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Annie Oakley Joins Wild West Show

From Olympic snowboarders and hockey players to Academy Award-winning filmmakers and rock stars, women in American sports and entertainment can trace the source of their opportunities to a modest 5-foot-tall daughter of a widowed woman in rural Ohio who had knack for shooting a rile and to a long-haired, goateed Army veteran.

Just a little over a century ago it was Annie Oakley (a.k.a. Phoebe Ann Mosey) and "Buffalo" Bill Cody who breached the stiff cultural barriers against women bearing arms or holding jobs or even participating in sports.

Oakley was not the first woman in America to shoot a rifle, but she was the first to do it publicly and effectively in competition with men, and she was the first to get paid for it handsomely.

Cody was not alone in his convictions that women should have the right to vote, be able to form their own organizations, to live alone without restrictions, and enjoy the same opportunities and pay as men. But he was the first American of the 19th century to act on those convictions on a broadly popular national stage, hiring some of the most talented horsewomen, rifle shots, and actresses in the country to work in his touring Wild West Shows.

"What we want to do is give our women even more liberty than they have," Cody said. "Let them do any kind of work that they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them the same pay."

Oakley almost missed her appointment with destiny, however. When she auditioned for the Wild West Show in 1884, she was turned down. Buffalo Bill and company already had a shooting act -- the well-known Captain A.H. Bogardus -- and didn't feel they needed her. But when Bogardus left the show unexpectedly the next year, Oakley was given a second audition and offered a job.

Oakley's opportunity, and subsequent success, opened the doors for other women entertainers in the Wild West Show -- Lillian Smith, Della Ferrell, Georgia Duffy -- and demonstrated that the Wild West of America's frontier mythology was not an exclusively male story.

"Young women admired these cowgirls -- women who dared to break out of society's traditional roles, jump aboard a horse, and hold their own in a predominantly male profession," writes Chris Enss in "Buffalo Gals: Women of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show" (TwoDot, 2006).

Oakley's most impressive accomplishment, according to some male historians, was her ability to compete and excel without losing her feminine identity. "Most Americans view expertise with firearms as a male role," says Paul Reddin in his history, "Wild West Shows" (University of Illinois Press, 1999). "Yet this woman displayed obvious ability while remaining conventionally feminine, always making her entrance a 'pretty one.'"

A publicity agent once said of Annie Oakley: "She never walked. She tripped in (to the arena), bowing, waving, and wafting kisses."

A "girlie girl" competing in a "manly" sport or profession and succeeding was much more astonishing in the 1880s than it is today, evidence that something has changed and that the retorts of a poor country girl from Ohio are still echoing out of the past.

"Aim at a high mark and you will hit it," Oakley advised women with ambitions. "No, not the first time, nor the second and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect. Finally, you'll hit the Bull's-Eye of Success."

Annie Oakley

Name: Phoebe Anne Oakley Moses 

Born: August 13, 1860

Buffalo Gals
Women of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show
by Chris Enss
Two Dot Books, 2005.

From 1883 to 1916, a span of 33 years, the touring performers in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show entertained audiences in opera houses, auditoriums, fairgrounds and rodeo arenas across the United States and much of Europe.

While much history has been written about William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, creator and namesake of the traveling entertainments, little has been said about the women involved in his shows and the roles they played in his success. This book turns the spotlight on dancers Giussepoina Morlacchi and Loie Fuller, bronc riders Lillian Ward and Goldie Griffith, sharpshooters Lillian Smith, Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane.

Aside from Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, the talented women profiled in this volume will be unfamiliar to most readers, but their stories briefly sketched in its pages are interesting, endearing, and sometimes tragic. Illustrated with historic photos and reproductions of Wild West Show publicity posters, this book should inspire further study by anyone interested in the cultural history of the American West.

Bulls - Eye
A Photobiography Of Annie Oakley
by Sue Macy 
National Geographic, 2001

By Grit & Grace :
Eleven Women Who Shaped the American West 
by Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etulain
Fulcrum Publishing, 1997
By Grit & By Grace

Wild Women of the West 
by Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etulain 
Trade paperback 
Fulcrum, 2003. Order Online
Eleven of the wildest women  of the Old West are profiled by eight of the most respected historians of the period in this "Notable Westerners Series" title from Fulcrum Publishing.

Co-editor of the volume, Glenda Riley, documents the lives of the flamboyant and controversial Baby Doe Taylor of Colorado and the infamous New Mexico madam Sadie Orchard. Richard Etulain profiles the legendary outlaw Calamity Jane.

The other characters included in this collection are Polly Bemis, Emily D. West, Lucille Mulhall, Bertha Kaepernik Blancett, Cattle Kate, Mattie Silks, Kate Fulton and Ida Jones.

The essays are divided into four categories of wild women: "Errant Daughters" who left home and challenged their upbringing, "Sellers of Sex" who made money from companionship and sexual favors, "Showtime Cowgirls" who captured public attention with skilled shooting and horsemanship, and "Almost Outlaws" who gained notoreity by living outside the law.

"Because the West's will women were bold and courageous, willing to take chances, and seldome bothered by what other folks might think, they stand as symbols to modern Americans who fear they have lost those very qualities," Riley explains. 

Yet, despite their reputations and the legends that have grown up around them, the reality of these women's lives was less glamorous and more traditional than their public image. When the historical records allow, the essays in this book attempt to show both sides of these lives, both the wild and the tame.

    Annie Oakley of the Wild West
    by Walter Havighurst 
    University of Nebraska Press, 1992
    order online

Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull
by Bobby Bridger
Univ of Texas Press,2002. Order Online

Although they share the book's title, this is a biography of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody and Sitting Bull is included as the most significant evidence of the Army scout and showman's close relationship with the Plains Indians.

That his success and celebrity made him a symbol of the destruction of the buffalo and the demise of the American Indian disturbed him greatly, Bobby Bridger explains. "A son of the plains, Cody profoundly cherished the West, particularly the natural American West of the Indian, and could not bear to be perceived historically as the man responsible for its destruction."

Cowgirls of the Rodeo: 
Pioneer Professional Athletes 
by Mary Lou Lecompte 
Order Online
by Candace Savage
Ten Speed Press, 1996
Order Online
Women of the Wild West
by Elizabeth Clair Flood
Zon Intl Pub Co., 2000
order online
Cowgirl Spirit:
Strong Women, Solid Friendships and Stories from the Frontier
by Mimi Kirk
Sourcebooks, Inc., 2001
order online
Cowgirl Poetry
One Hundred Years of Ridin' and Rhymin'
by Virginia Bennett 
Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2001
order online
More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Texas Women
by Greta Anderson 
Globe Pequot Press, 2002
order online


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