Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bad girls are part of history, too

When I was visiting Whitehorse this month, I enjoyed browsing in one of the local bookstores. when I saw the cover of the book Good Time Girls, I recognized the picture on the cover.

I have seen the photograph in the book A Harvest Yet to Reap, where the only caption or information with regard to it is the notation, "A prostitute." Good Time Girls, author, Lael Morgan says the photographer called his subject an "actress," and that she went by the name "The Belgian Queen." By today's standard, that's actually a pretty tame picture. Back at the time of the gold rush, it would be been quite racy.

I bought Good Time Girls, and it has been quite a different sort of book. Whereas books galore are available about the history of the gold rush (just stock up on anything by Pierre Berton, which is readily available), history about the women is not as prevalent. There were many, many times more men than women, so this is not surprising. Good Time Girls tells the stories of the women who were in the north working in the saloons and red light districts, and who were just as much a part of the history as the investors, seekers, and miners.

Many of the stories are sad, and many are actually quite shocking. Many of the women who went to the north were adventurous, and others were looking for what everyone else was looking for: their fortune. Being involved in staking a claim for gold wasn't women's work, so other forms of earning a living had to be sought. The entertainment industry was not really considered respectable at the time, so even women who went there to entertain with no designs on selling themselves would have had to have a bit of courage and a spirit of independence. The physical task of getting to the north (no planes, folks) was arduous, and to endure it meant that a woman was hardy, indeed.

Many of the women who left their homes for the north did so because they were poor and looking for a way to earn a living. Some of them ran away from hard, poverty-stricken lives. Some of them were already working in the trade in the south, and just saw an opportunity to make money. A lot of them saw the riches of the gold rush as a ticket out of the life they'd found themselves in, and hoped to get out. Some did, but many did not. Some women were even married, and found themselves in the business out of desperation. Many went intending to entertain on the stage, and found the selling of themselves more lucrative. There were women who were innocent enough, being paid just to have a drink or a dance with a gentleman. And then there were those in places like Fairbanks, Alaska, where the red light district was fenced off from the rest of the town, and left relatively alone because people would rather turn a blind eye to the prostitution than have their wives and daughters propositioned.

There were women who were shrewd businesswomen and did well for themselves, but so many of them were caught up in the heady times. Drink, money, greed, a transient population; those aren't the things of social stability, and many women made their fortunes only to lose them, just like many of the men who won and lost their fortunes. Greed was the fuel in this situation, and even these women, many who were elegant and refined, could get caught up in it. Many of the stories I read had women meeting a very bad end because of getting caught up with a married man who was happy enough to have a prostitute on the side, but never had any intentions of marriage. Many of them committed suicide, one with a note pinned to her dress saying, "I'm just tired of it, girls."

Along with the theme of greed, the theme of poverty runs through these stories. Most of these women came from poverty, and ended up doing what they did because of it. Getting out was hard once they got in, also because of poverty. Many of the women were victims at the hands of greedy men who controlled them. Even the most successful women had male benefactors. It was common for a woman already in the trade to meet up with a successful businessman who would financially back her as she headed north. Some of these arrangements were successful, and some of them went bad as the women got there and fell in love with someone and were forced to look for a new male patron when one left her. It seems to me that the women there were always at the mercy of the men regardless of what business acumen they had. Very few of them were able to live independently of men, and if they did, it was not before they suffered quite a lot themselves.

It's quite sobering to think what a vehicle poverty is in directing the lives of people. I think about the poverty of the Depression and how that affected people. My grandfather remembered the Great Depression and his attitude toward money and possessions was altered. I think that entire generation could say the same thing. Poverty drove a lot of what these women did, as did the flip side of that: money, which was fuelled by greed, also a formidable catalyst.

Regardless of the reasons why, these women are a part of the history of this country. They were often shocking and sad, and sometimes ruthless. But they had a hand in the history of the north.