Unsinkable Heroine” from the Heart of Denver chapter of RWA. Her first book, “Beneath A Silver Moon” was a finalist in the New Historical Voice Contest and was published in 2001. Her newest book, “Promise Me” is now available. Deborah is employed by one of the busiest library systems in the US and she’s the RWA Librarian of the Year. She lives in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Visit Deborah’s website at: www.debschneider.com