Over at Early Modern Notes, Sharon has a reference to a piece on an American West exhibition in the Guardian by Annie Proulx, “How the West Was Spun.” In many ways, Proulx’s piece is an “old-timey” rehearsal of the West as a product of myth. One particular passage struck me. Proulx cites Anne Butler’s Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery and goes on to write:
Frontier prostitutes were poor, wretched, with no chance to escape the life once they were in it. They were vulnerable to alcohol and drug addiction, extortion, disease, unwanted pregnancies, brutality, arrest and jail. If they married at all it was usually briefly to low, transient men with as many problems as the women. Western newspapers used prostitutes as the butts of arch humour, and did not hesitate to name names. Small wonder that so many of these women killed themselves.
Professor Butler’s book is an excellent monograph and makes its argument for one segment of the tenderloin population. But there is more to the “half-world” than a tale of povety, degradation, and death and, like good historians, Anne and I have argued the points over the years. If, as Proulx opines, prostitutes were poor, could not escape their situation, were subject to a whole host of dangers, there should be evidence for these claims. By evidence, I mean more than sensational newspaper accounts in which the writers had particular agendas.
How might historians test Proulx’s claims? There are several ways, but I’ll limit myself to two: demographic analysis and economic analysis. (These observations are based on research in Helena, Montana, during the nineteenth century. See, No Step Backward: Women and Family on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier—sadly out of print—or “Capitalists with Rooms: Prostitution in Helena, Montana, 1865–1900,” Montana 1981 31(2): 28-41.)
If, in fact, many prostitutes killed themselves, we would find evidence for their suicides in the coroner’s reports and in the vital statistics register—mortality rates. The fact is that we don’t. To be sure, there are suicides in the tenderloin (two over a thirty-five year period in Helena), but there are far more suicides among men. We should also find in the vital stats, women perishing from drug overdoses, venereal disease, and so on. We don’t. Western cemeteries are not filled with poor prostitutes who took their own lives or were victims of occupational hazards. We can, then, ask ourselves: what happened to them? This is a far more interesting question.
If we wish to test for poverty in the tenderloin, we can look at such things as property ownership, mortgage records, and bank accounts. First, what we find in Helena is a high rate of property ownership and thriving informal economic system in which fancy ladies of means lending money to other women and taking either chattel or real property as collateral. Second, happily (or not) banks failed across the American West, and their records found their way into archives. With some data linkage (a mind-numbing, tedious task), historians can look into depositors’ records and find that a sizeable proportion of tenderloin women were making money and saving it. We can then ask: what did they use their money for? Again, a far more interesting question.
What Proulx has done is substitute one western myth for another (as she does in the essay as a whole). The demimonde was a far more complex social and economic culture than the “whore with the heart of gold” or the “proverty, degradation, and death” interpretations allow. There is evidence to suggest that a community’s tenderloin changed over time, mirrored the dominant community’s social structure, and provided a means for some women to escape into the middle-class.