Who said ladies couldn't be badasses with guns?
The story we’re going to talk about today is one of those I really love, not only because this character’s life was extremely interesting, but also because she broke all standards. I’m not just talking about gender or social behavior but rather cultural norms. By challenging them and not being socially punished, she proved that we can make interesting changes without really breaking with the natural order of the world. That’s what Annie Oakley, the famous “Princess of the West,” did by taking over a male-dominated circle.
If you think of the Old West and all the different movies and novels set in this time and place, you’ll immediately picture the wooden towns with the saloon, the cowboy or gunfighter hero, the treacherous and evil outlaws –probably a set of misrepresented Mexicans or Native Americans–, and breathtaking stand-offs. If you’re an aficionado of the genre, you might include in this lovely setting a couple of pioneer women taking care of their house and children, and of course, their counterpart, the “libertine” working at the canteen, wearing more colorful and outrageous outfits. Let’s focus on those roles of women in the Old West. Those were often the only two possibilities for them: either the Puritan subdued to her husband’s desires and wishes, or the working girl that is both hailed and looked down on. So, naturally, when you hear of a character who doesn't fit into either stereotype, someone who even became a heroine and existed in real life, you can’t help but feel amazed.
Born in a small town in Ohio in 1860, Phoebe Ann Moses had a "written destiny," so to speak. When she was only six years old, her father died, leaving her mother without any money to support the family. It wasn't long before she was sent to work at a wealthy family's house, but they treated her so badly she decided to run away when she was fifteen. Determined to make a living for herself without having to depend on others, she decided to take her late father’s rifle and learn to shoot. Soon she was hunting and selling her game for a living, doing a nice amount of money that allowed her to pay her mother’s mortgage and give her a decent life. One day, one of the businessmen she sold her game to enrolled her to a contest against a very famous shooter, Frank E. Butler, which she won by making a perfect score.
Needless to say, this man fell hard for this amazing woman and both married soon after. Butler was a showman and used to tour throughout the country making shooting demonstrations and performances with his longtime partner. However, one day that the latter felt ill he asked Annie to fill in as his assistant. She changed her name to Annie Oakley and both started touring as a couple. Their success was such that by 1884 they were hired by the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, but there was a hook: they wanted Oakley to be the star of the show. This point is decisive in the story. One would think that being the nineteenth century, a time when women were still considered the property of their husbands, Butler would go against her and make her reject the project, but actually, they proved to be a couple way ahead of their time. He understood that it was something she was better at and that it was an opportunity she couldn’t just leave like that.
Oakley was the main star, and with her loving husband accompanying her and taking care of their finances, she became the biggest success throughout the US and Europe. She toured to many countries and stole the hearts of a broad audience, who were amazed not only with her perfect aim and mastery in shooting, but also due to her looks and personality. One would think that a woman that expert in guns, an activity thought to be exclusive for men, would assume a more masculine look and attitude, but Oakley knew how to create an image of herself. She would dress with nice skirts and dresses, her hair neatly arranged, and acting as a lady, even when she was holding her gun. This, of course, was so contrasting that people got even more impressed by her performance, which she did for about sixteen years.
By 1901 she left the Buffalo Bill Show after a train accident that damaged her back, but she never stopped working. She would give some shows at some fairs and events, and by 1911, she decided to tour back with her original show, now for the “Young Buffalo Show.” Her life wasn’t only preparing and performing, she never forgot her past and origins, so it’s said that she never spent a dime on something she didn’t need. Instead, she would donate and help different charities. She was a politically active woman who would support the causes she believed in. For instance, she was one of the first ones to speak publicly about equal pay. She told women they weren’t weak and that they should start taking some agency by themselves. She even used to teach women how to shoot to protect themselves.
When the US entered World War I, she sent a very serious and formal letter to the president, offering herself to train women to fight, something that was rejected by Woodrow Wilson’s government. Still, she continued training those who wanted to learn and gave more demonstrations until she passed away in 1926 out of natural causes. Her husband who loved her so much couldn’t bear a life without her and just three weeks later passed away, presumably out of depression and poor nutrition, consequence of his grief.
Many women tried to copy her show, but their attempts were futile. No one was able to be as popular and beloved as Annie Oakley. None of them understood the key to her persona: she was an elegant, committed, sensitive, and altruistic woman who happened to be a badass at marksmanship. She understood quite well the social dynamics of her time and played with them on her behalf. At the end of the day, this is the story of an independent woman who made a fortune by herself, who made her own decisions and, instead of being subdued to her husband’s desires, chose to marry someone who loved her and respected her, not as an extension of himself but as an equal. That’s the key to her success, her determination, and attitudes towards life.
Here are some stories that will definitely blow your mind:
Cover photo from the TV series Annie Oakley (1954-57).