Put on the Red Light
Review by Sarah M. Kramer
Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains
University of New Mexico Press
It's difficult to deny the appeal of a history book that talks about our fair city in a sentence like this: "The floosies and flossies of Albuquerque were in essence accepted as part of society." And who would want to? Jan MacKell's Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains goes where few historians have dared, and her look behind the brothel doors provides an titillating alternative history.
MacKell writes that the Rocky Mountain prostitution industry “sprouted, flourished, and died” between 1825 and 1988. More than 150 years is a lot of ground to cover, particularly in a geographic area as vast as the Rockies. But MacKell takes it on, smartly compressing the scope a bit, staying focused on late 19th and early-20th century American figures, which works to her favor. Even with the chapters broken up by state, it can feel like a lot of whoosh and zoom through the world of the "soiled doves" of the West. But MacKell turns what could have been mere overview into compelling vignettes from a piece of history often regarded as taboo.
MacKell's evenhanded prose presents prostitution as it was viewed by many who worked or patronized it—an industry. She acknowledges the entrepreneurial spirit of the women who went West without shying away from the dangers they faced. The subject matter has the potential to be grim or maudlin, but MacKell stays away from valorizing or victimizing her subjects. Her portrayal of prostitution shows the disrespect the women received as well as the influence they wielded. The book doesn't underplay the realities that accompany prostitution, like venereal disease, societal shunning and the risk of violence. She even covers children raised in brothels, memorably Jane Ryan, who was—along with her three daughters—a prostitute in Colorado. But MacKell does provide evidence of exceptions to these lives of constant struggle. One Colorado madam taught her employees to check their clients for syphilis. Silver City madam Bessie Harper tended to wounded soldiers.
MacKell's book provides a lens through which to view the rest of Frontier life: Medicine, birth control (or lack thereof), the court system, marriage and leisure activities outside of the bedroom are all represented here. MacKell makes it clear that no woman came to prostitution in the same way, taking the reader up and down the mountain range to visit remarkably different women, each with the title of prostitute. She starts with prostitution in Native American communities and also documents Chinese and Japanese immigrants who were sent over by their families specifically to join the sex industry.
New Mexico, like most states, saw brothels flourish and wane with the boomtowns. The ruins of brothels can be seen in ghost towns like Elizabethtown and Loma Parda. It’s not a history that makes it into many textbooks. Works like Red Light Women remind us the West was wild for a reason.
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