Annie Oakley, Historical Cranky Lady

When I originally wrote this, the crowd-funding campaign for funding this book was still ongoing. It’s over now—but yay, it succeeded! Here’s what I wrote about it.

Cranky Ladies of History: Annie Oakley

Several months ago, Tehani Wessely and Tansy Rayner Roberts contacted me and asked if I would consider writing a story for their anthology, Cranky Ladies of History. “That sounds awesome,” I said, and also, “I so don’t have time.” But I agreed to do it anyway, partially because I (and all SFWAns, but especially me) owe Tansy Rayner Roberts a huge debt for her work on the interim issue of the Bulletin, which she co-edited brilliantly and in a ridiculously short amount of time. But also because this was an easy favor to grant—because come on, Cranky Ladies of History, how cool is that?

Cranky Ladies of History had met its crowd funding goal. They also had a blog tour where the anthology’s writers blogged about the cranky ladies they chose to crank about.

I spent some time in IM talking to Tansy about which Cranky Lady I should pick. Tzu Shi? Agrippina? Mary Anning? Ada Lovelace? Eventually, we decided on Annie Oakley.

You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun

If you don’t know who she is, Annie Oakley was a sharpshooter with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. She grew up in poverty which necessitated that she learn to shoot so that she could help feed the family. After joining the Wild West Show, Annie became a hugely successful performer, especially groundbreaking as a woman.

She had a complicated relationship with feminism: she taught women to shoot, and she advocated for women to be allowed in the army. On other important women’s rights issues of the day, she wasn’t in synch with the feminist position. For instance, she opposed women’s suffrage.

Although the musical that was made about her life story, Annie Get Your Gun, includes the song, “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” she sort of did. She married Frank Butler after beating him in a shooting competition.

I Can Do Anything You Can Do Better

With her gun, Annie Oakley could:

Shoot distant targets by sighting through a mirror

Shoot holes in thrown playing cards before they landed

Snuff a candle

Shoot a cigarette out of a man’s mouth

Shoot the cork off of a bottle

There’s No Business Like Show Business

Annie Oakley was an extremely highly paid performer, and she’s been called America’s first female superstar. One interesting aspect of her show biz persona was her conservative dress style. Pictures show a stiff, strong-featured woman with long brown hair, wearing loose blouses and calf-length skirts with boots. She often wears fringe, bolo ties, and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat.

In the photographs that don’t look posed, she stands in a masculine style, displaying no submissiveness or apology.

Doin’ What Comes Nat’rally

I first learned about Annie Oakley as a kid from the musical, Annie Get Your Gun, which is a fictionalized version of her life. I wonder whether the real Annie Oakley might be annoyed by the way it’s shaped around her relationship with a man. The plot begins when she meets Frank Butler and ends when they go to the altar.

The music is by Irving Berlin and the book is by Dorothy and Herbert Fields. It’s an old-fashioned musical with racist moments such as the song “I An Injun, Too.” Songs like “Doin’ What Comes Nat’rally” also romanticize the poverty she grew up in while maintaining a condescending attitude toward the rural poor.

The musical also features a lot of hits, including “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

My father had an abbreviated medley of songs from Annie Get Your Gun on a piano roll for his 88-key upright player piano. While he pumped, I used to sit on the rug behind the piano bench, and sing along.

In college, I saw the show on Broadway with Bernadette Peters as the lead. I have a soft spot in my heart for “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.”

The greatest woman rifle shot the world has ever produced

There’s a lot of research ahead of me as I decide what to write about Annie, her gun, and all those shot up playing cards. I don’t yet know what story I have to tell about her, but I look forward to the books and documentaries that will help me find it.

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5 Responses to Annie Oakley, Historical Cranky Lady

  1. 1
    Sebastian says:

    The greatest woman rifle shot the world has ever produced.

    This may be seen as petty, but it’s really a pet peave of mine. No, she probably was not even in the same category as Klavdia Kalugina or Tejaswini Sawant. And given the equipment available to her, her tricks probably didn’t come close to the ones you can see performed, today, in exhibition shootings at gun shows. This said, one of the reason for her success with her audiences is that she was using a Winchester .22 rifle that was revolutionary, and had capabilities unbelievable to most of those in attendance. Hell, she even had colleagues like Lillian Smith, who were in the same category and her records were eclipsed by Liz Topperwein in her lifetime.

    Can’t she be celebrated as an iron willed, self-assured, accomplished weapon master, without trying to paint her as the world best? And if you want to paint her as ‘the world something’, you could check whether anyone else has taught more women to shoot. At the age of 65, after two debilitating accidents that would have disheartened anyone less courageous, she was still teaching, and teaching well.

  2. 2
    Shirt says:

    A recent PBS presentation of the seven greatest legends of the west showed the first pictures I ever seen of Ms. Oakley. She was all you said she was in terms of appearance and more: she was also quite attractive.

  3. 3
    DrgnZ says:

    Teaching U.S. History as Mystery has an entire chapter on women in the “Old West,” including Oakley.

  4. 4
    Diatryma says:

    My father’s bedtime stories included Aladdin, Ali Baba, Rip Van Winkle, the boy who cried wolf, and Annie Oakley. One reason I’d like to learn to shoot better is so I can be compared to her.

  5. 5
    Alexander10 says:

    Just by way of putting it out there. I’m not far from Annie Oakley’s childhood home and can probably get access to the historical archives if you need any less known information. Or at least help you get in contact with those who could. I know that the Dark County Historical Society would be a good place to start with. The Annie Oakley Museum in Greenville Ohio wouldn’t be a bad idea either. Keep everybody posted on this I look forward to a good book about one of Ohio’s most famous daughters.