"The wild cow is a female. She has healthy calves, and milk enough for
them; and that is all the femininity she needs. Otherwise than that she
is bovine rather than feminine."
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics (1898)
"Woe to those who refuse to pay their toll; they would be rounded up
Emma Goldman, "The Traffic in Women" (1911)
The gun-slinging superwoman may be the most familiar way popular western conventions recently have been put to an arguably feminist use. However, this discourse is not characteristic of the earliest popular westerns written by women, which show remarkably little interest in reinventing women in the cowboy-hero's image. A much more prevalent convention, but one virtually unknown to current scholarship, is exemplified in Frances McElrath's The Rustler (1902), published in the same year as Owen Wister's classic The Virginian. McElrath's text concerns a square dance attended by an orphaned teenager named Mavvy (short for Maverick, a name for an unbranded, orphaned calf). She has been dragged to the dance by her adoptive father, a notorious cattle rustler, who forces her to accept the sexual advances of another rustler. To Mavvy's rescue comes Horace Carew, who will soon become the leader of a group of gentleman vigilantes, organized to stop cattle rustling. Horace has just been rejected by his beloved, the genteel easterner Hazel Clifford. As these courtship dramas play out, the square dance caller instructs the male dancers to "lock horns with your own heifers, and rassle 'em to their places" and to "corral the fillies, rope your own, and back to your claim with her!" (McElrath 63-64). The square dance call aptly summarizes one of the novel's central themes. Set in Wyoming during the 1892 Johnson County Rustler Wars, The Rustler is a story of two women's encounters with the "marriage roundup." In this and other women's westerns of the early twentieth century, analogies between cattle roundups and marriage markets mark a crucial shift in Anglo-American feminist discourse: they both resonate with analogies between patriarchy and slavery in feminist abolitionism and anticipate the argument of later feminist thinkers from Emma Goldman to Gayle Rubin that marriage enslaves, objectifies, and commodifies women.
The more familiar pattern of feminist intervention in early twentieth-century popular western discourse is the female individualism of figures such as Annie Oakley, Elinore Pruitt Stewart, and the rodeo cowgirl. All are feminized versions of the western male hero. For example, 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. (1) Stewart, who was renowned for the letters she published in the Atlantic Monthly detailing her experience, represented herself as the female version of the independent homesteader. Early twentieth-century rodeo cowgirls competed in the same events as men--although not against them--and were "the first significant group of professional women athletes in North America" (Savage 80). (2) Today, the tradition continues with action-adventure heroines including the protagonist of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Sarah Connor of the Terminator series.
The westerns discussed in this essay--McElrath's The Rustler (1902), B. M. Bower's Lonesome Land (1912), and Katharine Newlin Burt's The Branding Iron (1919)--change our current understanding of the importance of western mythology in women's literary history, for they show that it was more than the repository of a conservative and limiting feminist individualism or an exclusively patriarchal discourse that women write against. (3) The decline of feminist abolitionism and the rise of social-Darwinian and eugenic feminisms left a rhetorical void in feminist discourse that the popular western could partially fill. Louise Michele Newman has pointed out that aligning feminism with social-evolutionary progress made it problematic for white feminists to criticize patriarchy within their own culture. …