Women with ideas of their own

Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2001

A review of "By Grit & Grace: Eleven Women Who Shaped the American West" edited by Glenda Riley and Richard Etulain (Fulcrum Publishing, Colorado, paperback, 226 pages, illustrated, $22.95).

For many, the image of the American West has been dominated by male characters real and fictional, ranging from Jesse James to Geronimo, from George Custer and Gary Cooper to John Wayne.

"By Grit & Grace" should help set the record straight: That females, too, peopled the West of the nineteenth century and often played prominent and influential roles as writers, reformers, entertainers and educators if not as sheriffs, hired guns, Robin Hoods and thieves. These 11 essays contain insightful analyses that are thought-provoking, although the lack of sources often leaves conclusions about character up in the air.

To be sure, not all prominent women were models of propriety. Take, for example, Dna Gertrudis Barcelo of New Mexico, a leading monte-bank dealer. Fashionable, intelligent and a shrewd businesswoman, she kept what passed on the frontier for a salon. Americans were appalled that she was a professional gambler, but women gambled everywhere in Mexico, even the elite of Mexico City. In her setting, Barcelo was not a rebel against convention so much as she pushed convention to its limits.

The other ten women in the volume are Jessie Benton Fremont; dancer Lola Montez; Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Canary); sharpshooter Annie Oakley; Mary Ellen Pleasant; Susette and Susan LaFlesche; homesteader Elinor Pruitt Stewart; Abigail Scott Duniway; and Mother Katharine Drexel.

Calamity Jane is perhaps the most perplexing of the women in these essays. Is she an abused child who struck out on her own at 11, a young prostitute given to tall tales? Did she actually serve as an Army scout? Sometimes the only answer to her odd career seems a post-mortem diagnosis of manic-depression.

From sharpshooter to physician to the beatified, the one thing these women have in common is that they dared to pursue their dreams, no matter how unpopular.

It would be a shame if this excellent book were relegated to the reading lists of women's studies courses. It is thoroughly documented, clearly written and thoughtfully compiled. Any teen-age girl who chafes at the past's limits on women would revel in it.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com

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