Friday, August 19, 2011

Upstairs Girls: Prostitution In The American West by Michael Rutter

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library 
Read: Aug. 19, 2011

Whether scorned as women of sin or politely referred to as upstairs girls, prostitutes played an interesting role in U.S. frontier society. An independent historian focuses on some of these colorful characters, their occupational hazards, and efforts made to reform them. Rutter includes a foreword by the head of American Studies at Brigham Young University, photos, a list of professional names (e.g., Squirrel Tooth Alice), and glossary of euphemisms for the world's oldest profession.

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I got excited when I discovered Michael Rutter’s Upstairs Girls at my local library, but while I found it factually interesting, I can’t help feeling it failed to meet my expectations. 

In terms of tone, Rutter failed these women like all the historians and newspaper men before him. He defines the daughters of joy by their role in the flesh trade, exploring their business dealings, their notable lovers and the memoirs of their clients rather than the women themselves. I can’t explain the oversight, but I was disappointed by the superficial portrait Rutter painted of the Wild West’s soiled doves. 

Rutter touched on several business concerns, but omitted any information about children born in the red light district. Rutter mentions pregnancy alongside other occupational hazards, but ends the section before examining what happened to girls who carried children to term which is how I find myself here, still wondering what happened in such circumstance  and why in heavens name didn’t the author think to include such a detail? 

I found the text itself repetitive and disjointed, but also biased. Rutter places significantly more emphasis on the high-end girls than those who worked the streets on their own, but even then, he tends to highlight their clients above the women who serviced their interests and I personally found the imbalance deeply disappointing. 

Not horrid, but not at all what I expected. Interesting, but I don’t think Upstairs Girls comes close to telling the entire story. 

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Unless she was married, a woman could barely make ends meet working other kinds of jobs, none of which paid well and all of which were very labor intensive. In short, prostitution paid - especially if a woman worked in one of the high-class bordellos and not one of the dirty cribs or back alleyways.
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