Westerns: A Women’s History by Victoria Lamont, University of Nebraska Press, 195 pages
This volume comes along just in time for this weekend’s final performance of Santa Fe Opera’s 2016 production of Puccini’s horse opera, La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). That work’s heroine, Minnie, dominates (and nurtures) the men around her through her unassailable chastity, big-sisterly concern, and sterling character — not to mention her prowess with a sidearm. As Lamont shows in this scholarly study, Minnie’s powerful position has interesting feminist parallels in the ever-popular genre of the American Western.
As it turns out, it wasn’t just guys who could wield their pens like pistols in writing about cowboys, Native Americans, sheriffs, cattle rustlers, and bandits. Many highly competent women authors held their own in the generally male-dominated world of the Western novel of the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries — even if at times they wrote using pseudonyms, though not as often as you’d think. And they often included significant female characters in their work, from law women and ranchers to the more traditional schoolmarms and other, more gentle heroines.
These female authors included B.M. (Bertha Muzzy) Bower, Emma Ghent Curtis, Caroline Lockhart, Frances McElrath, Mourning Dove (the pen name of Christine Quintasket, a member of the Okanagan Nation), and Muriel Newhall. Lamont reveals that their output, along with that of other women writers, was large, eminently readable, and cleverly geared to its target audience. As Lamont sums it up, “Women readers and authors have played a substantial role in the history of the genre.”
The book abounds in interesting observations. For example, Lamont writes, “A more well known model of feminist intervention in early twentieth-century popular western discourse is the liberal-feminist individualism of figures such as Annie Oakley … and the rodeo cowgirl. All are feminized versions of the western male hero: Oakley earned celebrity status as a sharpshooter with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, while taking great care to preserve her reputation as a respectable lady. … Early twentiethcentury rodeo cowgirls competed in the same events as men — although not against them.”
A professor of English at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, Lamont approaches her subject with an academic’s command of form, substance, and language; but she also demonstrates real affection for the Western thriller tradition, plus a sincere appreciation for the women’s ability to tell a good strong story, along with their place in history. As she notes in her introduction, the book offers “a revisionist account of the origins of the popular western,” and demonstrates that the genre was “founded as much by women writers as by men and played a significant role in American women’s literary history at the turn of the twentieth century.” Women, she concludes, “were active at every turn during the period, between roughly 1880 and 1940, when the American frontier myth, after years of ghettoization in the dime novel, was supposedly ‘reborn’ as a dominant myth of American identity.”
All in all, Westerns: A Women’s History is an interesting and thoughtful work, buttressed by rigorous scholarship; but it also should appeal to general readers, especially those interested in women’s history and literary movements. — Craig A. Smith