How Sex Workers Built America

by F Yeah History

Sex workers helped build America. These women came to the Wild West/The Old West (whatever you wanna go with!) and smashed every expectation of womanhood. They became business oligarchs, they built entire communities and forged their own independence. It’s a one hell of a tale! But before we dive into it, lets super quickly knock out the basics:


Well, around the mid-1800s, there was a huge boom in the amount of land being developed in the Southwest. Most of this land was used for mining and, as new sources for coal and metal mining were discovered, towns sprung up overnight to house the influx of workers that appeared in the Southwest to mine it.

Suddenly, you had entire towns with thousands of men and maybe a dozen or so women. Now you don’t have to be good at maths to see that the ratio here is a little off. Having spotted the er…supply and demand issue, business-minded women started arriving in these towns and setting up shop as sex workers. Soon, these women were earning, in one job, what they might otherwise earn in a week as a factory worker or clerk. 

buisness gif 460aa

There were of course risks….a lot of risks. But in the Old West, it was pretty much the same risk level as a working man had; as communities, rules and law were still being worked out. Murder, beating, injuries and even deaths at work were sadly not rare hazards for any gender or line of work. But the clients were many, the going was good, and soon the cash was flowing! 

So women started opening their own brothels. This in turn led to women buying land, companies and eventually building business empires of their own. 

boss gif 44004The original boss bitches

Soon, entire towns revolved around one damn good brothel. This wasn’t luck. The ladies running these brothels had business smarts for days. Seriously, they could have smashed The Apprentice (and probably Donald Trump, too).


mattie silks who became americas youngest brothel owner at just 19 and ran a successful brothel in denver d17f9Mattie Silks: admittedly looking v awkward here

A small town girl, Mattie opened her first brothel at just 19, making her the youngest madam in America. She invested her profits back into the business, as well as growing her income and holdings by buying real estate and land. Within a few years, she was running one of Denver’s most popular brothels, greeting patrons with a full on orchestra — because this wasn’t just sex, it was Silk sex, and it was classy as fuck.  

But Mattie didn’t stop at having a kickass classy brothel chain and all of the cash. She also paid her staff a salary that made them some of the highest paid women in the country.

 Yes Matts, pay it back!! Yes Matts, pay it back!!

Okay, so, these women had created businesses that made them some of the richest women in the country and brought tons of new income to the growing West. But is that really building America? Don’t you need stuff like schools, hospitals and churches, as well as places to have sexy time? 

Why yes. And they did that too.

These women made themselves pillars in their communities, and you can bet your arse they were there when times were rough. Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Diamond Jessie Hayman opened her brothel doors to feed, clothe and shelter anyone that needed help. And Diamond Jessie was far from alone!

For example, Lou Graham donated tons of money to build up Seattle’s schools and also saved countless businesses and banks during a period of depression. Anna Wilson’s will requested that her huge mansion be turned into Omaha’s first emergency hospital. And former slave turned influential brothel owner Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant campaigned tirelessly for the desegregation of streetcars in San Francisco.

mary ellen pleasent 6d567Mary Ellen Pleasant

These women were doing way more for their communities than just providing cash and a good time. They were building them up and turning them from shitholes to sustainable homesteads. And you best believe these communities didn’t forget the women that helped make them!

In 1890, Wyoming refused to become a state of the Union if its women were not allowed to keep the vote (which they had been granted in 1869), saying: “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women.” 

clapping gif 9fd1aYes, Wyoming!!!

Want to know more about the sex workers who built this great nation? I’d suggest checking out A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell (great name!), which has an amazing section on this.

This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission. 

More from BUST

How The Harlem Renaissance Woke Up America

The History Of Your Sexy Halloween Costume

History’s Worst Contraceptives (Including Crocodile Poo)


You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.