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Wild West Prostitution

Black and white photograph of a prostitute in lingerie playing pool.


Written by: Peter Anderson

As part of the westward expansion of Manifest Destiny during the 1800’s, many families traveled from the east coast with the promise of free land. Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862 deeding the land west of the Missouri river to both then-current and future citizens. This Civil War-era legislation allowed any United States citizen to become a landowner. Single, divorced, widowed, etc. women, were said to be eligible to own the 160 acres of federal land, as well as newly freed slaves. However, the law did discriminate against married women.

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“No Place For A Woman”

Moving was hard. Life was hard – and in the 1800s, it was hard for everyone – though westward expansion was expressly difficult for women. The purveying Victorianism held firm very traditional ideas regarding gender roles, and life could still be considered provincial. However, while the West was deemed “no place for a woman,” it was one of the first regions of the country where women would encounter institutions such as equal pay, liberal divorce, jury duty – and in some cases, were allowed to vote (in advance of the 19th amendment).

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There was an almost three to one male to female ratio, and in many places in California, the population of men was as high as 90 percent, which further constrained the job market. Meantime, any woman who wanted to be considered “respectable” would have to find work as a teacher or seamstress. However, it was incredibly easy to lose that “respectable” status, even through no fault of her own. Any unmarried woman who gave herself to a man, had been widowed, or unfortunately, sexually assaulted, could lose their reputation.

Showdowns At High Noon

When people think of those who settled the “Wild West,” images of The Lone Ranger, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood (and recently Arthur Morgan from Red Dead Redemption Two), spring to mind – rugged men, who through bravery, true-grit, and showdowns at high noon, helped to establish the legendary American West. And while the real life stories of lawmen such as Wyatt Earp or outlaws, like Billy the Kid, are an integral part of the history, it is not only those men who ultimately tamed the west.

The people who won the west were not, in fact, only he’s, but she’s. It is also the “Damsels-in-distress,” portrayed by Vera Miles, Rada Rassimov, and “Abigail Roberts,” who extend current notions of Manifest Destiny. Or to be more accurate, the women who won the west were those who never really got any screen time, but they were there all the same. Depictions of the prostitutes and saloon girls who brought the untamed lands of the early United States and many of its men to their knees, must reverberate as well.

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On a good day, within the real-life saloons and parlor houses of the West, a working woman could earn 30 dollars. It might not sound like a great deal, but in today’s money, that would be the equivalent of about 900 dollars in a single day. That’s also not including the commissions some madams would pay-out for drinks and other accoutrements the men were enticed to buy.

Naturally, being able to make more money in one shift than most clientele would earn in a month, the madams had some serious cash to play around with. Although prostitution was still illegal, madams often subsidized entire communities, lending money to jump-start small businesses, providing funds for schools and medical care, and drastically improving life in the towns they inhabited. Local sheriffs and deputies were frequently on a madam’s payroll and as customers, even if their parlors and saloons were relegated to only certain parts of the town.

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There is some debate over when the “Wild” in “Wild West” came to an end. We do know that it did not conclude in a dramatic ‘Mexican standoff.’ It was more the transition of the territories into actual statehood, which proved to be a long-and-drawn-out process. Gradually, the gunslingers and the US military began handing over power to local governments. All of this would not have been possible without the economic influx of women to the west. These female members of society who are still so looked down upon.

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