Wild Wild West Women

In American popular culture, there seems to be two stereotypical images of women which are most prevalent; sharp-shooting women, like Annie Oakley and prostitutes, some who undoubtedly became successful businesswomen, but many who died early because of sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol abuse or violence. Both stereotypes evoke the wildness of the West, not family-values. But, the reality was that women sought to bring their family values of domesticity into a western frontier that was anything but domestic (DuBois, 354).

In villages throughout the southwest, Spanish-speaking women lived much as their mothers and grandmothers had. They toiled to grow food for their families and lived in small adobe huts. As men were increasingly called away to work in mines or on railroads, they enjoyed a modicum of independence, whereby they often choose to maintain their own property rather than remarry (DuBois, 351). Later, as more settlers came from the east, these Spanish-speaking women lost their authority as they were pushed to become wage-earners and served as domestics or working in agricultural fields.

Following the Gold Rush of 1849 and the Homestead Act of 1862, which incentivized going west, more and more people moved west. Although most who moved west were families, “some women were inspired to try homesteading on their own” (DuBois, 352). Unmarried homesteading women received marriage proposals by male settlers. These intrepid women were besieged by loneliness and drudgery; having to build their houses from scratch and conduct all the housework without running water or any of other modern conveniences.

Wild West women like Annie Oakley were rare. Generally, women were not wage earners, most who worked the mines and cattle ranches were men. Female laborers were generally only found in big cities. Most were prostitutes who served the male ranchers and mine workers. They were racially and culturally diverse and were racially stratified; white women earned the most, while black and Asian women were relegated to the lowest status. Some of these women rose to prominence and became successful businesswomen, but this was rare. The more likely outcome was death, as “two-thirds of prostitutes died young of sexually transmitted diseases, botched abortions, alcohol abuse, suicide or homicide” (DuBois, 354).

The romantic presentation of Annie Oakley as a fierce independent sharp-shooting cow girl was not the norm. Rare were wage-earning women who worked ranches or in mines. Those who labored worked in domestic services, doing laundry, cooking or sewing. Western women lived in constant fear of losing their husbands to accidents or violence as their dependence on the men head of households was just as necessary as in the east.

Gradually, respectable women replaced those who had made their living in the brothels and boarding houses. They brought their family values into the west and transformed the wild west into a more settled landscape.

DuBois, Ellen Carol and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.