Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Women writers and the early western

Patti Abbott once asked on her blog whether readers could tell a difference between the fiction of men and women writers. As with many topics raised there, this one generated a long discussion. I don’t remember much of a consensus being reached, except that women writers tend to take greater note of domestic concerns, like preparing meals.

Fiction set in the American West divided along gender lines pretty much from the beginning. Men wrote action adventures with plenty of muscle. Women writers did other things. Living at a time before they had the vote, and a Victorian morality kept them at home and minding children, women used writing as a way to flex another kind of muscle—the brain. As if to prove that women could think, their novels are full of ideas.

As writers, both share a similar interest in the frontier. They recognize and explore the freedom from Eastern social norms that is to be found there. For men, it’s an opportunity to confront villainy by a display of character, courage, and gunplay, and as in Wister’s The Virginian (1902) their novels often question assumptions about class differences. For women, it’s an opportunity to question what a male-dominated social order assumes to be true about both genders.

B. M. Bower’s first novel Chip of the Flying U (1906) is a good example (reviewed here earlier). There she opposes a top-hand cowboy and a lady doctor, Della, in an even match of wills. In the story, there’s a replay of the scenes in The Virginian, where Molly the schoolmarm plays nursemaid to her own injured cowboy.

The difference in Bower’s novel is that Chip resents becoming an invalid after an accident on the ranch. And his relationship with his caretaker doctor draws sparks as often as sweetness and light. Bower, a sharp observer of male ego, gives a believable account of male-female relations, where each has achieved a different kind of independence.

Bower’s novel is a comic romance, and any elements of action-adventure are outside its main interests. Most of the story takes place indoors and around the ranch. A memorable indoor scene occurs in the bunkhouse, where Chip is surprised to discover the doctor. Her curiosity has led her to this male-only province, and Bower’s eye for domestic detail provides us there with a picture of cowhand living conditions.

Though out of place in the bunkhouse, Della doesn’t beat a retreat. She learns that Chip has come for his gun to shoot his injured horse. Sensing his dismay at the loss of a favorite animal, she asks to let her try to nurse it back to health.

Their meetings in the barn (another male province) as the horse slowly mends give Bower an opportunity to let this friendship between unequals develop. And they are doubly unequal, Chip assuming superiority by virtue of his gender while she is superior in her intelligence and training as a doctor.

Uncowboy-like, Chip has a gift that she values more than he does. He is a natural with a paintbrush, and she helps win him recognition as an artist. This is a far different outcome from The Virginian, which ends with the killing of a villain. What has to die in Bower’s novel is Chip’s narrow understanding of himself—and of women.

I mention Bower, because she was the first woman writer of cowboy westerns that I read. Before her, as I’ve come to learn, there were already women writers publishing novels set in the West. A partial list includes Mary Hallock Foote’s novel about mining, The Led-Horse Claim (1883); Helen Hunt Jackson’s well-known Ramona (1884); and Mary Austin’s story of Old California, Isidro (1905).

Lesser known today was Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s novel about the fate of a California land grant ranch, The Squatter and the Don (1885); Patience Stapleton’s novel about an independent girl in a mining camp, Babe Murphy (1890); and Mollie Davis’ novel about the barb-wire wars in Texas, The Wire-Cutters (1899).

I’m currently reading an early western by Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills (1890), which got me thinking about all this. It’s another prime example of how women writers took to the West. Ryan’s particular take grew from what became a life-long interest in Native Americans.

Her young heroine, Rachel, fetches up in the mountains of western Montana as a “dude” from Kentucky. Riding on horseback on a two-week pack into the mountains, she learns enough Chinook to converse with the local natives. Meanwhile, she and two of the women riding with her develop a fascination for the subject of squaw men—white men who take Indian women as “wives.”

One of the women finds the idea repulsive. In her eyes, Indian women are dirty, lazy, and ugly. The offspring of such unions are regarded with even greater disgust. As in other western novels of the time, it’s believed that no good comes from mixing races. Rachel, described as being an independent thinker, reserves judgment. Maybe, she thinks, marriage to a white man would help Indian women learn to “improve.”

The scout on the trip, Jack, is a mysterious man who has lived in the West for many years. His manners are “western,” but Rachel senses there’s a great deal more to him. He seems to have much bottled up inside about a past he finds shameful. By the middle of the novel, Rachel learns that a half-breed woman lives with him. Unshocked, her response is one of “to know all is to forgive all.”

While the story of Rachel and Jack's friendship is told with considerable tenderness and emotion, Ryan is putting a lot on the table for discussion about race and race relations. Without having to say it in so many words, she’s also talking about sex. Creating a strong, thinking heroine, she’s insisting that, “queer” though it may seem, women can think and act as independently as men—if not more so.

As is often the case with outsiders, Rachel has a sharp eye for details of behavior. For a male reader, Ryan offers the experience of being seen through the eyes of a woman. While Jack stoically refuses to reveal anything of his private life, Rachel reads him like a detective at a crime scene. Like Bower, you can tell that Ryan has observed men closely.

And she’s also good at domestic detail, the sort of thing male writers seldom focused on. At one point in the novel, she lists the entire contents of the larder in a deserted cabin. Then she puts together a meal out of what she finds.

Which brings us back to that discussion at Patti Abbott’s blog. As feminist critics would put it, the early western novel is “genderized,” meaning that what’s going on in the fiction by men and women generally falls on either side of a fairly clear line. The stories of male writers take place largely outdoors; women writers tend to focus on what goes on indoors.

That, of course, would begin to change. But maybe not all that much.

Image at top of page: Anna Brassey (1839-1887), English traveler and writer; Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy (1890)


  1. This post is very interesting! Thanks!

    Regards from Madrid, Spain.

    La Ch.

  2. Great info here, Ron! Thanks!!

  3. Interesting post. I read B.M. Bower's Chip of the Flying U years ago and have a copy of The Flying U's Last Stand in my library. I also am a female who has written two westerns: Ride a Shadowed Trail and to be released this month by Whiskey Creek Press, the sequel, Crossed Trails.