With the ever increasing wave of feminism arising this century, it is important to travel back in time and explore the life of one of the most distinguished American feminists: Annie Oakley. With her sharp shooting skills and her ideology that women are as independent as men, she believed women should be taught how to shoot and to be able to carry a gun with them for emergency protection. Oakley opened the door to future feminist movements in addition to her own. Through her social status and her ability to take on any male opponent, she proved that being a woman does not limit a person’s ability to hold any position in society or perform any activity.
Given name Phoebe Ann Moses, Annie Oakley was born in 1860 and suffered through a dramatic upbringing in which she experienced the loss of her biological father as well as her step-father, along with being sent away to a farm; she lived with a different family where she was forced to perform arduous labor both inside and outside of the household. 1 After years of being treated as a slave and being repeatedly abused on the farm, she returned home where she was then forced to pay her mother’s $200 monthly mortgage at the age of fifteen. She took to shooting game, which she had learned from her father at a young age, to sell to nearby hotels and marketplaces in order to meet the mortgage payment. After boasting for years about her shooting skills, she found herself invited to a challenge against one of the best shooters at the time, Frank E. Butler. When she shot against him, he was amazed at her skills and became fond of her after she won the challenge, and the two married shortly thereafter. The two traveled throughout the country and were invited to star in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. After performing with her husband and allowing him the main spotlight throughout their relationship, Annie eventually reached a turning point in which she had become the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, known as the “Champion Markswoman,” and Butler, feeling inferior beside her, retired and became her manager. 2
After sixteen years of extensive travelling to many countries, and given the incredible opportunity to meet many famous individuals along with kings and queens, Annie and her husband decided to quit the show and retire to a relaxing life in Cambridge, Maryland. Although she retired at an early age, she wrote to the current president at the time, William McKinley, asking to be sent to the front line in the Spanish-American War, to which she received no response. Then, when World War I erupted, Annie offered to hold shooting lessons in order to help teach young men how to shoot properly without injuring themselves or their fellow soldiers; however, her offer was declined. Years later, she decided to make her comeback and begin to perform in shows, but after a car accident, and then a train accident in which she was injured along with her husband, she was too frail to do much, and the Butlers relocated to Annie’s hometown where she worked on her memoirs, which would be published and distributed throughout the country.
Although there is still much debate today on whether Annie Oakley was truly an advocate for women’s equality in the United States or if she continued the “ladylike” expectations that were apparent in the country, it is clear that she was able to obtain a sense of belonging in what was a man’s world. She spent a large majority of her time helping to teach women how to shoot a gun safely, and it is estimated that she helped approximately fifteen thousand women to do so. Oakley is viewed as a complex woman today because she was seen as petite and fragile; however, she earned her place in society by her talent and ability to prove that she was just as capable, if not more, than any man at her time. In addition, her fame made her a public figure, which gave her power to stand up for other women at the time and produce a new image of women that had not been widely seen previously—that of independence. Contradictory to many beliefs, she did not politically take sides with other feminists of her time, but instead showed those around her that she possessed skills that were previously never demonstrated by a woman. 3 Oakley was very aware of her role in society, both in the United States and internationally, and made a point to be as feminine as she could be in order to show that even the most ladylike females are capable of doing tasks and performing “manly” activities. Along with being a sharp shooter, Annie took up riding a bicycle, which was also considered a “man’s sport” at the time, and made a point of showing that it should be acceptable for a woman to participate in sports and that these sports should not be confined to a specific gender. Oakley succeeded in making a name for women all across the world and proved to many countries that she traveled to that one’s gender makes no difference. She demonstrated that both genders are capable of participating in sports that had been male dominated in the centuries preceding her. 4
- Ron Soodalter, “Annie Oakley vs. Hearst’s Worst,” Wild West 27, no. 5 (February 2015): 30. ↵
- Mary E. Virginia, “Annie Oakley,” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2016, http://blume.stmarytx.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=88806878&site=eds-live&scope=site. ↵
- Lisa Bernd, “Annie Oakley and the disruption of Victorian expectations,” Theatre Symposium 20 (2012): 42. ↵
- Sarah Russell Cansler, “Annie Oakley, Gender, and Guns: The ‘Champion Rifle Shot’ and Gender Performance, 1860-1926,” Pursuit: The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee 5, no. 1 (March 2014): 164. ↵