1/13/12 - women in the american west

In today's excerpt - life for men in the American West of the late 1800s was hard. Farming and ranching were high-risk, near subsistence activities, and mining, a predominent activity throughout the West after the California gold rush, was riskier and favored only the very few. For women, it was it was even more difficult:

"...[I]t was worse—much worse—for women in mining camps or any­where else in the West. A man all by himself in the territories was still respectable; most women on their own were prostitutes. For them, life's choices were reduced to a single goal: Attach themselves to men and get out of the business, or soon grow old and sick and die. In the few fancy territo­rial towns like Virginia City, some bordellos were high-class, with attractive young females available for high dollar prices, and bouncers on hand to forcibly remove any customer who misbehaved.

"But in most camps, weary women turned tricks in shabby cribs and regularly endured violence at the hands of their clients. Many turned to drugs. Morphine and laudanum were the most popular. A sense of desperation was pervasive—the suicide rate among frontier prostitutes was always high. Their one advantage was that, in the Western territories, women were so scarce as to almost always have some value no matter how battered they might be. Men who wanted sex on a regu­lar, unpaid basis, and who yearned for someone to wash their clothes, clean their shacks, cook their meals, and perhaps bear their children did not have a wide selection from which to choose. Not all the available women in the West were practicing prostitutes, but many were. And men looking for wives in the territories were not always great bargains themselves.

"The results, often, were partnerships rather than love matches. Few cou­ples were joined formally in any religious or legal ceremony; among people of limited means, common-law marriages were the rule. The woman involved might take the man's last name, and sign herself 'Mrs.' She had some stabil­ity and safety, unless or until her husband tired of her. Then he could break off the relationship without any legal complications. Courts would never rule in favor of an abandoned common-law wife. Ultimately, the advantage was with the man.

"While a man and woman lived together as common-law husband and wife, no one questioned their standing as a couple. But in territorial towns of any consequence, there would always be a small, select upper class of inves­tors and merchants, and these men often did bring wives with them, women who were married in every legal sense. Formally married women might asso­ciate in a reasonably friendly fashion with common-law wives, chatting with them on the streets or in shops or in church, but they would rarely invite them into their homes. Men in the West, no matter what their backgrounds, could always aspire to a higher place in society. Women were far more limited in rising above whatever they had been."


Jeff Guinn


The Last Gunfight


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2011 by 24Words LLC


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