American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Women of Ill Fame: Discourses of Prostitution and the American Dream in California, 1850 - 1890

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Andrew Schocket (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Ellen Berry (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Kimberly Coates (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Wendy Watson (Committee Member)


This dissertation explores representations of prostitution in California from 1850 to 1890 found in urban newspapers, political pamphlets, short stories, and novels. Employing feminist historical and cultural studies theories and methodologies, this dissertation interrogates the discursive relationship between prostitution and the American Dream understood as an articulation of desire for success and freedom inextricably linked to American exceptionalism. By demonstrating that prostitution was central to the social construction of power, identity, and difference in nineteenth-century California this dissertation contributes to existing scholarship on women's history, the American West, and prostitution.

Historians have long debated the role of prostitution in nineteenth-century social life and the degree of economic freedom and sexual independence prostitution provided for women. The multicultural California frontier, full of the promise of freedom and success to anyone who dared join the adventure of the gold rush, offers historians a unique case study for exploring nineteenth-century cultural responses to prostitution and the extent to which prostitution represented the American Dream for nineteenth-century women. I argue that from 1850 to 1890 Californians used discourses of prostitution to police sexual behavior, enforce strict gender roles, control women's economic power, and limit immigration effectively constructing and dismantling various American Dreams. While middle-class Americans across the nation perceived prostitution as a social evil, the Californian middle class perceived prostitution as an even greater threat because this region contained more racial diversity, more gender ambiguity, and more economic mobility. In the absence of clearly defined social roles and power dynamics the need to draw lines around social differences was even greater. For middle-class Californians, prostitution represented economic exploitation and power, class and racial contamination, class and gender transgression, and sexual deviance therefore they believed prostitution had to be contained through criminal prosecution, state regulation, and moral reform. In their efforts to control prostitution, community leaders sought out "women of ill fame," identified as such because of their failure to conform to normative gender roles. California magistrates, merchants, legislators, and newspaper editors effectively policed the behavior of all nineteenth-century Californians in their attempts to control prostitution.