Friday Speak Out!: Women Get No Respect—at least in Westerns, by Judy Alter
Women Get No Respect—at least in Westerns
by Judy Alter
Owen Wister’s 1903 novel The Virginian set a masculine standard for the western novel that endured throughout the twentieth century. Westerns, written by men, featured, among other things, stereotyped heroines—the schoolteacher, the rancher’s daughter, the dancehall girl with the heart of gold. These women were rescued by men but never came to anyone’s rescue.
In Elmer Kelton’s admittedly formulaic 1955 novel, Hot Iron, the villain traps the hero and has him at his mercy. Elmer had the heroine pick up a pair of scissors and run the villain through, saving the hero. The editor would have none of it—the heroine and her scissors momentarily distracted the villain, long enough for the hero to grab his pistol and kill the villain.
The few women who wrote western novels published under pseudonyms, usually initials. As early as the first decades of the twentieth century, Bertha Muzzy wrote a total of fifty-seven novels under the name B. M. Bower. In 1952, novelist Jeanne Williams wrote Tame the Wild Stallion, a young-adult novel featuring a young boy who tames a wild horse while captive on a Mexican ranch. Published under the name J. R. Williams because Prentice-Hall didn’t think boys would read a girls’ book, it won the Texas Institute of Letters Cokesbury Bookstore Award. No one could find the man who wrote the book. Jeanne missed the award ceremony. Her later adult western novels were published under her full name or a feminine pseudonym.
I’ve felt the brunt of this anti-women bias myself. In 1988 my novel, Mattie, won a Spur Award from Western Writers of America, Inc., as the Best Western Novel of the Year. A man who belonged to WWA complained to one of the judges, “That has always been a men’s action category.” And my 1994 novel, Libbie, called western historical romance by Amazon today, was damned in a book review as a soap opera. I like to think a fictional biography of Libbie Armstrong Custer had more significance.
Of course there were always exceptions, women who wrote in the literary rather than genre tradition and didn’t deal with formulas and stereotypes—Mari Sandoz and Willa Cather come to mind.
Today, enough women write about the West that they have their own organization—Women Writing the West. Lucia St. Clair Robson carved out a nice career beginning with her novel about Cynthia Ann Parker. Others who’ve made a name for themselves by proudly writing fiction and nonfiction about the West include Elizabeth Crook, Linda Hasselstrom, Charlotte Hinger, Jerrie Hurd, Cynthia Leal Massey, Candy Moulton, Jean Henry Mead, Carolyn Neithammer, Carla Kelly, and many more.
I’ve written fiction about women of the West most of my career, including books about Libbie Custer, Jessie Benton Frremont, Lucille Mulhall, and Etta Place. These ladies have been good to me, and I’m proud to be in their company.
* * *
Judy Alter has written fiction and nonfiction for adults and young adults. Her historical fiction titles feature such strong women as Elizabeth Bacon Custer (Libbie , http://tinyurl.com/botzzac), Jessie Benton Frémont (Jessie), Lucille Mulhall (Cherokee Rose), and
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!