Wednesday, February 12, 2014

No Sunbonnet Sue

Anne Schroeder writes memoirs and women's fiction set in the West. She's currently president-elect of Women Writing the West and has won awards for her writing, including the 2012 LAURA Award for short fiction. Her historical western novel, Cholamo Moon, a young girl's struggle to womanhood in California country, will be released in April. Anne makes her home in Southern Oregon with her husband and two dogs. Fortunately, she said, they all share a passion for out of the-way places.

      Anne wrote the following about women in literature: 

Sam Peckinpah was fond of saying, “I hate women in westerns. Women stop the action.” Sounds harsh, but in “real westerns,” the whore/stoic wife/spinster stereotypes allow women a minor role while the cowboy rides off into sunset to fight another day. Now the ladies are demanding their due. So why the stereotypes in the first place?

In the sparsely developed West, social roles were narrowly defined. Fear of being ostracized was very powerful. Gossip kept men and women socially separated from each other, single women, especially. Teachers could be fired for perceived lapses of rather rigid rules.  

Old daguerreotypes reveal a lot about attitude. One famous photo shows two miners’ wives standing in the Leadville, Colorado muck, staunchly determined to rise above the mud and the flies, the scarcities and solitude. They’re wearing starched lace dickeys and serviceable hats they’ve brushed and mended, and bedecked with a fresh quail feather from last night’s supper bird.  

Defining women by their dress may be an effective cinematic tool, but writers need to question the obvious. Was abandoning the corset the slovenly act of a down-and-out whore? Whalebone stays, so easily available in the East, became expensive at the trading posts. Did women simply get tired of trying to farm in one?

The first time a prairie wind blew a woman’s dress over her unmentionables, western-bound women began to modify apparel to fit their needs. They taught each other to stitch buckshot into their hemlines and to remove hoop skirts that dragged them under wagon wheels and caught fire in the coals. They shortened their hems so they didn’t drag in the manure or mud. They donned bloomers not out of fashion sense, but because it made it easier to ride a horse astraddle. The western hills were simply too dangerous for a side-saddle. A woman’s hair was her glory. Even when she had to comb it for vermin, rinse it with rain water and coil it in the dust of the trail? Doubtlessly, some women chopped theirs off and wore a hat.

Women were physically small. (A woman boasted in an 1887 letter that she was 87 pounds, and no slouch.)  Some had grit and physical strength, but others didn’t. Some were tall, or fat, or masculine in appearance. Some woman had to “pass” to survive. Those who wore britches and handled shot guns like a man could become a folk hero (Annie Oakley.) Muleskinners and soldiers were found on their deathbeds to be women. Charley Parkhurst, the noted stage driver, was not only a woman, but she secretly bore a baby. Ironically, the rebels made it into folklore, not the Sunbonnet Sues.   

Many women didn’t have a vote in the decision to “go west.” Church-goers biblically followed husbands who had land or gold fever. Did she become bitter when her children died of disease or accident? Did she pine for family and household goods left behind?  Think of how we would feel if our sister-in-law helped herself to whatever wouldn’t fit into a 4x10 foot wagon after our husband had packed everything he needed for farming, along with food enough for the family and the animals. Women went insane on the Oregon Trail. Sometimes they sat down and wept, and wouldn’t get up again.

Back in the day, children were expected to support their parents. Many families sold homely daughters as twelve-year-olds to brothels for a few dollars to spare the cost of feeding them. Beauty wasn’t perceived in the same way we see it. Cowhands fell in love with women who made them feel good. (Remember “Little Heifer” in Lonesome Dove?) Whores were pock-marked from their mercury face powder, small pox and beatings from customers and pimps alike. According to Wild West Tech, prostitutes began their career at age 13, and only about 18-19 when they succumbed to tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, drug overdose or suicide.  Life was grim. On their paydays, a young girl might service from twenty-four to forty men. She worried more about a cowboy’s spur ripping her sheets (which she had to pay for) than she did about her body.)  

Thankfully, today’s western writers can go beyond the Martha Starchbottom stereotype  and create intriguing and unforgettable characters.


  1. Thanks for allowing me to guest post. I hope readers of historical western will find much to love in my upcoming release. If I wrote mysteries, I'd kill for a writing legacy like yours.

  2. Welcome to my mountaintop ranch, Anne. It's good to have you visit here. Thanks for the kind words.