Deborah Schneider: Soiled Doves, Fallen Women and Ladies of the Evening

Soiled DovesWhen 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.Soiled Doves2

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 PromiseMe_w2336_680features 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:

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19 thoughts on “Deborah Schneider: Soiled Doves, Fallen Women and Ladies of the Evening”

  1. Prostitutes in the Old West were either users or used, revered as “Queens” or frequently abused. They learned to survive or they ended up in a pauper’s grave…or worse. Some were “career women” and prostitution was their career. They knew the rules of the game and used their skill to achieve their goal. Other women were left behind, widowed, destitute or simply had no other choice. There was quite a gap between the prostitutes and the highly-starched church goers, but that gap is filled with the majority of society. Neither totally good or all bad, leaning more in one direction than the other.

    Here are some Western Romances with prostitute heroines. I haven’t read them, but found them via a web search. All had great reader reviews:

    RAINBOWS AND RAPTURE by Rebecca Paisley
    REDEEMING LOVE by Francine Rivers
    COMANCHE MAGIC by Catherine Anderson
    REVEALED by Tamera Alexander
    A CANDLE IN THE DARK by Megan Chance
    WOMAN OF GRACE by Kathleen Morgan

  2. very interesting post!
    i always wondered about all the women who ended up as prostitutes…i would think they would make really good story material
    i’m surprised there aren’t more

    woulda been an awfully hard life, that’s for sure!

    the girl on the “soiled doves” cover looks scary to me, lol–like she’s been possessed

    your book trailer looked really good deb! love the cover too!
    thanks for posting

  3. Interesting post. They did a lovely job with the trailer. I am going to make it to Bannack State Park one of these days. Wish I had known about it when we went to Yellowstone a few years ago.

    I would think that except for a few very successful and selective madams, prostitution was an act of desperation and last resort. It would take a strong woman to flaunt society and insist on mingling with “polite” society in spite of her profession. They were probably shunned not so much because the “good” women didn’t want them around but because the good husbands who were the customers were afraid to have them around and be found out.
    I have never understood the logic of the woman being prosecuted because prostitution is illegal but the customer is not. If it is wrong, it is wrong for both parties. Another indication that it is a man’s world like it or not.

  4. I have been reading a lot of westerns lately but have never ran across one where the heroine was a prostitute! They have always been like secondary characters. This is a very interesting post!

  5. Deborah, welcome back to P&P! We love having you come blog with us. Thanks for another interesting blog. I’m drawn to heroines who have a shady past. In my third historical called REDEMPTION, my heroine had just managed to escape from prostitution. And it’s a western romance. I’ve read other western romance stories where the heroine lived that kind of life. I think LaVeryl Spencer wrote one. They’re out there, but they’re few in number.

    Loved your trailer for PROMISE ME! That’s definitely one of the best I’ve seen. I think it’ll sell lots of books.

  6. Hi, Deborah! The cover for “Promise Me” is really beautiful. I love the gold, green and amber tones and the “lit from within” look. So pretty! I visited your website and blogspot. The story line for “Promise Me” is rich in romantic suspense! Your hero has my favorite name for a male character, especially a man of the West–“Sam” (as in Sam Elliott)! I also enjoyed your book trailer very much!

  7. I really enjoyed a book called Distant Heart by Tracey Bateman. It is actually a sequel to the book Defiant Heart both are books I enjoyed and would recommend. I also read Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers and enjoyed that one as well!

    Can’t wait to read your new book! Best Wishes!!

  8. Welcome back to P&P, Deborah. Great post. I’ve read a few westerns with ex-prostitute heroines, though no titles are springing to mind. In LaVyrle Spencer’s FORGIVING the heroine’s sister is a prostitute and the book gives a good look into the life of those who lived in brothels.

  9. I’m blank on a book but all I can think of is Ms. Kitty on Gunsmoke lol. We all knew what she did but it was never, never mentioned lol.

  10. My first thought was Redeeming Love

    And wasn’t one of the Lonesome Dove women a prostitute?

    And I think in that huge series Centennial, there were some hooker characters. Not exactly heroines but strong.

    JEANNE, Ms. Kitty would NEVER do a thing like that. YOU TAKE THAT BACK.
    She just ran a saloon and wore make-up.

  11. Enjoyed the trailer! Thanks for the history
    lesson, we don’t often hear about this subject
    and these women!

    Thanks for visiting with us today, Deborah!

    Pat Cochran

  12. Thanks for bringing up this topic. This is the ugly side of the good old days–women were classified for life good or evil and all by men. Young men were supposed to sow their wild oats, but a young woman had her whole life on the line if she yielded. Did you know that this was one of the points in the Articles voted on by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848??
    It was!

  13. Thanks everyone for stopping by and you gave me great ideas for research. I want to write a book with a heroine who was a prostitute and then a “kept” woman, and who better to match them up with than a retired gunslinger? Both with a past they’d like to forget.

    I’m glad you liked the trailer, it was fun to make and my friend Levi Burkle wrote a great song for it.

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