Uppity Women: Annie Oakley

Uppity Women: Annie Oakley. Oakley was a sharp shooter who traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. In 1889, she performed at the Paris Exposition as part of a three year tour. This tour made her America’s first international star. While this feat in and of itself would make her worthy of note as an extraordinary woman, Oakley was a person of integrity who advocated for women.

Uppity Women: Annie Oakley

Uppity Women: Annie Oakley

From Difficult and Humble Origins

Oakley, born on August 13, 1860, was christened Phoebe Ann Mosey. The log cabin of her birth was near the rural western border of Ohio about five miles east of North Star. Her parents were Quakers from Pennsylvania who had moved to a rented farm.

Oakley was the fifth out of seven surviving children. Her father died when she was six of pneumonia after suffering overexposure during a blizzard the previous year. While her mother remarried, her step-father died shortly after the birth of yet another sibling. The family plunged into extreme poverty.

While her mother tried to keep the family together, too many mouths needed food. Oakley did what she could as a young child. She began trapping animals at the age of seven. She hunted before the age of nine. At the age of nine, Oakley along with one of her sisters was admitted to the Darke County Infirmary. While in the care of the superintendent of the infirmary and his wife, she learned to sew.

Hardship and Abuse

Because of her developing domestic skills, a few months after coming to live at the Darke County Infirmary Oakley was “bound” out to a local family to help care for their infant. The family originally wanted someone who could do more hard labor around the farm. Oakley suffered two years in near slavery to this family whom she only referred to as “the wolves” in her autobiography. At one point, the wife of the family forced Oakley outside into the freezing cold without shoes because Oakley had fallen asleep while darning. With good cause, Oakley ran away.

Skill, Her Debut, and Love

Oakley made her way back to her mother and her family. Her mother had remarried once again. Oakley’s skill in hunting helped to pay the mortgage on her mother’s farm. Annie became well-known throughout the area for her marksmanship.

Frank E. Butler was a traveling show marksman. He placed a $100 bet with Cincinnati hotel owner Jack Frost that he could beat anyone in a contest of sharpshooting. Frost arranged a match between Oakley and Butler. Butler was surprised to find himself pitted against a five foot tall, fifteen year old girl. And even more surprised when after 25 rounds, she beat him.

It was love at first site and Butler courted Oakley. A year later they were married.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

Butler and Oakley, who took the name Annie Oakley as a stage name in 1885, began touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Fellow performer Sitting Bull called her “Watanya Cicilla”  which meant “Little Sure Shot”. While she toured with the show, she had a rivalry with Lillian Smith who was eleven years her junior. Oakley was often described as five to six years younger than she really was, perhaps because of the rivalry with the younger Smith.

At one point Oakley stopped touring for a few years, but then resumed in time for the Paris Exposition. Oakley was the highest paid performer in the Wild West show. While touring in Europe she performed for Queen Victoria, President Marie Francois Sadi Carnot of France, and King Umberto of Italy. It is rumored that at the request of German Kaiser Wilhelm II she shot the ashes off of his lit cigarette.

An Advocate for Women

Oakley was a strong woman. She believed women were equal to men and she promoted the service of women in combat operations in the armed forces. During the Spanish-American War she sent a letter to President William McKinley proposing a company of 50 female sharp shooters go to war as part of the United States armed services. This proposal was not enacted. However, throughout Oakley’s career it is estimated she taught 15,000 women how to use a gun.

A Woman of Integrity

In 1904, William Randolph Hearst published a false story that Oakley had been arrested for stealing to have enough money for cocaine. While there a burlesque performer was arrested for stealing who gave Chicago police the name of Annie Oakley, it was not in fact Oakley.

While the story of a cocaine abusing Oakley splashed across headlines and sold newspapers, it was false. Too late to realize the story was false, many newspapers ran with the Hearst article. Hearst trying to avoid a libel suit sent an investigator to Darke County Ohio to dig up dirt on Oakley. The investigator found nothing. Oakley went hunting to clear her reputation.

For the next six years, Oakley pursued winning 54 of 55 libel lawsuits against newspapers who had printed the Hearst story. It cost her more money than she collected in judgments. However, she felt it was important for the truth to be represented and her reputation restored.

Later Life

Oakley won marksmanship awards and set records into her sixties. She thrived beyond a train accident that forced her to change careers to become an actress and a car accident that forced her to wear a steel brace. She continued to advocate for women and was a philanthropist for women’s causes. Her health declined in 1925 and she died a legend in 1926. The famed female sharpshooter was not hemmed in by her time period despite her careful cultivation of her image as a woman with proper Victorian morals. She lived as a daredevil who pushed boundaries, did more, and fearlessly went ahead of her time. She was a true uppity woman.

Comets and Uppity Women

woodcut comet image, Comets and Uppity Women

Comets and Uppity Women

Comets and Uppity Women. The thought might arise these two things have little in common, but Bathsua Makin said,

“A learned woman is thought to be a comet, that bodes mischief whenever it appears.”

Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism?

I recently read an article in The Guardian about a study of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies conducted by anthropologists at University College London. I still need to track down the paper the article was based on. The Guardian quoted one of the authors of the study as saying, “There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.”

Anthropologists for a long time have puzzled over why while people in hunter-gatherer societies show strong preferences for living with family members, in practice few closely related individuals make up the groups they live in. The study focused on computer simulations based on the assumption people would chose to populate an empty camp with their close kin– siblings, parents and children. When the choice was male dominated, the simulation showed a pattern closer to male-dominated pastoral or horticultural societies. When the choice was more sexually egalitarian, a pattern closely resembling the observed pattern of the contemporary hunter-gatherers emerged. And each hunter-gatherer group has far flung connections with many different hunter-gatherer groups.

The authors of the paper make a case for sexual equality as an evolutionary advantage for humans because then early humans would have had wider networks to interact with. With the advent of agriculture, our species skewed towards male dominance.  Agriculture brought with it the opportunity to accumulate possessions and wealth. It also meant groupings with men living with their brothers. The men’s wives were at the fringes of the group. A man’s children and relatives would be more numerous than the relatives within the group of any adult female member. And women lost their voices.

Losing Our Voices

Women lost their voices and many were forgotten through history. How many other Boudica lead armies? What female leaders and advisors’ names have been lost? What tales of adventuresome women are no longer told? How many inventive women’s engineering accomplishments were ascribed to men? How many women writers’ works have been lost? Can we continue with only a portion of the story? Can we survive with only a portion of humanity’s possible contributions?

Women in History and Feminism

I don’t have time or space in this one post to write a history of feminism. There have been powerful women, strong feminine voices, and human females all through out history. And not all of them are famous like Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic pharaoh of Egypt before Egypt became a Roman province. Or Queen Elizabeth I who was the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. Most of the women in history who were accomplished, outspoken, adventuresome, powerful or extraordinary in other ways are not routinely mentioned in history books. I have written posts about several of them in the past on this blog. Women such as Ching Shih, Ada Lovelace, Grandy Nanny, and Queen Nzinga Mbande.

Further, there is a tradition of female intellectual resistance to oppression and repressive cultural norms that goes back centuries and includes women such as Christine de Pizan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf and many others. I opened this post with a quote from Bathsua Makin.

Bathsua Makin

Bathsua Makin was the daughter of a schoolmaster named Henry Reginald. Bathsua’s father was enlightened in an age when it was considered that girls should only learn “feminine” arts such as dancing, singing and needle crafts. He trained his daughter in classical and modern languages. Bathsua Makin wrote a book of poetry at the age of sixteen that included passages in Greek, Latin and French.

During the seventeenth century in English culture, women were subject to men. Family, education and religion were all male dominated institutions. Queen Elizabeth’s reign shook things up and women had enjoyed more freedoms during her lifetime, but with the ascendancy to the throne of James I previous societal patterns returned. With one exception, Protestantism encouraged everyone to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, including women. More women were taught to read. While women were relegated to the private, domestic sphere where they were under the governance of the men of the household, there was an undercurrent to challenge norms. While it was lauded for a man to publish his writings and take on a public voice, women were scorned for such an action. And still women such as Makin published.

Makin’s life was never easy. While she was considered “England’s most learned lady”, she struggled financially. Her husband, Richard Makin, was a minor court servant. When he lost his position, Bathsua petitioned for a position and was successful. She was a tutor to Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of Charles I, and taught the girl mathematics, reading, writing and languages. After the death of the princess, Makin tutored Lucy Hastings, Dowager Countess of Huntingdon.

The Whole Nation Advantage

Makin understood the power of educating women. For ten years she ran a school at Tottenham High Cross. She advocated for teaching women a broad range of subjects including mathematics, history, science and languages. Dying at the age of 75, her life may have influenced many others in small and important ways. It’s hard to know what the impact of her work was in its totality. She wrote that educating women would give “the whole nation advantage”.

Comets and Uppity Women

It has been a while since I wrote about women through history who did unexpected, extraordinary, revolutionary things. Everybody needs role models. I feel society has taken steps backwards towards less egalitarianism and moved towards being more male dominated. In my opinion this development hurts our species. The challenges of our current time period require all the talent, hearts and minds available to us. As women we need to know women before us pushed boundaries, spoke out, and contributed. If writing about these women is mischief, then I will strive to be a maker of such. Look for another post next Sunday.