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
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
Some interesting facts about Gold Rush prostitutes:
"[Non-white] women . . . . were the most likely to work as prostitutes in gold rush
“[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
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.