The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1986, Volume 32, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West, 1865-90.

By Anne M. Butler. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Notes. 179 Pages. $16.95.

Reviewed by Guy Louis Rocha, Nevada State Archivist, a graduate of San Diego State University with an M.A. in American Studies, and author of several articles relating to the history of brothel prostitution in Nevada.

Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery represents the most comprehensive historical study of prostitution on the trans-Mississippi frontier to date. Only in the last fifteen years have scholars, other than sociologists, seriously examined the role of the female prostitute and prostitution in American society. Anne Butler, an historian, focuses her work on prostitution in the post-Civil War American West, describing its shape and character, defining its relationship to the larger society, and dispelling many of the popular myths that surround the colorful and controversial occupation.

Documenting who the prostitutes were — their race, ethnicity, age, financial status, background and so forth — is no easy task. As Butler points out, and other writers on the subject have discovered, these working women left precious little in the way of personal papers, diaries or other effects. Given the paucity of sources, the author’s research methodology is very impressive. In addition to consulting contemporary newspaper sources and government census data, court and law enforcement records, tax lists, burial records, and military records were painstakingly searched in an effort to piece together the identities and lives of frontier prostitutes. Repositories in six western states and the National Archives were visited in the course of research. While there is no treatment of prostitution in San Diego, California, or the far West, Butler’s analysis is applicable to practically all frontier communities.

We learn that prostitutes were generally young, poor, and migratory, and plied their trade in both urban and rural areas. There were husbands and boyfriends, many of them hangers-on or criminals who brought little to the relationships other than male companionship in a socially segregated, often hostile environment. Of particular significance, as there has been little scholarly examination of the prostitute in the context of familial relations, Butler assesses the lives of the children of prostitutes. Sadly, she discovers that the prospects for the children were bleak, and daughters frequently followed their mothers into prostitution. The popular notion that some frontier prostitutes escaped the profession by marrying well and living a respectable life of anonymity appears to be more myth than reality.

Butler paints a harsh picture of the life of the frontier prostitute. Sincere friendships among prostitutes, as competitors for the male trade, were rare. More often than not, relationships between prostitutes were antagonistic, and sometimes violent. Alcohol and drug abuse took a heavy toll on these women’s lives. Economic rewards were marginal as pimps and madams exacted their fees, and public officials extorted a portion of the prostitutes’ earnings by systematically hauling them into the local courts while, at the same time, encouraging the presence of prostitution in their communities. There were no secular agencies on the frontier to assist the prostitute in her plight. The churches, with few notable exceptions, showed little sympathy or concern. Butler is especially critical of the frontier press for not raising “serious concerns about prostitution,” where “articles cloaked in moral indignation or outrage became little more than lewd advertisements for local prostitutes.” The final chapter entitled, “The Military Game,” is an enlightening exposé of the frontier army’s hypocritical stance which condoned prostitution in and around the military forts and encampments while officially denouncing its existence.

Professor Butler has produced a landmark historical study of prostitution and its institutionalization in late nineteenth-century frontier American society. Although the tone of the work displays a clear sympathy for the frontier prostitute, the book is not compromised. There is no evidence of an ideological or philosophical predisposition in characterizing frontier prostitution as evidenced in sociologist Marion Goldman’s groundbreaking study, Gold Diggers and Silver Miners: Prostitution and Social Life on the Comstock Lode (1981). Butler’s concise, well-written volume will serve as a point of departure for research on the subject of frontier prostitution for years to come.