From my research on American women’s history, I would agree with Russell that white female prostitutes had more freedoms and luxuries than most middle class white women due to their independence from men. In this excerpt Russell ignores three important details. While these women held some forms of power, they
a) were still considered prostitutes and therefore were not marriageable or socially respectable “True Women,”
b) their independence from men still financially depended ON men, and
c) were white women – non-white women such as Chinese prostitutes described in Ling’s Surviving the Gold Mountain were sexually objectified and financially dependent on male customers and pimps.
At the end of the day white prostitutes needed to keep the pool of prostitutes low and lascivious men high. And when white Protestant women protested bars and brothels they were both condemning men and taking away financial power from prostitutes.
This is an excerpt from Thaddeus Russell’s new historical monograph, “A Renegade History of the United States” (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010), copied from Alternet.org.
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 traveled 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…
With good reason, the keepers of American morality in the nineteenth century were terribly worried about all the single men in the West. One Protestant minister wrote, “Left by themselves, men degenerate rapidly and become rough, harsh, slovenly — almost brutish.” He was correct. Ironically, most of these men were white and full American citizens. But they cared little for the restrictions and responsibilities of citizenship. One moral reformer in Montana reported this about life in a mining town: “Men without the restraint of law, indifferent to public opinion, and unburdened by families, drink whenever they feel like it, whenever they have the money to pay for it, and whenever there is nothing else to do. … Bad manners follow, profanity becomes a matter of course …. Excitability and nervousness brought on by rum help these tendencies along, and then to correct this state of things the pistol comes into play.” In the silver mining boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, in 1879 there were 120 saloons, 19 beer halls, 188 gambling houses, and only 4 churches.
Into this world stepped legions of women who understood something about supply and demand. A U.S. Department of Labor study in 1916 found that in the major legitimate occupations for women — department store clerking and light manufacturing — the average weekly wage was $6.67, which at the time represented a subsistence standard of living. In such industries, jobs were few, and due to the ban on women’s labor in most of the economy, the number of available workers in the industries that allowed women was great. This oversupply of labor pushed wages down to the minimum. By contrast, women who chose prostitution enjoyed a highly favorable market for their labor. Demand was enormous and constant, especially in the West, and the pool of available labor was kept relatively small by the great number of women who internalized or feared the stigma attached to prostitution. According to historian Ruth Rosen, who pioneered the social history of prostitution in the United States, “The average brothel inmate or streetwalker” — the lowest positions in the trade — “received from one to five dollars a ‘trick,’ earning in one evening what other working women made in a week.” Prostitutes in a 1916 study reported earnings between $30 to $50 per week, at a time when skilled male trade union members averaged roughly $20 per week. In their study of Virginia City, Nevada, George M. Blackburn and Sherman L. Ricards found that prostitutes in that 1860s boomtown, unlike the stereotype of the innocent, young “white slave,” were actually considerably older on average than women of the western mining states Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada. “From the age data on prostitutes, it is clear that they were old enough to realize the nature of their behavior and also old enough to have married had they so desired, for this was an area with many unattached men. Thus we conclude that these were professional women intent on economic success.” After working as a domestic in El Paso, Texas, for $3 per week, a Mexican-born woman quit her job and “decided to become a puta” for the extra money. She later recalled, “It took me a long time to get used to having men intimately explore my body… Of course, I had guilt feelings at the beginning, but they soon disappeared when I saw my savings begin mounting up.”