In the nineteenth century, a woman who was well paid, owned property, had sex outside of marriage, performed/received oral sex, used birth control, wore makeup, perfume or stylish clothes and didn’t hide it, was probably a prostitute. In a time when women were barred from most jobs and had no legal right to own property, prostitutes of the old west were very successful and respected. Thaddeus Russell, in his book, A Renegade History of the United States, proves that marginalized people, (like hookers) not discussed in history class, were the real catalysts for important social movements. His contention is that fin-de-siècle prostitutes who migrated out west were the pioneers of feminism.
In late 19th and early 20th century, women could only work in a couple of industries. A 1916 study by the US department of labor reported that the two major occupations for women in the country were department store clerking and light manufacturing. Both paid an average weekly salary of $6.67, barely enough to subsist. Other choices for women to become financially stable were: 1.Break the inequality 2. Marry into money. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a leading feminist of her time, noted that human beings are the only species in that one sex lives entirely dependent upon the other for existence.
A perfect place to challenge this status quo was the “Wild West.” In 1850, the non-Indian population of California was 93% male. Entrepreneurial women with moral inequities saw an opportunity. Sex workers came to the west and quickly became the highest paid women in the US. Many salaries were double what male trade union workers made. Historian Paula Petrick found that approximately 60% of hookers in Helena, Montana between 1865 and 1870, “reported either personal wealth or property or both.” The most successful prostitutes in the country became “Madams”. They bought mansions, turned them into brothels and managed the business of sex. Madams were some of the wealthiest people in the country and were pillars of their society. They lent money to cities like Denver and San Francisco for land grants or water rights, entered into politics and were instrumental in the developments of the towns they did business in.
Black women thrived as well. It is unlikely that there were more wealthy or powerful black women in the nineteenth- century than Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant and Sarah B. “Babe” Connors. Pleasant, an ex-slave, gave loans to elite San Francisco residents. She sued to desegregate the city’s street cars, 60 years before Rosa Parks, making her the mother of the human rights struggle in California. Connors’ brothels were some of the most luxurious establishments in the mid-west. They became nationally famous for ragtime jazz musicians that would play there.
Madams not only paid their workers far higher wages than most other industries, they were the first to provide benefits for employees including free birth control, healthcare, legal assistance, housing and meals. Few American workers from either sex enjoyed such benefits. When moral reformers tried to outlaw birth control, hookers single handedly kept the industry alive. In the 1870s, 5% to 10% of women in American cities were prostitutes. They made up the majority of birth control consumers. Consequently, the industry was kept alive until 1920 when contraception production and distribution was legalized.
Between 1909 and 1917, 31 states passed “red-light abatement” laws allowing courts to shut down buildings used for immoral purposes. This lead to laws forbidding the keeping of a “disorderly house” or in any way managing prostitutes as a madam. This forced prostitutes onto the streets and arrests for street-walkers skyrocketed across the nation. This also allowed the entry of pimps. Without brothels and madams, whores were forced into the “protection” of criminals. With the banishment of red light areas in cities, prostitution moved from an industry of female power to male power. It’s been a hundred years and not much has changed. Whores are subjected to the mistreatment of pimps and organized crime, resulting in violence and sexual slavery.
Gone are the days of sex workers being respected members of society and what they did to foreshadow the feminist movement is mostly forgotten… but here are some more of their contributions-
Equal Pay: Most prostitutes were paid higher than most men during this time.
Self-defense: Women in brothels were known to carry pistols and defend themselves.
Wearing Make – up: The “rouge” of a “painted woman” was seen as immoral and promoting vice.
Wearing Perfume: Until 1929 mostly prostitutes and “Low level” women used perfume.
Dancing in Public: Any overtly sexual dancing was considered practice of blacks and prostitutes.
Smoking: No respectable women would smoke and would hide it if they did.
Stylish Clothes: Only whores wore the color red which was taboo during this time and was considers the color of sex. They also wore scandalous clothes that showed their calves and shoulders.
Oral Sex: Sodomy laws in 48 states forbade fellatio even for married until the 1950’s. Sex outside of marriage was rare unless it was with a whore.
Entertainment: Ragtime, the precursor to Jazz, was mainly played in brothels in the west.
Integrated Workplace: Towns of the early west were integrated. No more seen then in brothels where workers were multi-cultural and interracial sex was commonplace.
Occupational Benefits: Brothels were one of the only places where workers were able to have health benefits such as free birth control and regular paid doctor visits.