On the western frontier, along the Underground Railroad and in World War II munitions plants, strong women have shown they can hold their own, often overcoming chauvinism, prejudice and sheer malice to leave a physical mark. We pay tribute to the heroic and the altruistic, those who excelled on playing fields, piloted planes and performed daring rescues—and to a hatchet-wielding lunatic and a lying drunk.
Two of our 19th-century heroines rose out of bondage and, though lacking education and social status, made remarkable contributions to American progress. Kidnapped from her native Shoshone tribe when she was about 13, Sacagawea was sold to (and then married) Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian trapper. American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark hired Charbonneau to act as interpreter on their transcontinental expedition, but soon found his wife to be the more valuable team member. Sacagawea spoke several Native American dialects and knew the landmarks of the Shoshone territory they traversed on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Her very presence was a sign to Native peoples that the explorers came in peace.
Born into slavery around 1820 in Maryland, Harriet Tubman escaped northward in 1849 and over the next 10 years led more than 300 slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Tubman was inconspicuous and petite—barely five feet tall—but cunning. She led escapes on Saturdays because notices of runaway slaves wouldn’t appear until the Monday papers, and she ran her missions on long winter nights. Like Sacagawea, Tubman knew her territory, asserting, “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
If you’re going to be a crusader for an unpopular cause, it helps to be the recipient of some divine intervention. Escaped slave Harriet Tubman, who devoted her life to abolition and women’s suffrage, incurred a severe head injury as a child that triggered repeated seizures and headaches, but also powerful visions and dreams, throughout her life. She believed these to be messages, sometimes prophetic, from God. Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett once said of her, “I never met with any person…who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul.”
Temperance fighter Carry Nation began her saloon-smashing career in 1900 after having a revelation in which God told her to “take something in your hands and throw at these places [barrooms]…and smash them.” Armed with rocks, she wreaked havoc on three saloons in Kiowa, Kansas. When her soon-to-be-ex-husband sarcastically suggested she use a hatchet to inflict maximum damage, she allegedly told him, “That is the most sensible thing you’ve said since I married you,” and launched a 10-year spree of what she called “hatchetations.” Saloon owners who incurred Nation’s wrath would not have been surprised to know that mental illness was rampant in her family.
Most of what we know about swashbuckling cowgirl Calamity Jane (nee Martha Jane Cannary) is more myth than fact—including her exploits fighting Indians alongside General Custer and her romance with Wild Bill Hickok. Jane perpetuated the fictions, writing a boast-filled autobiographical pamphlet and, clad in buckskins, spinning tall tales at Wild West shows. The gritty frontierswoman, who looked like an unkempt man and was often, in the day’s parlance, “tight as a goat,” more likely worked as a prostitute, laundress, cook and drover.
Prohibitionist Carry Nation would not have approved of whiskey-swigging Jane, but she was her equal in self-promotion. Nation sold souvenir hatchets (commemorating her attacks on saloons), published the Smasher’s Mail newsletter and proselytized in music halls. Sometimes pelted with eggs for her efforts, the Anti-Souse Queen became so notorious that saloons posted signs saying, “All nations welcome except Carry.”
Both women died doing what they did best. Jane, legend goes, expired during a bender; Buffalo Bill reminisced that she had “nearly all the rough virtues of the Old West as well as many of the vices.” Nation collapsed during a temperance speech, uttering, “I have done what I could,” and died shortly thereafter.
While many of Calamity Jane’s self-aggrandized exploits should be taken with a grain of salt, the gunslinging frontierswoman was surely as brave and capable as many a cowboy. And she may have performed some genuine acts of derring-do, such as fighting off an Indian attack on a stagecoach and taking the reins from the injured driver, or swimming the Platte River and galloping, wet and shivering, 90 miles to deliver urgent dispatches for the Army.
Basketball star, Olympic gold medalist and golf champion Babe Didrikson Zaharias also asserted herself in a mainly male arena. Named Woman Athlete of the Half Century by the Associated Press in 1950, she wasn’t shy about her success, saying, “I don’t see any point in playing the game if you don’t win, do you?” But her courage truly came to the fore when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1953; she continued to compete and won the Women’s Open shortly afterward. When Zaharias died in 1956 at age 45, President Dwight D. Eisenhower commended her for winning the “admiration of…people all over the world, and in her gallant fight against cancer, she put up one of the kind of fights that inspired us all.”
Sacagawea and Calamity Jane are remembered as two of the most remarkable women of the western frontier. Though one was a Native American and the other a sometime Indian fighter, they shared several traits, including smarts, fortitude and a compassionate nature. Jane was an expert marksman, excellent rider, determined prospector and, surprisingly, a dedicated nurse. After a smallpox plague raged through Deadwood, South Dakota, a doctor said of her bedside manner, “Oh, she’d swear to beat hell at them, but it was a tender kind of cussin’.”
Sacagawea helped Lewis and Clark navigate their way across a continent. Though lacking Calamity Jane’s braggadocio, she was, as recorded in the leaders’ journals, a capable and intelligent member of the party. When one of the boats capsized, Sacagawea rescued from the rushing waters the journals that would immortalize the famous exploratory mission. She negotiated with the Shoshone for horses and a guide to cross the Rocky Mountains, and her foraging know-how helped the explorers, who might have perished of hunger, maintain their strength. The journals note her generosity in offering her beaded belt in trade for a fur robe Lewis and Clark later presented to President Thomas Jefferson.
“Implausible is the adjective that best befits the Babe,” The New York Times opined in reference to an Olympic qualifying event in which Babe Didrikson Zaharias competed as a one-woman team and finished first in broad jump, shot put, javelin, 80-meter hurdles and the baseball throw and tied for first in the high jump. Amelia Earhart, the 16th woman to be issued a pilot’s license, racked up similarly impressive achievements, becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic and also nonstop across the U.S., among a dozen other record-breaking feats.
Neither of these convention-defying women led what at the time were considered traditional women’s lives. Neither had children, and both their marriages were also business partnerships. They took heat for attempting to compete in male endeavors, but naysayers did not deter them. As Earhart wrote to her husband shortly before her disappearance while attempting to circumnavigate the equator in 1937, “Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it.” Zaharias also took a devil-may-care approach to her phenomenal athleticism. As she said of her golfing prowess, “I just loosen my girdle and let the ball have it.”
Amelia Earhart once said, “Women must try to do things as men have tried.” Not long after Earhart’s aviation exploits and disappearance galvanized the nation, millions of American women rose to meet that challenge. They didn’t break world records or dominate newspaper headlines, but they made huge contributions to the war effort. They were known as Rosies, for Rosie the Riveter, a popular icon for the women who, taking over the jobs of men who had gone off to fight, assembled bombers, built tanks and did other war work. These women stepped up not just to build armaments but to work at all sorts of jobs only men had done before them—conducting streetcars, doing construction and laboring in mills and plants. The 1942 song “Rosie the Riveter” celebrated and gave name to this iconic woman (“making history, / Working for victory”), and in 1943 Norman Rockwell portrayed her, clad in overalls, with muscles bulging, on a Saturday Evening Post cover. Despite the hype, the women were paid far less than the men they replaced, and many lost their jobs to returning vets. Even so, the American workplace has been less of a men’s club since Rosie’s day.