During the Gilded Age women were extolled for their virtues and depended upon to “civilize” society—to soften or make genteel the coarse tendencies of their male contemporaries by bringing grace and beauty to a sometimes harsh world. It was an age when women trusted husbands or fathers to take care of them, and it was no less than a man’s duty to carry out this noble mission.
Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? The Victorian virtues of female piety and male chivalry weren’t just for the fairy tales; it was widely accepted in polite 1800s society. Women were to bear and rear the children, oversee the household, but beyond deciding what to serve for dinner they weren’t to trouble their little head.
That’s only part of what’s beneath the romantic veneer of the Gilded Age. What happened when men were less than gentlemen or women less than pure? If a young woman lost her virtue, her entire future could be compromised, regardless of being rich or poor. Her father might disown her, and no beaus would come calling. Unfortunately she had few options for making a living without someone to vouch for her integrity.
In my book, All In Good Time, part of my research covered what often happened to such a woman. Young women who were seduced by charming men or, lacking that, a spiked drink. Women who were properly married but whose husband turned out to be a less than honorable, who couldn’t or wouldn’t provide for them or deserted them without a penny. Young women who wanted an honest job, only to find out the only way to fully support themselves was to “supplement” their wages with a few indiscriminate assignations on the side. All of these scenarios, and more, provided the slippery slope to full time prostitution.
Here are a few facts I learned about the world’s oldest profession from an 1858 statistical study of American prostitution. It revealed the three leading causes behind the choice of prostitute:
Seduced and abandoned
At a glance you’d think “Inclination” meant they chose such a job because they thought they’d enjoy it. Easy work, right? The text quickly explained that if women had an appetite equal to men, illegitimacy and prostitution would be rife—even in “proper” Victorian society.
So what did “Inclination” really mean? Most of the time it meant that while they weren’t forced into such a life, they made the choice willingly because they didn’t seem to have any alternative. Most women who chose prostitution willingly did so as a sequel to some other circumstance. Some were unchaste already, and not always by choice. Others were deceived into thinking it would be a prosperous, easy life, and still others simply hoped to have regular access to alcohol, since a desire to drink was also listed as one of the reasons women fell into the business. Very few of those who stated Inclination as the reason they became prostitutes admitted an overwhelming desire for the actual work they were signing on to do.
Other categories included:
Expectation of an easy life
Fell into bad company
Persuaded by prostitutes
Too idle to work
Seduced on board an emigrant ship or in a boarding house
Ever since the kind-hearted prostitute in Gone With The Wind, novels have often included “soiled doves” as women neither all good nor all bad. It’s likely true no one is all good or all bad, but to portray girls who lived in such a harsh market as delicate, kind, and sensitive might be a stretch, considering the way society treated them. Even in today’s much more permissive society, prostitution is illegal almost everywhere. It’s hard to imagine a woman maintaining a soft spot for humanity if she’s forced into a role the rest of society, at best, would ignore if not outlaw altogether.
And yet there is no person, no corner of the world, whom God doesn’t love. That’s why I wrote All In Good Time, about a woman who wanted to share God’s love and give women choices—because even my heroine made a mistake. She was never a prostitute herself, but knows the saying all too well “There but by the grace of God, go I.”
All of us make mistakes of one sort or another. Some aren’t quite as visible as others, but a stain is still a stain and we all carry them of one size or another. Writing this book reminded me of how thorough was God’s work on the cross, something I’m always happy to share with others!
I’m also reminded that the Bible itself offers some very colorful characters in its pages. How do you feel about a book that reminds us that history had some rough edges to it?
One final note: I’d be thrilled to give away a free print copy of All In Good Time to anyone living in the US who comments, or an e-book version to anyone outside the US. If you already have a copy of All In Good Time, I’d be happy to extend this offer to any one of my other titles. Just visit Amazon or my website to see your choices.