A Woman's Place: Tied to the Railroad Tracks?

The outlaw and the 'good woman' in Hell's Hinges

Western critic Jane Tompkins has argued that there is virtually no room in the Western genre for women. Tompkins writes that the plot in which "a man defies a woman's wishes by fighting with another man, and wins, without alienating her--is central to the western genre as a whole." (1) She believes that "the hero's relation to practically everything--the land, animals, women, men, his own body" is one of domination, and that this domination arises out of "a reaction to the hero's invisible past, the time in his life when he was an infant in his mother's arms." The hero's display is "less an outlet for aggression than a response to his fear of not having a separate existence" from a domineering mother. (2) Certainly in the vast majority of Westerns women fill a domestic role, but this role is not one that is opposed to that of the hero, and definitely not one that is rejected by the hero. In the 1916 film Hell's Hinges, the outlaw hero Blaze Tracey changes his life after he meets and falls in love with Faith Henley, the new minister's sister. In 1924's Back Trail the hero wins the love of a woman who is about to be cheated out of her estate when he helps her save it. Similarly, when a rancher and his sister are threatened in the 1921 film Bar Nothin', the hero saves the ranch and marries the sister. Angel Citizens (1922) tells the story of a drifter who falls in love and helps rid Angel City of its criminals to win the woman's hand.

Actors J. Warren Kerrigan and Lois Wilson filming The Covered Wagon

Tompkins sees the Western as the male reaction against nineteenth century women's domestic, sentimental religion and literature. She declares that "the Western answers the domestic novel. It is the antithesis of the cult of domesticity that dominated American Victorian culture." (3) She places the period of "women occupying the moral high ground of the American culture" as originating in the mid-nineteenth century, and reaching its flower from 1880-1920.(4) The Western hero was driven to the frontier not only by urbanization and industrialization, but also from the evangelical, domestic form of religion which included the various reform movements. Tompkins writes, "given the enormous publicity and fervor of the Women's Christian Temperance Union crusade, can it be an accident that the characteristic indoor setting for Westerns is the saloon?" (5) She answers Henry Nash Smith by saying the Western "isn't about the encounter between civilization and the frontier. It is about men's fear of losing their mastery, and hence their identity, both of which the Western tirelessly reinvents." (6) Tompkins's thesis seems problematic in light of the fact that the Western didn't evolve as a response to nineteenth century domestic women's fiction, but arose alongside it. We know that James Fenimore Cooper was writing about the frontier as early as the 1820s, and that popular Westerns became common after 1860 with the advent of Beadle's Dime Novels. The fascination with the West in letters, diaries, and speeches predates even Cooper, back to the earliest days of the republic. If women do not seem to be the privileged characters in the twentieth century Westerns, it is perhaps instead due to the fact that white women were not among the first trappers, hunters, and 'mountain men' to explore the region, but came instead with the establishment of farms, settlements, and towns.

There is a place for women and the domestic sphere in the Western. Tompkins notes that in many Westerns, "women are the motive for male activity...at the same time as what women stand for--love and forgiveness in place of vengeance--is precisely what that activity denies...the revenge plot depends on the antithetical world of love and reconciliation." (7) Tompkins's view that the two worlds stand separate and opposed can be supported by films like Maiden and Men filmed in 1912. In this film, a woman reading romance novels pines for lovers and adventure. She heads over the mountains to the West, where she arrives at a ranch. Ultimately she ruptures the male bonding of the ranch hands and is sent home to her father. When she arrives back at home she furiously rips up her romance novel. Women are allowed into Westerns, but only through an entry defined by males; typically, the Western heroine is a good-natured dance hall entertainer, or she is a virginal guiding light.

Actress Edith Storey

This method of analysis falls through, however, when a film like Daring Days is shown. The film tells the story of a Western heroine who is the female sheriff of an all-male town. In Galloping Gallagher a woman plays a crusading Western minister, and in 1919's Arizona Cat Claw it is the daughter of the Arizona rancher who subdues the Mexican bandit and who forces an unscrupulous miner to marry the girl he has been deceiving. As the Sun Went Down features Colonel Billy, a female gunfighter who lives in a mining camp. 1907's The Bad Man may be one of the earliest Western silent films to feature a strong heroine. Although the film is only eight minutes long, it allows enough time for the heroine, a female railroad agent, to fall in love with a young tenderfoot, for both characters to fall prey to an outlaw who ties them to the railroad tracks, and for the heroine to free them both before the arrival of the train. Other films like The Girl Sheriff, The Girl Who Dared, and The Girl Who Wouldn't Quit feature similar heroines. Most rare is the film where men and women pursue justice as equals; 1915's The Bandits of Death Valley is an exception. In that film, a couple decides to capture a band of local outlaws and secures for themselves substantial reward money.

The strong heroine is a staple of silent film serials. Sixty serial-queen melodramas were released between 1912 and 1920; of these, only The Perils of Pauline seems to remain in the collective memory. There were, however, a host of serial-queen heroines, many of them Western. From 1912 to 1913 Louise Lester portrayed Calamity Anne in a series of films; in 1919 Marie Walcamp brought the character Tempest Cody to life on the screen. Other silent serials included Adventures of Dorothy Dare, Ruth of the Rockies, and A Lass of the Lumberlands. In The Girl and the Game Helen Holmes plays a woman in charge of an important Western railroad line, and The Hunted Valley features a woman as the head of a dam project.

Scene from A Lass of the Lumberlands, 1916

Ben Singer notes that these serial-queen melodramas are the most direct descendants of the 'lowbrow' or 'blood and thunder' melodrama that dominated theater and popular literature at the turn of the century. These were not domestic melodramas, either; they featured the same intense, violent action as the Westerns with male leads, including abduction, entrapment, murder, deceit, robbery. The heroines got in fistfights, fired pistols, leapt from speeding trains, jumped off buildings, and flew airplanes. There has been some speculation about whether or not these serial-queen melodramas represented male fantasies about women, but Singer asserts that these films were intended mainly for female consumption, and offers as evidence the fact that the films were marketed heavily toward women. (8)

Where do the serial-queen films come from? Singer traces them to the transformations of womanhood occuring during the period 1880-1920 in America. The serial queen "celebrates the tangible transformations in women's status after the turn of the century" and reflects "both the constraints and radical transformations of the cultural construction of womanhood around the turn of the century...and as the extension of an already pervasive popular mythology of the New Woman." (9) Singer includes lower fertility rates, labor-saving machinery, jobs, mass transit, reform movements, and suffrage among the advances for women around the turn of the century. While these factors cannot be discounted, it is important to remember that strong heroines had been appearing in dime novels as early as 1845, and Western heroines since the 1860s. These figures bear so much resemblance to the serial-queen heroines that the influence cannot be dismissed, and it must be acknowedged that the serial-queen was not a strictly turn-of-the-century phenomenon. This was recognized even at the time; in an editorial in Photoplay magazine in 1919, Frank Barner writes, "Serials are the Modern Dime Novels! They supply the demand that was once filled by those bloodcurdling thrillers. Melodrama! Of course it's melodrama."(10) It is, however, important when using Barner's term 'melodrama' to make the distinction between domestic nineteenth century melodrama and the 'blood and thunder' melodrama which is the true ancestor of the serial-queen. Contrary to domestic melodrama, emotion, struggle, and psychology are externalized into action. Singer also notes that the serial-queen melodramas avoided the "private sphere in favor of an adamantly non-domestic mise en scene of criminal dens, submarines, lumber mills, diamond mines, munitions factories, race tracks, warehouses" and such. He continues by writing, "the serial-queen melodrama's refusal of domesticity, its aversion to the contained realm of family drama, is felt most strikingly in its total banishment of the figure of the mother." (11)

Thus, in what strikes the viewer as a most contemporary complaint, the Western heroine can't have it all. Either she represents the domesticity complementary to the hero's world of action, or she can stand on equal footing, but in a world where home and family disappear.

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1   Jane Tompkins, West of Everything, 131.

2   Tompkins 145.

3   Tompkins 39.

4   Tompkins 42.

5   Tompkins 44.

6   Tompkins 45.

7   Tompkins 41.

8   Ben Singer, "Female Power in the Serial-Queen Melodrama:  The Etiology of An Anomaly" Silent Film, Richard Abel ed., 170.  

9   Singer 177.

10  Singer 168.

11  Singer 170.