Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery front cover

Front cover for Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery

By Anne M. Butler
Published in 1987 by the University of Illinois Press

Butler’s Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery survey of Old West prostitution begins by examining the prostitutes themselves.  Who were the women who became prostitutes?  The short answer to this question is much the same then as now: poor women without reliable friend or family networks.

The book continues by examining prostitutes’ cohorts such as colleagues and family.  Contrary to the popular notion of prostitutes forming a tight sisterhood, Butler paints a portrait of prostitutes as being almost singularly selfish.  While a casual observer might expect prostitutes to band together to improve their lives collectively, given the poverty and chaos that marked prostitutes’ lives it is hardly surprising that they valued short term interests instead of long term thinking.

Butler continues her analysis by examining the complex and contradictory relationships prostitutes had with police officials, the court system, and the US military.  These officials often tolerated, if not actively encouraged, the practice of prostitution while simultaneously forcing prostitutes to live on the haggard existences on the fringes of society.

My only lament is that there was not enough information about non-prostitutes to allow for any sort of comparative analysis.  Nor does Butler give any time to discuss how societal attitudes have changed over time.  By failing to consider prostitutes’ status and place in society was not the result of prejudices against the poor, women, or particularly poor women, it is difficult, if not impossible to conclude that the difficulties prostitutes faced were not the result of those biases.

For instance Butler mentions that rapes of prostitutes were rarely prosecuted.  Since Butler did not supply more information about society as a whole, I was left to wonder how often rape was prosecuted regardless of the victim’s social, economic, or occupational status.  Were rapes more likely to be prosecuted if the victim was affluent? Simply poor but not a prostitute?   A resident of a big city in the northeastern US?  While Butler devotes lots of time to the awkward relationship that prostitutes had with police and governmental officials, she does not stop to examine if prostitutes simply did not report the crime of rape to officials.

In a similar vein, it is difficult to discern whether the difficulties prostitutes endured in the Old West were the result of their occupation or a general animosity towards poor women.

Despite this shortcoming, the book serves as an interesting spotlight into the Old West generally as well as the prostitutes of the time.