Beyond the Saloon Girl Stereotype: Women of the West

On the Fan Track streaming channel Thursday at 8:30PM, the Alternate and Historical Fiction Track presented “Herstorically Speaking: Women of the Wild West. Panelists Nicole Givens Kurtz, Misty Massey, Dr. Omisade Richardson, and Tamsin Silver joined host Jean Marie Ward for a discussion of stereotype-busting women of the American West.

Ward opened the panel by observing that many people think the women who went into the West were all from southern Maryland and refined when in reality many were adventurers and rebels. She asked the panelists what drove people to grab the opportunities in the West.

Kurtz, who writes fiction set in the New Mexico Territory during Reconstruction, noted that the region offered freedoms not available in the South or the East. Social and gender roles were relaxed in some towns because people were trying to survive common problems or threats. This atmosphere provided more avenues for people to be their authentic selves. Women could own businesses, decide not to marry, or decide not to have children.

Silver observed that women were often branded as whore to discredit them. One example was Susan McSween, who became the first cattle “queen” of New Mexico. The thrice-married Sally Chisolm lived in a town founded by and named for her third husband. After he died, the town was renamed for her. Billy the Kid’s mother helped start a town, served on its original board, and owned property. Women also owned businesses. As an aside, she added that Billy the Kid killed far fewer people than his legend claims and that he sang, danced, and spoke three languages.

Ward added that women participated in the mythology of the region. Josephine Earp, Wyatt Earp’s common-law wife, didn’t want to be known as a sex worker, even though she was a sex worker and a gambler. She helped build the legend of Wyatt as an upstanding, moral man.

Richardson pointed out that Victorian women lived under heavy constraints until they went west. Then they had less protection and needed to protect themselves and their land. There had been people of color in the West since the 1500s, including Moors and Africans with the Conquistadors. Coming out of the period of the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth, people of color ran to the West for freedom. They learned to protect themselves, founding towns in Colorado and Oregon. People who had not had names before made names for themselves, settled, and created places of safety, protection, and education.

Massey added that while many women supported themselves as sex workers because that was their available option, they often became more than that. Laws were different and hard to enforce because many people didn’t care about restrictions on prostitution. Sex workers were not looked down upon or seen as tragic.

Doc Holliday had an on-and-off relationship with a woman known as Big Nose Kate. She sometimes earned money as a sex worker and sometimes gambled. Of Hungarian birth, she was very intelligent and well educated. Holliday saw her as his intellectual equal. In a famous movie about a gunfight involving Holliday and set at a corral, Kate grovels to Holliday, but the real woman wouldn’t have done so. She often left him. At one point, while drunk, she testified against him. She recanted after sobering up, and Holliday was released.

One of Kurtz’s short stories features the legend of the Lost Dutchman Mine. The Dutchman, actually a German, was supposedly given the profitable mine by an Apache chieftain. Julia Thomas, a biracial woman who owned either a bakery or a laundry, took care of the Dutchman, who supposedly told her the location of the mine. After he died, she sold her business and went searching for the mine with two others. They never found it, but she was the first to search for it.

Little is known about Susan McSween, who was mentioned earlier. She was at the Battle of Gettysburg, not as a combatant but because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. After seeing the trauma of the battle, she disappeared for a while, surfacing in New Mexico in 1878. She walked into the middle of a gunfight unarmed to try to stop the fight.

Mary Fields, who was known as Stagecoach Mary, became a legend. She sometimes dressed as a man, used colorful language, and enjoyed alcohol. She had been enslaved. After emancipation, she worked at a convent but had to leave when she pulled a gun on another worker (who also pulled one on her). She was the second woman and the first African American woman to carry the mail for the Star Route. Carrying both a revolver and a shotgun, she drove her coach through rough terrain and bad weather. She settled in a mostly-white town, where she was known for her ability to connect with children. Rules against women in saloons weren’t applied to her because she was such a legend.

A figure whose legend is far from the facts about her life was Molly Brown, who was deemed unsinkable after surviving the Titanic sinking. Brown never used Molly as a name but went by Margaret or Maggie. As the ship went down, she supervised the loading of the lifeboats to be sure each was full. She had to be bodily placed in a boat. When the boat reached the water, she grabbed an oar but discovered there were people in the water. Brandishing he roar, she overruled one of the ship’s officers, who didn’t want to go back for them because the boat was full. The S.S. Carpathia picked up her lifeboat. Safely aboard, she organized assistance for those who were rescued. A female newspaper columnist, Polly Pry, a transplant from the East, decided to “make hay” with do-gooder Maggie Brown. Pry named her the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Brown followed her husband west for love. Pry left her husband and headed west to find adventure.

Lewis and Clark owed a lot to their Shoshone guide, Sacagawea, who led them through the west while carrying for her newborn child. At one point, the boat tipped over. It was Sacagawea who saved the maps and charts. The Sacagawea River is named for her.

Emancipated when the Union Army captured her in 1861, Cathay Williams found herself then working for the army. However, she noticed that Black men could join the army. She dressed as a man, joined the army and fought out West in various battles, and stayed in the army as a Buffalo Soldier after the Civil War. She served until 1868, when an illness led to the discovery of her gender. Although many women who fought as men received pensions, she did not.

Mary Ellen Pleasant worked as a servant for an Abolitionist family and worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Using money she inherited, she moved west and opened a dining establishment catering to wealthy businessmen. By eavesdropping, she learned how to build a fortune of around $30 million, some of which she donated to Abolitionist causes. She was part of the “financial muscle” behind the struggle for freedom.

Belle Siddons had been a debutante in Jefferson City before becoming a spy for the Confederate Army. After being caught by the Union , she was let out of prison to serve as a nurse. She later married a man who taught her to play cards. She went from one gambling hall to another, playing in an evening gown with a pistol on one side of her and a stack of money on the other. In addition, she gave information to stagecoach robbers.

The panel showcased the rich variety of roles women in the West played. While some women were wives and mothers, many others were gamblers, sex workers, and businesswomen.  No wonder the panel was called “Herstorically Speaking.”

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.