Swinging saloon doors, gunfights, law dogs, outlaws, miners, and cowboys – these are iconic images of the Wild West, popularized by decades of media and culture.
The stories we tell about the rough-and-tumble American frontier are chock-full of masculine imagery and male characters. No doubt that the new frontier was rough, but what about the women that lived, loved, and worked there?
We rarely get to hear about the women brave enough to live uncertain lives out West. There has to be more to their stories than occasional sordid tales of the soiled doves, the ladies of the night, the prostitutes.
As a woman living in a time of social mobility it is important to take a deeper look at how the structure of society, the role of religion, and access to opportunity in the 1800’s affected the decisions that women made living in the Wild West.
Life, Religion & Rights: Women in the 1800’s
Given that women in America did not win the right to vote until 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, it is no surprise that the job opportunities were pretty limited.
The social structure was shaped by the Victorian thought that women’s duties were at home like cooking, cleaning, sewing and caring for the children. They were not encouraged to seek education let alone pursue a profession. In most cases they could only receive an education as long as their studies did not interfere with their housework.
There was even this ridiculous idea that if women became too intellectual it could lead to madness and a dysfunctional uterus. In other words, it was a man’s world and women were only seen as the help.
The goal for many women was to find a husband to take financial care of her. However, once married a woman may have gained a husband, but she lost the right to own property, to keep her wages and to sign a contract.
Sounds like a raw deal, doesn’t it? So why marry?
Well, women who didn’t marry were generally outcast from society. According to “The Cult of True Womanhood,” by Barbara Welter, women were supposed to be holy, pure, submissive, and domestic. T
hey were also not supposed to be sexual and definitely not supposed to have sexual contact before marriage. This was especially true for those in the upper and middle classes. For the majority of women, though, this wasn’t always an option, as they were forced to take jobs as domestic helpers, seamstresses, and yes, prostitutes.
Getting Wild in the West
Throughout the 1800’s, the West was generally barren and unsettled except for a few mining towns that would spring up here and there over the years.
The prospect of new opportunity, riches, land and adventure drove Americans out West, including many brave women. Although many women had followed their husbands, resuming their traditional roles in the home, there were quite a few solo female travelers that sought opportunity of their own.
Appropriately coined “the new frontier,” the trappings of traditional society did not necessarily apply. In fact, women in the West were experiencing more freedoms than they ever had before.
In the East the social structure was based on Victorian values, keeping women very restricted. However, in the West women were becoming more equal socially, politically, and economically.
A Raw Deal
Thanks to the need for labor and services in the West, women were liberated to step into the world of commerce and become proprietors. Women were opening businesses that fulfilled needs such as laundry services, restaurants, boarding houses, tailoring, and male companionship.
Brothels were very popular in this time and place. The rules were a little different on the new frontier. What made the Wild West so rough was the lack of rules. Prostitutes weren’t always looked down upon as they were in the east; in fact, men of the Wild West often married working girls. Some famous examples include Wyatt Earp and both of his wives Maggie and Josephine.
In addition, some of these madams, or ladies of night, were very smart entrepreneurs that managed to build and manage very successful businesses.
That is not to say that prostitution was a glamorous job or that every woman triumphed. Many lived rough lives, became dependent on alcohol and opiates, and experienced violent deaths.
The old American West was a dangerous place, but for women it was even more so. They often had to make tough decisions and fight to survive in a world with weak laws and little protection.
Five Wild Women
Venturing out on the new frontier was by no means an easy road. Life for women on the East coast was restrictive, yet there was a level of security. Those who left chose to break away from the rules of society.
However that freedom came at a price, for the West was untamed and unsafe. It was wild and the type of woman that would take on this kind of adventure was strong by nature. Nonetheless that strength did not bode well for all.
Many lived rough lives with stories that did not have a happy ending, but the ones able to survive and succeed became legends. These women were shocking, ruthless and to some, unladylike.
Let’s meet some of these infamous wild women of the West.
First, let’s talk about Martha Canary, otherwise known as Calamity Jane.
Probably the least feminine of the five, but that’s what makes her so fascinating. This lady was one of the boys. She was a tough, rebellious hard-drinking gun-slinger that often posed as a man. Her story is interesting, because she came out West as a child of 13 with her parents.
Due to her unique environment, from a young age she revolted against society’s expectations of a proper lady and could enjoy hanging out with the boys, drinking raw whiskey, visiting brothels and even joining hunting parties. Calamity Jane was known for her riding and gun skills, as well as for being a regular in the police courts and one of the few women allowed to drink in men-only saloons.
Beyond her very checkered career, she also worked as a scout, fighting alongside men against the natives. Although she had a reputation of being an outlaw, a gambler and even a prostitute, she was also known as being kind and generous.
Despite dying with nothing, she was given a large funeral from those could appreciate her wild ways.
Pearl (Taylor) Hart was the only known female stagecoach robber in the Wild West.
Interestingly, she was brought up in a middle-class family and was educated. After falling for a gambler, Frederick Hart, her life became one struggle after another. In and out of her abusive relationship and bouncing from town to town, Pearl fought to survive. She was a cook for a boarding house and ran a brothel, among many other odd jobs.
She claimed to have robbed the stagecoach as an act of desperation to get enough money to see her ailing mother. For what it is worth, she would leave each member of the stagecoach a dollar before taking the rest.
Somehow she was found not guilty in the robbery, but was convicted later of tampering with U. S Mail. Criminal by choice or by default, she admired strong women like Annie Oakley and listened to various women activists of her time. She was even quoted at her trial as stating, “I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making.”
Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses and thanks to her sharp shooting skills, was nicknamed “Little Sure Shot.”
She learned how to handle a gun upon her father’s death, providing meat for the family and enough game to help pay off her mother’s mortage. After a young life of hardship, including near enslavement and abuse from a couple she was sent to work for, she ran away and entered a shooting competition at the age of 15, winning some money and the affection of her competitor, Frank Butler.
Even after marriage Frank encouraged her to be a sharpshooter and both joined Buffalo Bill and Wild West Show in 1885. She became famous, inspiring women of her time and even performing for royalty and heads of state.
China Mary is a very unique and not well-known character. Despite the many stacks against her, she became a respected and famous woman in Tombstone, Arizona. Some say her word was strong, and it was as good as law.
This was a rare position for any woman to hold in this era, let alone an immigrant woman.
The white owners of business would pay her to provide them with Chinese workers. Actually, Chinese workers couldn’t even be hired unless it went through China Mary. She was a savvy investor, having her hands in multiple businesses in town. She ran a general store carrying both American and Chinese goods with a gambling hall behind the store. S
he was also co-owner of several laundries, a restaurant and controlled the Chinese prostitution and opium trade. Despite some her shady dealings, China Mary was a generous moneylender and famous for never turning away those in need.
Josephine Earp, the common-law wife of the famous lawman Wyatt Earp, began her life in the West as a prostitute under the alias Sadie after running away from home at the age 14. Although she went to great lengths to keep her sordid history private, records have placed her as a working girl in Prescott, Arizona where she met the Sheriff of Cochise County, Johnny Behan.
He brought her to Tombstone under the promise of marriage. Once in Tombstone she met Wyatt Earp, left Behan, and remained Earp’s common-law wife for 46 years until his death.
What is interesting here is that although prostitutes were ostracized by society women, in the West some prostitutes and madams were seen as independent businesswomen. A prostitute in society was an outcast, but in the West she was marriage material. What started out as a “bad dream,” according to Josephine, she ended up living a long life of travel and adventure with her husband by her side.
As a Californian, I have had the opportunity to visit many of these old Western boomtowns and I come to truly admire and respect the women who took on the wilds of the West.
Sure, hearing words like prostitute, outlaw, sharpshooter, and gambler, it is easy to pass judgment without knowledge. Understanding the difficult challenges these women faced in a time with so little opportunity and confined social restrictions, makes one realize how much determination and strength these women espoused.
Even today women are still fighting societal limitations, which makes the stories of Western women all the more inspiring. The wild women of the West are not ones to be looked down upon, but celebrated and admired as we so often do with their male counterparts.