Those Gutsy Women of the Old West

Never underestimate a woman doing a man’s job!

My passion is writing about the old west and the fabulous women who helped settle it.  Western movies helped establish the male hero, but depicting women mainly as bonnet saints, soiled doves and schoolmarms did them a terrible disservice.

The westward migration freed women in ways never before imagined. Women abandoned Victorian traditions, rigid manners and confining clothes and that’s not all; they brought churches, schools and newspapers to frontier towns and helped build communities.

Female barber wielding “man’s most sacred implement.”

Women today may still be banging against glass ceilings, but those brave souls of yesteryear had to break down doors. One newspaper reporter complained that “Women dared to lay hands on man’s most sacred implements—the razor and strop—and shave him to the very face.”

Ah, yes, women were barbers, doctors, firefighters and saloon keepers. Women even disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. With little more than their faith to guide them, they owned cattle ranches and gold mines and fought for women’s rights.

In 1860 Julia Shannon of San Francisco took the family portrait to new heights when she shockingly advertised herself as a daguerreotypist and midwife.  Cameras were bulky, chemicals dangerous and photo labs blew up with alarming regularity. It was a hard profession for a man let alone a woman.

Forty years before women were allowed to join a police department, Kate Warne worked for the Pinkerton National Detective agency as an undercover agent from 1856 to her death in 1868. Not only did she run the female detective division, she saved president-elect Abraham Lincoln from a planned assassination by wrapping him in a blanket and pretending he was her invalid brother.    Her story is the inspiration behind my Undercover Ladies series in which the heroines were—you guessed it—Pinkerton detectives working undercover.

It took strong and courageous women to bury children along the trail; barter with Indians and make homes out of sticks and mud. It’s estimated that about twelve percent of homesteaders in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas and Utah were single women.  And yep, women even took part in the Oklahoma land runs.

An article in the San Francisco Examiner published in 1896 says it all: “People have stopped wondering what women will do next, for keeping up with what she is doing now takes all the public energies.”

These are the heroines for whom we like to cheer.  It must have been a shock to the male ego to have to deal with such strong and unconventional women—and that’s at the very heart of my stories. The gun may have won the west, but praise the Lord for the gusty and courageous women who tamed it.

Can you name a gutsy woman–either past or present?


Speaking of heroines of the Old West,

let’s not forget gusty Sheriff Amanda Lockwood,

who almost always gets  her man.




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26 thoughts on “Those Gutsy Women of the Old West”

  1. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post, Margaret! I adore discovering the stories of strong women, most of whom weren’t setting out to change the world, but just to find their place in it. To do what needed to be done to provide for their families and survive brutal frontier conditions. I love writing feisty heroines because I want to believe that if I were in the same situations, I would have a similar fortitude and determination to succeed.

  2. You write such great heroines, Margaret. As for real gutsy ladies, I wrote a post for the Heroes, Heroines & History blog about a Catholic nun called Sister Blandina. She was a sent to Colorado as a missionary. When a gang member of Billy the Kid was wounded, she treated him after the town doctors refused to. Billy and his gang came to town, planning to kill the four doctors who refused to treat his gang member. Sister Blandina greeted them as they entered the town. Billy thanked her and told her if she ever needed anything to send for him. She then requested that he not kill the doctors, and he reluctantly agreed. She also prevented a lynching and a stage robbery. And she was only in her early twenties when she went west–alone.

  3. love the post

    I think today’s women, in general, have become more gutsy–many have become the breadwinners in the family, doing jobs they couldn’t have done years ago, and all while raising a family and sometimes taking care of parents/grandparents.

  4. Thank you for this post Margaret. There were so many powerful and strong women back then. I imagine they would have had to be during that time. Real heroes who opened so many doors for women.
    Carol Luciano

  5. It always frustrates me to hear people talk, even women, about how women shouldn’t be doing one thing or another because they can’t handle it, it is too hard for a woman, or it isn’t right for them to be doing that. There is very little women can’t do or haven’t already done.
    Going back in my family tree, there were about 20 gutsy women were part of the Fil du Roi. The filles du roi, or King’s Daughters, were some 770 women who arrived in the colony of New France (Canada) between 1663 and 1673, under the financial sponsorship of King Louis XIV of France. They were sent to marry the many single french men who had settled in the area. These marriages and the resulting children established a permanent presence to help legitimize France’s claim to what is now Eastern Canada. These were single women used to civilized society and relative convenience in France. They traveled to a land that was barely settled to live in log houses often with dirt floors and had to endure attacks by the local Native tribes. One of my male ancestors was kidnapped and one killed by indians. These women struggled but survived. They raised children, worked gardens, tolerated severe winters, raised and put up food, and created a slightly more civilized environment. I am proud to have these hardy and brave women as ancestors.

    • My goodness, Patricia, what a great family tree you have! I could write a book on just the little bit you told me. I hope you have this written down for future generations. You have every reason to be proud of your ancestors. Thank you for sharing.

      • My brother has been doing the research and has published several books on the family history. He is also teaching and speaking on genealogy.

  6. Love reading about Kate Warne that’s the first time I’ve ever heard about her. I like reading Christian Westerns and how strong these women were. I guess if a woman wasn’t strong then she didn’t make it or went crazy.

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