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WANTON WEST by Lael Morgan


Madams, Money, Murder, and the Wild Women of Montana's Frontier

by Lael Morgan

Pub Date: June 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56976-338-4
Publisher: Chicago Review

There weren’t many career opportunities open to women in the Wild West: schoolmarm, farm wife, perhaps stenographer. However, writes journalist and popular historian Morgan (Media Writing/Univ. of Texas, Arlington; Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush, 1998, etc.) in this entertaining and instructive study, there was always a demand for prostitutes and brothel keepers, and many women naturally drifted into those ancient professions.

Profiling several of these women from the Gold Rush into the early years of the 20th century, the author makes it clear why this wasn’t necessarily a bad career move, especially on the management side. In Helena, Mont., the city’s 37 “independent, property-owning prostitutes” accounted for 44 percent of the real-estate transfers and sometimes acted as venture capitalists for local businesses; a dozen of them reported that they had bank accounts in excess of $2,500, while “even street whores without capital could expect to earn $223 a month”—this at a time when a skilled carpenter made half that. One hooker-turned-madam even opened a theater that became “a family favorite,” while others, mostly immigrants from Asia and Europe, provided financial anchors around which communities of their compatriots formed. Morgan’s subject, improperly treated, could easily devolve into a lascivious catalog, but she has an important larger point: The independence of these women inspired the independence of women who did not engage in the sex trade, and it’s no accident that women had the right to vote and served in political office in the West well before they did in other parts of the country. The author closes with Montana’s own Jeannette Rankin, elected to Congress in 1917, who got plenty done—even if, as Morgan writes, the press of the day “showed less interest in her legislative accomplishments than in whether she was having an affair with Fiorello LaGuardia.”

A useful addition to Western Americana and women’s studies.