The Great American Cow...Girl

If I say 'women in the wild west' what do you picture? For me it's an image of a beautiful young woman tied to the railway tracks as the train looms, a villainous mustachioed man lurking somewhere in the background. And that's too bad because there are plenty of Wild West stories with female characters who determine their own destiny.

True Grit was a great read long before John Wayne rode into the film version as Rooster Cogburn.  As a young teenager I reveled in the story of Mattie, a 14 year old girl who enlists the mean as dirt U.S. Marshal to help her find her father's killer and avenge his death. For girls growing up in the late 60's and 70's, female characters with gumption were few and far between, with the exception of Pippi Long stocking. It was a relief to see that there was room in the world for characters like Mattie Ross.

Another story of the vengeful female protagonist is the strangely compelling Caprice by George Bowering. A school marm turned vigilante sets out to avenge her brother’s death at the hands of two-bit criminals. Caprice is a stunning red head, over 6 feet tall, and a fine hand with a bull whip. She saddles up and chases the perpetrators across the west, circa 1890’s. The book is both a satire of the traditional western and a celebration of it, complete with no good varmints, honorable gentlemen and two Native American characters who observe the goings-on and provide philosophical commentary.

If there's any theme here, it's that women can be just as vengeful as their male counterparts. Jane Fonda starred in the incredibly campy Cat Ballou in 1965, an era in which women rarely played the lead role in a western. Cat hires a gunman to protect her father's ranch, and then later to avenge her father's death. When the hired man fails miserably at his job, Cat takes matters into her own hands. In between scenes, a comical pair summarize the plot in song.

If you're looking for a less satirical picture of women in the west, take a look at Molly Gloss's The Hearts of Horses. Set in 1917, when many of the men in Eastern Oregon have gone to war and ranch hands are in demand, Martha sets out to find work breaking horses. But her method is not to ‘break’ them so much as gentle them. Martha begins as an outsider, drifting in and out of the lives of people as she works with their animals. Eventually she becomes connected to the people and must let go of her comfortable perch as an observer from the saddle.