Friday Speak Out!: Women Get No Respect—at least in Westerns, by Judy Alter

Friday, May 04, 2012
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.

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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 ,, Jessie Benton Frémont (Jessie), Lucille Mulhall (Cherokee Rose),  and Etta Place, of Hole in the Wall gang fame (Sundance, Butch and Me Judy is also the author of Kelly O’Connell Mysteries-- Skeleton in a Dead Space and No Neighborhood for Old Women, with Trouble in a Big Box due in August 2012.

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!



Janie Emaus said...

You're getting respect now!

Teri Heyer said...

Judy, I loved this post. I think the stigma against female authors is beginning to diminish, but we've a long ways to go. I have to confess that I love Owen Wister's The Virginian, also Louis L'Amour, Zane Gray and Elmer Kelton westerns. That said, I primarily read books by female authors. I believe women can write tough, gritty books, westerns included, as well or better than any male author. Thanks for the great list of authors in this post. Some are old favorites and others, I'm sure, will soon become favorites. Thanks again for a great post. I've added Mattie to my Kindle and look forward to reading a great book.

Anonymous said...

Ann Parker has a nice award-winning mystery series with a female protagonist set in Leadville, Colo. There's power in numbers. As more women add to the genre, the more their work will be appreciated.
Sally Carpenter

NinaP said...

Hi Judy!

Great post!

I love fiction novels like your LIBBIE, that are based on the true lives of historical figures.

Strong female characters are also a fav (and requirement) of mine.

I'm looking forward to your BUTCH, SUNDANCE AND ME.


Suzanne Lilly said...

Very informative post. I didn't know about B. M. Bower. In April I was privileged to have Jamie Lisa Forbes, the 2010 winner of the Women Writers of the West Willa Literary award on my blog. I hope that with writers like you leading the way, more women will write about our Western heritage.

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