In the nineteenth century, a woman who owned property, made high wages, had sex outside of marriage, performed or received oral sex, used birth control, consorted with men of other races, danced, drank, or walked alone in public, wore makeup, perfume, or stylish clothes – and was not ashamed – was probably a whore.
In fact, prostitutes won virtually all the freedoms that were denied to women but are now taken for granted. Prostitutes were especially successful in the wild, lawless, thoroughly renegade boomtowns of the West. When women were barred from most jobs and wives had no legal right to own property, madams in the West owned large tracts of land and prized real estate. Prostitutes made, by far, the highest wages of all American women. Several madams were so wealthy that they funded irrigation and road-building projects that laid the foundation for the New West.
Decades before American employers offered health insurance to their workers, madams across the West provided their employees with free health care. While women were told that they could not and should not protect themselves from violence, and wives had no legal recourse against being raped by their husbands, police officers were employed by madams to protect the women who worked for them, and many madams owned and knew how to use guns.
While feminists were seeking to free women from the “slavery” of patriarchal marriage, prostitutes married later in life and divorced more frequently than other American women. At a time when birth control was effectively banned, prostitutes provided a market for contraceptives that made possible their production and distribution. While women were taught that they belonged in the “private sphere,” prostitutes travelled extensively, often by themselves, and were brazenly “public women.”
Long before social dancing in public was considered acceptable for women, prostitutes invented many of the steps that would become all the rage during the dance craze of the 1910s and 1920s. When gambling and public drinking were forbidden for most women, prostitutes were fixtures in western saloons, and they became some of the most successful gamblers in the nation. Most ironically, the makeup, clothing, and hairstyles of prostitutes, which were maligned for their overt sexuality (lipstick was “the scarlet shame of streetwalkers”), became widely fashionable among American women and are now so respectable that even First Ladies wear them.
Women who wished to escape the restrictions of Victorian America had no better place to go than the so-called frontier, where a particular combination of economic and demographic forces gave renegade women many unusual advantages.
Between 1870 and 1900, the number of farms in the United States doubled, and more land was brought under cultivation than in the previous two and half centuries. Most of this newly cultivated land was in the Great Plains and the Southwest. In addition to all of this farming, other industries developed rapidly in the West during the second half of the nineteenth century.
The largest of these were metal and coal mining in California, the Rockies, and parts of the Southwest; cattle ranching on the Plains; lumber in the Pacific Northwest; large-scale fruit and vegetable agriculture in the inland valleys of California; and oil in Texas, Oklahoma, and Southern California. Connecting these industries to one another and to eastern U.S. and European markets were railroads, which crisscrossed the West by the end of the nineteenth century. The federal government contributed to this explosive growth with massive expenditures for the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, which ran from the Pacific Ocean to the Missouri River, but also to the building of roads, dams, and vast irrigation systems without which the West as we know it could never have been created.
Excerpt from Thaddeus Russell, “A Renegade History of the United States” (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010).