Art and Picture Collection, NYPL. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 828353
From the novels of Louis L’Amour to the high-action western films of the 1950s, western fiction has been dominated by male narratives that focus heavily on the experiences of white, cisgendered, heterosexual men. This comes at the expense of the otherwise rich landscape of voices available for western storytelling and this may, in fact, be the reason for the genre’s current limited popularity. While America will never stop loving its cowboys, readers want more diverse stories that reflect the reality of the period.
Men are typically lauded as heroes or even anti-heroes in traditional westerns; women are often painted either as prostitutes who seduce the heroes or wholesome farm girls that marry the heroes. In reality, western women occupied much more varied roles.
The lawlessness of the west meant that, while women had less lawful protection, they were also not tightly held down by strict social rules like their Victorian counterparts. They could be prostitutes or brothel madams, yes, but they could also be gunslingers, bounty hunters, and business owners. Women could leave their homes and strike out on their own, divorce their husbands, or hunt down thieves. They could even live their entire lives as men without anyone knowing, as in the case of Charlotte "Charley" Parkhurst. The experiences of these women, especially Native American women who often suffered the worst at the hands of white settlers, are important and should not be overlooked or forgotten.
Mary "Stagecoach Mary" Fields was the first African American woman, and second woman in the U.S., to carry mail. This was no easy feat as, misogyny aside, mail carriages were prime targets of robbers and thieves. And, of course, we cannot forget the likes of Annie Oakley or Martha "Calamity Jane" Canary, sharpshooters who became famous during their runs in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and became influential symbols to young girls everywhere.
From homesteaders who traveled through treacherous terrain in search of a new life to gunslingers who took the law into their own hands, women of all races played an integral role in shaping the American west as we know it. In the spirit of these larger-than-life women, we’ve gathered a list of our favorite real-life western women to remind us all it’s not all just about the cowboys. (All summaries adapted from the publisher.)
Looking for some good western fiction with female leads? Well, saddle up for fierce female westerns!