Soiled Doves and Shirley Maclaine: Prostitution in the West

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By Megan Dolezal

The American Western film genre is quite a large one (there probably would not be an entire movie channel dedicated to it if it was not) and women play a large role in most of these films; however, Western women are depicted mainly as damsels in distress needing saved like the school teacher Clara in Back to the Future Part III (1990). On the rare occasion where women are not depicted as school teachers (or wives and/or mothers) they tend to be prostitutes.

One film that involves prostitution is the 1970 western classic Two Mules for Sister Sara. The film stars Clint Eastwood as a wanderer named Hogan and the ever classy Shirley Maclaine as Sister Sara. The movie begins with Hogan coming across a naked Sara about to be raped. Hogan saves her, and Sara dresses (to Hogan’s surprise) in nun’s habit. Sara asks Hogan to take her to a Mexican Army camp (whom she is helping); and he agrees only to accompany her on promise of a previous reward. The unlikely pair set out on a series of adventures evading the invading French Army and even blow up a French train bridge to aid the Mexicans. Sara is very adventurous, and crafty – much more then would be expected from a nun. It is revealed near the end of the film that Sara is actually a prostitute disguised as a nun to evade the French. When Hogan and Sara are finished saving the day, Hogan carries Sara off (now donning a flaming red dress) and the two literally ride off into the sunset. The film depicts Sara as an adventurous independent women, unbound by the stigma of her career as a prostitute. In the end she walks away with an award and gets the hero. Prostitution however, was drastically different in the real Old West than its depiction in Two Mules for Sister Sara; it was a dangerous profession sought out in desperation or extreme hardship (if it was entered into by choice at all) and often ended in death.

Actual prostitutes in the West led a much different life. Prostitution was not something that was so easily transitioned in and out of. Prostitutes were made through hard times and a struggling life. In Jan Mackell’s book Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains she recounts the lives of several prostitutes. In the beginning of the book, she states “A few went into prostitution just for kicks, but many women did it because it seemed the best if not only way to support themselves and their families”[1]. Most of the reasons why women became “fallen angels” were tragic: abuse and a bad home life, betrayal by a friend or most frequently a spouse, death of a husband or father, seduction by a handsome stranger, a need or desire for more money, or an addiction to drugs and alcohol.[2] There is a story recounted several times throughout multiple secondary sources of a young woman from Missouri who went to elope with a handsome young man. The man took her to his aunt’s house and when the woman woke up the next morning she found herself in a brothel.[3] There were probably as many reasons of becoming a woman of the night as there were these women.

For some women prostitution was not their sole means of getting money, but a way to extend their meager income. The careers available to a single woman were very limited and often very low paying such as being a seamstress, a washerwoman, a bar wench, or a maid. One woman named Rose said, “I can’t support my child with the wages paid girls for honest work in this city”.[4] Sister Sara shows the transition in and out of prostitution as somewhat adventurous, but the reality again falls rather short. Some women managed to marry out of prostitution, but for most is was a hopeless and tragic existence.

Even descending into prostitution was by no means a guarantee out of financial ruin, there were varying degrees of class among the prostitutes: there were the refined upper echelons of the parlor house courtesans who were valued among the upper classes for company as much as sex; then there were the brothels that tried to emulate the parlor houses but were more geared for middle class men[5]; after brothels came the prostitutes that worked out of saloons and bars, expected to dance with men all night all the while serving them and eventually going home or to a room with one at the end of the night. After the saloon dancers came the part-time prostitutes, who did not work full time at and only when it was needed to supplements income.[6] The very lowest rung of the hierarchy were the poor women who worked in the “cribs” – small lean-tos that contained an entryway and a bedroom in which would serve largely as a woman’s entire existence.[7] The rent for these cribs was exorbitant and the women had to move many clients a night just to make ends meet – her clients were not allowed to take their clothes or even their boots off. The truly tragic part of this was the hierarchy could very realistically be viewed as the life stages of a prostitution. A young woman could start out in a parlor house and as she aged be reduced down into the cribs. Death was more too often than not a way out, and also frequently by the woman’s own hand[8].

Even those women who were in the parlor houses were not too entirely much better than their counterparts working in the cribs, the demands to keep up appearances and the rent charged by their Madames left them either in debt at the end of the month or barely breaking even, and as she aged, the backwards step on the ladder loomed ever closer.[9] Madames and pimps were also a plague upon the finances of a prostitute, often taking half of what she would make in exchange for lining up enough clients for her. They were not the only difficulty however. Most towns had heavy rules regulating where and how a prostitute could conduct her business or even where she could go outside of her working hours.[10] Then there were the other women, women with husbands or adequate income who were seen as the moral guiding light of the west.[11] One woman, a feminist Josephine E. Butler wrote a letter to the American Woman Suffrage Association speaking about prostitution:

A brave battle has been fought in St. Louis against that iniquity,

and we have regarded it with sympathy and admiration; but you

are not yet safe against the devices of those who uphold this white

slavery, nor are we safe, although we know that in the end we

shall be conquerors.[12]

Butler references the political debate over whether or not prostitution should be legal. Her letter goes to detail how prostitutes are slaves and trapped in their position by captors[13]. While there were some women that got ensnared and trapped in the dark trade it was certainly not true of all of them,[14] and legal sanctions certainly were not helping their finical status. How was a woman to get out?

The life of a prostitute was not glamourous. It was riddled with hardships, tragedies, and abuse. Perhaps what was even more sad was that the existence of prostitutes was so often swept under the rug; the amount of souls collected in parlor houses, brothels, and cribs often going unaccounted for and their names and lives forgotten when they were no longer there to occupy their former leases. Also there were sanctions legally, and socially over how a prostitute could live her life – if one could call what she was doing living. Sister Sara definitely was glorified: she got to save the day, go on an adventure, and in the end got the guy.  In reality, the fortunate ones married out of it, the unfortunate among the unfortunate died sometimes by their own hand and the very least to be said of them was at least their pain had ended.

[1] MacKell, Jan. Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains. University of New Mexico Press, 2009, xiv.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid.,5.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Goldman, Marion. “Prostitution and Virtue in Nevada.” Society 10, no. 1 (1972): 32-38.

[6] West, Elliott. “Scarlet West: The Oldest Profession in the Trans-Mississippi West. “Montana: The Magazine of           Western History 31, no. 2 (1981): 16-27.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] West, “Scarlet West: The Oldest Profession in the Trans-Mississippi West.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Goldman, “Prostitution and Virtue in Nevada.”

[1] Butler, Josephine E., and American Woman Suffrage Association. Letter of Mrs. Josephine E. Butler to the May     Anniversary Convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association,       1879. 1886

[1 Simmons, Alexy. “Red Light Ladies in the American West: Entrepreneurs and Companions.” Australian   Journal of Historical Archaeology 7 (1989): 63-69.

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