Early Female Entrepreneurship


Article by Lindsey Bryant

Photography by Lindsey Bryant

Female entrepreneurship is a dominant aspect of the culture in the entire United States. I am a woman who owns two small businesses alongside the demands of daily life, a marriage, and raising eight children in a blended family.

But, where did female entrepreneurship start? Who were the bold, female pioneers of the opportunities I am afforded as a modern-day female entrepreneur?

These questions were answered when I tripped into an airport gift shop on my way back to Boise from South Dakota. I was on a business trip to take photos out of state. Annoyed and half asleep, the airline had delayed my flight. This devilish act obviously orchestrated to derail my plans bludgeoned an unexpected time gap in my day. I was dazzled at what would keep me from boarding the tiny puddle-jumping plane to hop on a turbulent air stream back to Boise. The airport was small. I spotted a gift shop kiddy-corner to where I had slumped down into a stiff, unforgiving seat next to my gate. I made the quick decision that I would be soaking as much attention as I could into the items in that shop to avoid the current chair I was in.

True to my clumsy fashion, I tripped on what I would like to blame on some snag in the carpet, but the reality is that I have large feet. A light bulb went off when I noticed a line of books stacking adjacent to where I was standing. The souvenirs I collect on the trips I take are books. I had not made the effort to go find one on this trip, so the gift shop saved the day. I observed a forest green-colored book with artwork of a woman holding a cigarette on the cover. Or was it a girl? The title read, Soiled Doves: PROSTITUTION In The Early West by Anne Seagraves. I read that Anne lived in Northern Idaho and knew my delayed flight was a twist of fate I needed to find this book. I quickly paid for it and went back to the same uncomfortable metal seat I had parked in before. I commenced devouring the book. I hastily became enamored with the history of women in the early West who figured out a way to make and control their own money.

Just before the pre-boarding call intruded over the loud speaker in that small South Dakota airport, I thought to myself, "Prostitution in the early West was the birth of female entrepreneurship in the United States."

Before any suffragette movements that eventually dislodged the first wave of women's rights to vote were the tough, ambitious madams of parlor houses and brothels taking the West by the reins. These women were just as wild as the males who had ventured to the Wild West seeking money and adventure. Maybe even more so with the average frontier ratio of 2 women to every 100 men in 1849. Of course, many horrors of the professional occupation plagued prostitutes in red light districts. Death, abuse, and poor living conditions were among the brutalities of daily life. But to side step the contributions some of these women made to the communities in which they lived would be a blatant disservice to their lives on this Earth.

Excerpt from Soiled Doves:

"Although the madams were among the early entrepreneurs, historians often fail to recognize their significant contributions to the Western economy. These enterprising women, who played an important role within their communities, were never invited to join or attend a commercial club. They were not accepted by society, and, in most cases, denied the protection of the law, due to their profession.

Collectively, their businesses employed the largest group of women on the frontier. They supplied a home for thousands of females who would have otherwise been forced to live on the streets.

The majority of madams owned their own real estate, and all provided a considerable amount of revenue to their city or town. They paid property, school and county taxes, license fees and filled the pockets of corrupt officials and police officers. The society that did not respect these businesswomen, nonetheless, expected them to donate generously to churches and local charities. Merchants, who profited off of the ladies, overcharged them for liquor, food and personal goods. In order to run a successful business, with a substantial return, the western madam had to have a great deal of patience and more than the usual amount of business acumen."

Regardless of the amount of service, donations, and taxes paid by madams, they were not allowed to be buried within the gates of town cemeteries. Neither were the women who chose prostitution as a profession.

An article from The Idaho Statesmen in 2017, Enforcement of Boise prostitution laws were often criticized by Arthur Hart, details a time in Boise history where the legal crackdown on prostitution was lax at best. The location of Boise's red light district was described in Hart's article:

“'The Demimonde of Idaho Street,' as the Statesman usually called Boise’s red light district, was located on the north side of the block now occupied by City Hall, and was later centered in the alley between Idaho and Main streets in the same block."

Another portion of Hart's article from The Idaho Statesmen reads,

"The Boise city ordinance banning prostitution was not vigorously enforced unless enough public outcry demanded it. As early as July 1872, the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman demanded that the City Council and the city police do something about what had become a public disgrace."

Read more by clicking the name of the article by Arthur Hart, above.

As society began to flourish and cities across the West were established with more families and "respectable women," laws began to push out the operation of parlor houses and brothels by madams. Wild, gritty, immoral madams are a thing of the past, but their aggressive entrepreneurial spirits live on in the feisty women of the West today.

I am grateful for their contributions, from laws stemming from their existence that currently benefit human rights to the foundation of blazing female entrepreneurship regardless of societal backlash. I respect the history of Soiled Doves of the early West that allows me a fresh perspective on the freedoms I am afforded in modern day.

**To purchase a copy of North Idaho author Anne Seagraves' book, Soiled Doves: Prostitution In The Early West, click on the image of the book, above.

If you liked this article, please consider also following my City Lifestyle Author Profile to read other articles I have written.

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