A friend of mine doing research on historical sex roles in the United States sent me some interesting links describing the behaviors and lifestyle of 19th century “painted ladies” of the Wild West. Here’s an excerpt worth quoting in full:
In my second post I clarified that I was referring to prostitutes in the western states of the USA, where, in the nineteenth century, prostitutes achieved virtually every goal of early feminism.
At a time when women were barred from most jobs and wives had no legal right to own property, women like Jennie Rogers and Mattie Silks, the queens of Denver’s red-light district, owned large tracts of land and prized real estate.
Prostitutes made, by far, the highest wages of all American women. Several madams were so wealthy that they funded irrigation and road-building projects that laid the foundation for the New West. Jessie Hayman, Tessie Wall, and other madams in San Francisco fed and clothed thousands of people left homeless by the 1906 earthquake. Decades before American employers offered health insurance to their workers, madams across the West provided their employees with free health care.
While women were told that they could not and should not protect themselves from violence, and wives had no legal recourse against being raped by their husbands, police officers were employed by madams to protect the women who worked for them, and every madam owned and knew how to use guns.
While feminists were seeking to free women from the “slavery” of patriarchal marriage, prostitutes married later in life and divorced more frequently than other American women. While women were taught that they belonged in the “private sphere,” prostitutes traveled extensively, often by themselves, and were brazenly “public women.”
Long before social dancing in public was considered acceptable for women, prostitutes in the West invented many of the steps that would become all the rage during the dance craze of the 1910s. When gambling and public drinking were forbidden for most women, prostitutes were fixtures in Western saloons and they became some of the most successful gamblers in the nation.
Most ironically, the makeup, clothing, and hair styles of western prostitutes, which were maligned for their overt sexuality (lipstick was “the scarlet shame of street-walkers”), became widely fashionable among American women and are now so respectable that even First Ladies wear them.