Welcome to my blog, aka my place to comment and reflect on things I find inspiring, amusing, irritating, or baffling. When I was young, my Stanford PhD, former physics professor, software engineer father used to help me with my math homework, and I, being mentally deficient in all things math, could never quite get it. He would constantly say to me, "Jill, it's not rocket science." (Did I mention the PhD was in Aeronautics and Astronautics??) So I thought it would be an appropriate title for this blog because everything I write about is, indeed, not rocket science.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Mini History Lesson: Gold Rush Prostitutes!

I started this blog for two reasons: to build my non-academic writing portfolio and because I love writing, and I feel like I have a lot to talk about. When I started, I didn't have a theme in mind - I just figured I'd write about anything that struck my fancy. But as I've written more and more, it seems that a common theme keeps appearing: culture. I have been contemplating this new social media culture that we live in and how to navigate it with integrity. My attraction to cultural themes and topics makes sense because I am a social historian (I have a BA and MA in History, which makes me a historian, but that still seems weird to say).

My career counselor told me that I should write about a variety of topics, including history, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to do a little history lesson on one of my favorite subjects: women's history. I wrote a research paper in grad school about working women in the California Gold Rush. This is a very abridged, modified version of my paper. (My paper was actually about non-prostitute working women during the Gold Rush, while dispelling myths surrounding prostitution, but because the topic of prostitution is probably more interesting to the non-history nerd, I'll just write about that.)

When imagining the historical West, images of cowboys, Indians, saloons, prostitutes, campfires, gun fights, and gold fortunes come to mind. These images are ingrained in people’s understanding of this time, with Hollywood movies and novels promoting them. As you might imagine, these images are mostly myths and stereotypes. Historians work to dispel myths because romanticizing history is endearing but crippling and leads us away from the truth.

As is true of women’s history in general, California gold rush women are often misunderstood or ignored completely. A specific myth has a stranglehold on women’s gold rush history and taints their presence in this era: the prostitute. No western movie or novel would be complete without one (or several). Two stereotypes comprise the prostitution myth: one is the nature of the occupation itself, including the type of woman who practiced the profession; the other is the number of women who participated. One imagines a buxom, flirty white woman with curly locks, giggling and seducing men at saloons. One also assumes that women were doing little else in California during the Gold Rush besides offering sex to lonely miners. The prostitution myth is debilitating because it ignores the presence of countless businesswomen during the Gold Rush, and it does not embody women’s actual experiences or the reality of prostitution. Did prostitutes exist during the Gold Rush? Yes. Prostitution, however, was much different than people would like to imagine. It was a profession embroiled in desperation, abuse, and exploitation. Prostitutes were expendable members of society—cast-outs and nobodies, and the plight of non-white women was worse because they were already regarded as third-class citizens. No matter where they came from, the choice to be a prostitute (if a choice were available), was usually out of desperation and accompanied by a life of misery. It was not a romantic existence, and the most common way out of prostitution was suicide.

Some interesting facts about Gold Rush prostitutes:

"[Non-white] women . . . . were the most likely to work as prostitutes in gold rush California, providing sexual services to men in exchange for typically paltry sums. The Native American, Chinese, Hawaiian, Mexican, and African American women who dominated the profession lived desperate lives that were shadowed by violence, disease, alcoholism, and crime. - Edith Sparks, Capital Intentions: Female Proprietors in San Francisco, 1850-1920

“[Chinese] girls who escaped foot binding—called ‘Big Feet,’ were relegated to field work—if they were lucky. Unlucky ones were sold by desperate parents or stolen by Chinese agents, and shipped off to California . . . . Here, they were sold at auction for perhaps three hundred dollars in a land that was supposed to be free of slavery.” - Susan Butruille, Women’s Voices from the Mother Lode

Doesn't that cheer you up? Definitely changes your perception of prostitution in western history, I hope.

Also, the point of my whole paper was that most women during the Gold Rush were NOT prostitutes. Most of them came with their families, and they had to work to support their families and survive (because the men were working at the mines, making no money - another fun topic). Many started successful businesses, and in fact, the founder of Vacaville, California, was a woman named Luzena Wilson, who built and operated a successful boardinghouse there during the Gold Rush. The next time you drive to Tahoe on Highway 80 and go through Vacaville, you will think of Ms. Wilson, the successful businesswoman, non-prostitute, who founded the town in ~1850.


  1. Super interesting. I look forward to the next history lesson.

  2. Ditto. I really enjoyed this and can't wait to learn more!
    P.S. I recently learned that my great-grandfather (my dad's dad's dad) came to CA from Oregon for gold, but it wasn't until the late 1800's.