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Prostitution: freedom for women in the 1800s

pro picasso
La Espera Margot, Pablo Picasso

While doing research on prostitution in the Old West for my upcoming novel, Owl Manor – the Dawning, set in Denver in the 1800s, I discovered some things about them that made me think. When I hear of prostitutes, I usually feel sorry for them. It’s unimaginable that selling one’s body for money could be anything but the most degrading, humiliating and shameful experience. No amount of money would make it worth it. Right? These poor women must be either forced into doing it or are doing it out of desperation. Either way, they’ve been brutally stripped of their freedom to choose. That’s what it boils down to: the freedom to choose, one of the most basic rights of every human being regardless of gender, race, culture and status. If a woman doesn’t want to have sex, and is forced to, she is being deprived of her right to choose, and these are the prostitutes we mostly hear about in books, movies, T.V.: the streetwalkers, the victims of sex trafficking, the ones who were forced into it. However, there are women who make informed decisions to have sex for money, and that is their prerogative. We’ve all heard of high class “escorts”, either independent or from an agency, who charge exorbitant prices. Many of them choose their profession, probably looking at the early retirement the money might bring them.

I was sure these were not the type of prostitutes we would see in the Old West, or the Wild West, the rough and untamed land in the 1800s west of the Mississippi River: the Midwest, Texas, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, and the West Coast. The settlements that formed there were based on the discovery of natural resources, like oil, gold, etc. So these settlements were populated mostly with uneducated, lower class men since their muscle was required to mine these resources. Savage, whiskey-laden men who, I thought, would be forcing poor young women to have sex with them, turning them into ladies of the night, abusing them. I thought the stories of the prostitutes there would be those of the unfortunate streetwalkers, the ones we feel sorry for.

I was wrong. Their stories, actually, are those of the high paid escorts. Women in frontier towns went into this trade because, in the 1800s, when women were still expected to submit without question to the authority of men, prostitution became a way for them to be free, independent; to be in charge of their own lives. Thaddeus Russell writes in his controversial book A Renegade History of the United States: “In the nineteenth century, a woman who owned property, made high wages, had sex outside of marriage…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.” It empowered them at a time when women were denied power.

They were not young girls who had run away from home, or been stolen and sold into slavery. They were older, mostly in their early twenties, and the choice to join the trade was their own. There are several reasons why. One: they made more money. They made in a day what girls in other jobs, such as cleaning or cooking, made in a week. (Russell) Madams in the trade became some of the wealthiest women in the country. Two: at a time when women were not allowed to own property, they owned land. Jennie Rogers, the “Queen of the Colorado Underworld,” for instance, made so much money that she was able to buy prized land in Denver, and also shares from an irrigation and reservoir project in the city, thereby contributing to the growth and development of the town. (Russell) Three: madams provided health care and police protection for their women, so they were well cared for. And four: I think the most important one, is that they answered to no one but themselves. They answered to no man, indeed had power over men, and were in complete charge of their own lives. And they were respected because of the money they had.

So while it’s unimaginable that selling one’s body for money could be anything but the most degrading, humiliating and shameful experience, maybe it’s all in the perspective. It is that way for many who aren’t given any choice. But these women from the Old West in the1800s made conscious decisions to join the trade because at the time it was their best option. They were exercising their freedom to choose. And look at what they gained from it: independence, wealth, health care, land, social status. These women were not ones to feel sorry for.

My thanks to Thaddeus Russell for this illuminating and exciting information in
A Renegade History of the United States.


How does this painting affect you?


I’m sure many have seen this 1781 painting, “The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli. I encountered it in Art school a long time ago, and needless to say, it is unforgettable. Disturbingly unforgettable.

It tells a story of unrequited passion. Henry Fuseli had fallen madly in love (lust?) with a woman by the name of Anna Landholdt who is supposedly the woman in the painting, while the demon represents Fuseli himself.  He had written the following about his feelings for Anna:

“Last night I had her in bed with me—tossed my bedclothes hugger-mugger—wound my hot and tight-clasped hands about her—fused her body and soul together with my own—poured into her my spirit, breath and strength. Anyone who touches her now commits adultery and incest! She is mine, and I am hers. And have her I will.…”
(Ward, Maryanne C. “A Painting of the Unspeakable: Henry Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’ and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein'”)

Yes, this painting supposedly inspired Mary Shelley to write the scene in which the wife of Dr. Frankenstein was found dead: “She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by hair.”

And it inspired the writing of Edgar Allan Poe in “The Fall of the House of Usher”: “irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm”.

The woman’s father refused to give his approval for the union and married his daughter off to someone else. Goodness, Mr. Fuseli. No wonder her father refused your proposal. Can such devouring passion be good for anyone? It speaks to me of a highly disturbed personality, confirmed by the painting. Would anyone want their child to marry an individual who wrote and painted like this? I wouldn’t. Of course if my child made that decision herself, or himself since I have a son, my opinions would be irrelevant. Too bad for us parents who live in the 21st century and can’t shackle our children to our way of thinking! Too bad for us but not for them I suppose!!! And would we really want to in the end?

Why is this painting so disturbing? I love Gothic literature like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, but this is different. I think it evokes a fear of literal monsters, not the human kind, which puts it in the realm of fantasy. Or does it? People like to read about monsters: dinosaurs, giants, ogres, etc. Is it because these things do not really exist, and we are safe in the fear evoked by these stories because they could never really take place? Or is it because in some primal way these monsters are familiar? Yikes, going into forbidden territory here. Sure, they don’t look like us humans…on the outside anyway. But might they embody thoughts that we have all had, and suppressed? Nightmares that we put aside so we can function in our daily lives? Thoughts that we identify in other people and shudder to think they might exist in our minds?

I invite you to share your thoughts on this. How does this painting affect you? Why do people enjoy reading about monsters, watching monster movies? Those of us that do anyway. And they don’t have to be ogres and giants; think Marvel’s Apocalypse, Venom, Mystique from X-Men, DC’s Poison Ivy. Think Aliens, King Kong, oh and all the vampires and werewolves out there! Why are we so fascinated by monsters?