Historically, prostitution and other unsavory occupations have been connected to the reputations of women in the Wild West. The reputation of women living in Virginia City was no exception. Several sources reported that “there was always a large class of poor, misguided, prostitutes” living throughout the city. In modern-day Virginia City, a museum commemorates the famous soiled dove, Julia Bulette, and the red light district. However, the historical narrative too often focuses on the fallen feminine denizens of the West and neglects to tell the story of the other women who lived during the period. While prostitution was a practice that did exist in many towns, it was not the major practice during the early days of Virginia City, nor was it the most popular profession for women in the later years.
During the founding years of Virginia City, the population was heavily male dominated. The 1860 census recorded that there were 111 women living in the Virginia City and Gold Hill area. However, of the one hundred and eleven, eighty-three were recorded as married women, and forty-three households recorded children in the home. This shows that the majority of women were married, not single. Those who were single found occupations in households and boarding houses, working as maids and laundresses. According to recent historians, prostitution did not come into effect “until a mining district demonstrated that it would last.” It seemed that many prostitutes did not want to establish roots in a community unless they felt it was worth investing in.
The women of Virginia City occupied themselves in various professions. As mentioned before, housekeeping and laundry work were popular professions. Some women chose to be teachers, seeking to educate the children in the city. Other women chose to start their own businesses, such as opening boarding houses and dress shops. While Virginia City was considered uncouth to eastern standards, the women of the Comstock sought to bring sophistication and refinement from the East. Needlework became the third most popular profession among women on the Comstock. By 1870, reports showed that there were 71 businesses of needlework, accounting for seamstresses, dressmakers, milliners, and sewing women. They served the women of the upper class in Virginia City like Marie Louis Mackay, the wife of bonanza king John Mackay, who could afford such luxuries. Along with bringing eastern couturier to the city, women also formed social societies and clubs that were popular in the west. They organized charities, orphanages, and temperance societies. Many of these societies were backed by the local congregations, such as the Catholic Church. Their charity, the Daughters of Charity of Virginia City, sought to serve the men working in the mines. They provided care for injured miners and their families. They were determined to “carry to [the miners’] poor ‘shanties’ little delicacies, and words of consolation,” hoping to ease the harsh realities that every miner faced living on the Comstock.
The women of Virginia City also came from diverse backgrounds. While a majority came from an Anglo-American background, women of Chinese, African American, and Native American descent also occupied the city. While many claimed that those from foreign descent participated in immoral practices, such as prostitution and opium dens, many continued to work in similar occupations that white American women enjoyed. Chinese women mostly occupied themselves with housekeeping, working in boarding houses throughout the city. Women of the Comstock involved themselves in a number of professions, and through them they built a strong and lively community.