Happy Birthday, Annie Oakley

A guest post today from Laura Browder, author of Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America and the forthcoming (May 2010) When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans, which features photographs by Sascha Pflaeging.

Let’s take a moment today to celebrate the 149th birthday of Annie Oakley.  But let’s remember her not as just a great markswoman, the beloved subject of “Annie Get Your Gun” and of the 1950s TV show bearing her name.  Rather, let’s remember her as the woman who tamed, if not the West, then at least popular ideas of the West.

Eastern audiences in the late nineteenth century were drawn to Western themes, devouring nonfiction books about the settling of the West and dime novels about the exploits of Western heroes and heroines, and attending Western-themed melodramas and Wild West shows. In these shows, which highlighted a multicultural West in which ethnic warfare was necessary for survival, female shooters became stars—and Oakley was the most prominent of all.

Given the ubiquity of armed dime novel heroines with questionable sexual and racial backgrounds, as well as female western celebrities with even more dubious morals, like the cross-dressing, hard-drinking Calamity Jane, or the notorious armed robber and gang leader Belle Starr, how was it possible for Annie Oakley to enact life on the frontier while remaining sweet and feminine?  For even as the women’s movement gained more publicity and influence in the 1870s and 1880s, the armed women in the Wild West shows had to provide an exemplar of dutiful femininity in order to succeed with the public.

Wild West shows were full of celebrated markswomen, like Lillian Smith and May Manning Lillie, wife of Pawnee Bill.  Yet of all the female sharpshooters, Annie Oakley is the one with the most enduring fame, due in large part to her packaging of herself as a Victorian lady who also happened to be an expert markswoman. Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses to a poor Ohio farm family in 1860; as a young child, she helped support her family through shooting game and selling it to a grocery store. Her marriage to Frank Butler, a sharpshooter whom she beat in a Cincinnati contest, spurred her development as a female sharpshooter. She became famous at a time when exhibition shooting was a wildly popular sport and one that was open to women on equal terms with men, probably the first sport of which this was true.[i] Though she and Frank, her manager, traveled with the Sells Brothers Circus as a husband-and-wife act, she did not become internationally famous until she began performing for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show in 1885, stepping in as a replacement for Frank Bogardus.

The combination of Annie Oakley, who made shooting seem like a palatable, wholesome sport, and de-emphasized the violent possibilities of guns, and Cody, who made the bloody drama of Western conquest into family entertainment, was an apt one. In 1883, Cody opened his first Wild West show.[ii] Nearly from the beginning, the shows were extremely popular: in 1885 over a million people attended Buffalo Bill’s shows. The early shows featured reenactments of historical events, such as an Indian attack on the Deadwood stagecoach, and exhibitions of western skills, such as roping and riding wild bison and riding wild Texas steers. Within two years of the opening of Cody’s show, over fifty rival shows had imitated its features.   Perhaps the most famous performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was Oakley, who, by turning the shooting into a harmless sport, densensitized audiences to the violence inherent in “taming” the West. [iii] Oakley relieved audience anxiety about firearms, but she also epitomized the “civilization” the Wild West shows promoted.

Oakley bolstered her skill as a shooter with a carefully crafted image of gentility, and signaled her commitment to maintaining ladylike behavior at every turn.  She never wore pants onstage, always wore her hair long, and rode sidesaddle:  she publicly stated that riding astride was “a horrid idea”.[iv] She made most of her own costumes and spent hours sitting in her tent between shows, embroidering.  Oakley neither smoked, drank, gambled, nor cursed.  She told newspapers that “there is nothing so detestable as a bloomer costume.  Do not think that I like women to go in for sport so that they neglect their homes.  I don’t like bloomers or bloomer women.”[v] She was opposed to female suffrage, and was outraged when people saw her as a “new woman.”  Oakley was instrumental not only in attracting women to the Wild West show, but also in making shooting appear something that even a lady could comfortably do: in fact, Oakley herself personally taught 15,000 women to shoot.

Oakley’s version of female pioneer life offered a stark contrast to that presented in a popular text published in 1878, William W. Fowler’s Woman on the American Frontier. A Valuable and Authentic History of the Heroism, Privations, Captivities, Trials, and Noble Lives and Deaths of the “Pioneer Mothers of the Republic.The women Fowler described were tough: Mrs. Noble, who in 1644 killed a moose to feed her children, or the Kentucky woman who in 1792 bit a musket ball into pieces in order to shoot more Indians, or Miss Hannah Fox, an early Rhode Island settler, who was forced to saw off her own hand with a dull knife in order to escape freezing to death while wedged under a tree.[v] Oakley’s frontierswoman was spunky and wholesome, not at all the bullet-chewing type.

Oakley’s act separated her, as well, from the good-hearted but wild women of dime novels—she was no “Rowdy Kate,” “Hurricane Nell,” or “Wild Edna.”  Although frontier life was widely acknowledged to be rough, and frontier men were widely regarded as rough in proportion, women were supposed to remain ladylike, and it was this aspect of Western settlement that Oakley stressed. Annie Oakley’s shooting feats were unquestionably impressive, but her real achievement had little to do with marksmanship.  Oakley’s talent was to make female pioneer life look fun and easy, and to make shooting seem like a game, rather than a violent act.

Laura Browder
Virginia Commonwealth University


[i] Bellesiles, Arming America, 442.

[ii] See Kasper, Annie Oakley, 36; Moses, “Wild West Shows, Reformers and the Image of the American Indian, 1887-1914,” also Moses, Wild West Shows, 21.

[iii] Kasson. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, 112-113.

[iv] Riley, The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley, 116.

[v] Kasper, Annie Oakley, 213; 73.