Gender in Nevada: A Comstock Case Study

Indisputably, women were in the minority in nineteenth-century Nevada. Mining boomtowns attracted single men more quickly than women; nevertheless, both genders were present during the earliest period of settlement, and women played a significant role in the building of the territory and state.

A prevailing legend about women in the West is that prostitutes were the first to arrive in mining camps. This decades-old assumption is proven false by analysis of the 1860 census of Virginia City, by Mary Murphy's research in Butte, Montana, and by Sally Zanjani's work in Goldfield, Nevada. In fact, the first women in mining boomtowns provided services such as baking, cooking, sewing, or cleaning for high prices without resorting to sexual commerce. Some simply offered lodging while others sought gold or silver. Eilley Orrum Bowers, who operated a boarding house in Gold Hill in 1859, is a good example of an early female settler who did well pursuing a respectable occupation at the beginning of the Comstock.

Throughout the nineteenth century, female occupations reflected in the census could be deceptive. Mary McNair Mathews, who came to Virginia City in 1869, made money in at least seven different ways, many at the same time, during her Comstock sojourn. Mathews, whose occupation was left blank in the 1870 census, worked as a teacher, nurse, laundress, seamstress, babysitter, letter writer, and lodging house operator, reflecting the range of options open to women. Other women worked in a variety of commercial positions including clerks, waitresses, cooks, servants, and business owners.

Depending on marital status, women were inclined to various occupations. Observing Victorian era standards of respectability, married women—who were the majority—told census enumerators they were housekeeping even when seeking additional income for their families. Widowed women often worked as laundresses, and single women filled the ranks of servants. Overall patterns are difficult to ascertain, but the important issue to remember is that women often earned money in a variety of ways but could only declare one in a census.

Prostitution was a reality throughout the nation in the nineteenth century. Prostitutes, however, were often savvy businesswomen who moved to a boomtown only when it seemed sufficiently stable to justify the cost and inconvenience of relocating. Although notorious, prostitutes were not as numerous as folklore would have it. According to the Storey County 1880 census there were far more servants (190) than prostitutes (approximately 80), and women involved in the needle trades (127) exceeded prostitutes as well. Women who claimed the very real occupation of keeping house (2,674) outnumbered all others.

Women were represented in every immigrant group in Nevada, but because there were not equal numbers of men and women, gender balance among various ethnic groups differed. Chinese men, for example, arrived by the thousands, but Chinese women were relatively scarce. Irish men and women, on the other hand, tended to come to North America in equal numbers, and this is apparent in places such as the Comstock. While a third of Virginia City's total population was Irish or Irish-American, for example, nearly half of the women were Irish.

Because mining attracted single men, women were outnumbered on the Comstock, and Nevada in general, for decades. Gender imbalance in Storey County began to diminish by the 1900 census, but the turn-of-the-century discovery of new ore throughout the state attracted still more single male miners. The census did not record nearly equal numbers of men and women in Storey County until 1950.

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