Saturday, October 16, 2010
Fascinating Alternet excerpt from A Renegade History of the United States about how prostitutes were once the wealthiest, and relatively most powerful, women in an America that granted few rights to "the weaker sex."
Even in the tighter markets of the East, prostitutes were extraordinarily well paid. In New York City, according to historian Timothy Gilfoyle, "an affluent, but migratory, class of prostitutes flourished." Low wages "in the factory and the household made prostitutes the best-paid women workers in the nineteenth-century city." In studies conducted in New York during the 1900s and 1910s, 11 percent of prostitutes listed coercion as the reason for entering the trade, but almost 28 percent named the money they could earn. Members of the Vice Commission of Chicago, like many anti-prostitution reformers, faced the hard truth of the wealth being accrued by prostitutes with a bitter question: "Is it any wonder that a tempted girl who receives only six dollars per week working with her hands sells her body for twenty-five dollars per week when she learns there is a demand for it and men are willing to pay the price?" One Chicago prostitute who supported her family with her wages had an answer. She told an interviewer, "Do you suppose I am going back to earn five or six dollars a week in a factory, and at that, never have a cent of it to spend for myself, when I can earn that amount any night, and often much more?" Historian Ruth Rosen was "struck again and again by most prostitutes' view of their work as 'easier' and less oppressive than other survival strategies they might have chosen."More.
Prostitutes were the first women to break free of what early American feminists described as a system of female servitude. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, one of the leading feminist intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century, noted that human beings were the only species in which "an entire sex lives in a relation of economic dependence upon the other sex." Since wages in respectable occupations were so low, the only culturally sanctioned means for a woman to attain wealth was through a rich husband. And since states in the nineteenth century granted few or no property rights to married women, even women who "married well" owned little or nothing of their own. But women who chose to be bad could live well on their own.
Prostitutes who rose to the top of the industry to become "madams" owned more wealth than any other women in the United States. Indeed, they were among the wealthiest people in the country, and especially in the West. "Diamond Jessie" Hayman began work as a prostitute in the gold country of the Sierra Nevada foothills in the 1880s, then moved to San Francisco to become one of the most successful prostitutes in the city's history. Hayman's three-story brothel in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco included three fireplaces, a saloon, a champagne cellar, and fifteen suites filled with imported furniture. She provided each of her employees with a $6,000 wardrobe that included a fox fur coat, four tailored suits, eight hats, two dress coats, twelve pairs of shoes, twelve pairs of gloves, seven evening gowns, and seven negligees. Hayman earned enough money from her business to buy several parcels of land in the city. After the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of San Francisco, Hayman and other madams provided food and clothing to the thousands left homeless. She died in 1923 with an estate worth $116,000.