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Frontier Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

Karen R. Jones

“I figure if a girl wants to be a legend, she should just go ahead and be one.”  

This phrase, popularly attributed to Calamity Jane, is strewn across the twenty-first-century internet, emblazoned on T-shirts, striding out across coffee mugs, and hollering provocatively from wall posters. It is almost certainly apocryphal. After tracking Calamity Jane across the dusty confines of the nineteenth-century American West and through her media-rich “after-life” of TV and movie pickings, I can find no evidence that she ever said such a thing. If she had, mind you, it would have made some sense. Calamity Jane, or Martha Jane Canary, to use her birth name, was no stranger to making loud and assertive declarations, most of which contained significant embellishments or imaginative takes on real life or were just plain fictitious in their design.

Born in Missouri around 1856, she travelled West as a child migrant with her family. Orphaned as a teenager, she took up a feral and itinerant existence in the railroad and mining towns of the frontier trans-Mississippi. Famed for wearing men’s clothes and inhabiting what one biographer called “the man trails of the West,” she claimed to be a daring and celebrated army scout, to have been minutes away from saving General Custer’s Seventh Cavalry from attack at the Little Bighorn, to have apprehended “Wild” Bill Hickok’s killer, Jack McCall, with a meat cleaver, and to have saved the Deadwood stagecoach from a Cheyenne ambush. In common with the “legend” quotation, these all turned out to be “fake news,” part of the redolent culture of frontier celebrity that grew up around her.

A buckskin-clad, pistol-swirling, tough-talking Western character, Calamity Jane had great stage presence. People believed her stories because they wanted to. In a West that seemed full of larger-than-life personalities, grand tales of adventure and westering, and significant social latitudes compared to the East, she was a dynamic, curious, and very plausible storyteller. Significantly, although her tales were light on truth, her story becomes hugely important when she is placed in a contemporary landscape of shifting gender norms and expectations. A woman who refused to abide by accustomed codes of feminine behaviour and costume, Calamity Jane’s lifeways starkly reveal the opportunities and limitations of female agency in the nineteenth-century West. She cut a highly unusual presence compared to most on the “female frontier” and won her fair share of critics because of her non-conformist antics. However, it is equally true that a great many westering women took on new roles and responsibilities in emerging homestead economies that saw them transcend traditional gender roles as a part of everyday life.

Somewhere between being quirkily representative and deliciously unorthodox, Calamity Jane wanders the twenty-first century at large, having travelled from the rough-hewn world of Deadwood to become a thoroughly modern heroine. Particularly among feminist and LGBT writers and playwrights, she has been championed as a pioneering transgressive figure who tested the boundaries of gender norms in a time and a place where the usual rules were in flux. As a role model for today, she strikes back at authority and dares to be different, equal parts vulnerable, enigmatic, and tricksterish. An icon of swaggering female empowerment and an agitant for gender equality, her real-life story may not have matched up to the flamboyant dramatics of her legend, but she presented an intriguing challenge to masculine authority through her many performances as “the female scout.” Perhaps that quote is not so far off the mark after all . . . .

Karen Jones is a professor at the University of Kent. Her previous publications include Wolf Mountains: A History of Wolves Along the Great DivideThe Invention of the Park, and Epiphany in the Wilderness: Hunting, Nature, and Performance in the Nineteenth-Century American West.

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