The American West: A Gender Reveal

Posted on February 27, 2018 by Kimberly Roblin in


The American West is difficult to define and far more complex than stereotypes suggest. Misconceptions abound. One of the most enduring? The West is a man’s world. In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s debunk this myth with the ultimate gender reveal. Women are more than a typecast. Mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters? Yes, but also breadwinners, hunters, farmers, innovators, doctors, teachers, sharpshooters, soldiers, Olympians, politicians, visionaries, leaders, and pioneers of industry, diplomacy, activism, technology, arts, and science. Here are just some of the women, past and present, who have shaped not only the West, but the world.


Sacagawea (ca. 1788-1812), Shoshone guide and interpreter

Not yet 20 and mother to an infant son, Sacagawea joined the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805. She played a critical role in their successful journey to and from the Pacific Ocean.

Lewis and Clark with Sacajawea. Henry Lion, circa 1943, bronze. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. 1965.1.


Martha Maxwell (1831-1881), Naturalist and Taxidermist

 Also known as the “Colorado Huntress,” Maxwell was a naturalist and taxidermist. An expert shot, she collected her own specimens and eventually opened a natural history museum to display her efforts.

Mrs. Maxwell’s Rocky Mountain Museum Series, Colorado Building. Circa 1875, Denver. Photographic Study Collection, Dickinson Research Center, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. RC2007.047.


Angie Debo (1890-1988), Historian

Considered one of Oklahoma’s greatest historians, Debo earned her Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma in 1933. Although she faced gender bias in the academic world, she persisted and authored nine books and countless articles.


Bessie Coleman (1892-1926), Aviator

Born in Texas, Coleman had to attend pilot school in France because she could not find one in the United States that accepted African Americans. She became a licensed pilot and upon her return gave demonstrations to raise money for a pilot school. Sadly she died in a plane crash in 1926.


Alice Ball (1892-1916), Chemist

Born in Seattle, Ball studied chemistry at the University of Washington and completed her master’s degree at the University of Hawaii, the first woman and African American to do so. She developed an extract that was the most effective treatment of leprosy until the mid-20th century.


Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), Photojournalist

Working for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, Lange recorded the hardships faced by average Americans. Her most famous images focused on migrant workers and Dust Bowl refugees, many from Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado.


Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), Aviator

Although she spent her career in the sky, Earhart’s roots were in Kansas. She became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928. Her disappearance over the Pacific Ocean is one of history’s great mysteries.


Fox Hastings (1898-1948), Bulldogger

Eloise Fox was born in 1898 in California.

Following a familiar pattern in cowgirl biographies, she left home as a teenager, restless to rodeo. Her big break came in 1924 when she set a record of 17 seconds in bulldogging—an almost exclusively male event.

Fox Hastings Bulldogging. Ralph Doubleday, circa 1930. Photographic Study Collection, Dickinson Research Center, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. RC200.026.4.


Louise Serpa (1925-2012), Rodeo Photographer

A native New Yorker with a music degree from Vassar College, Serpa defied expectations when she moved West and eventually became a rodeo photographer. Working out of Tucson, she traveled the circuit and earned a Rodeo Cowboy Association press card in 1963, the 1st woman to do so.


Sandra Day O’Connor (b. 1930), Supreme Court Associate Justice

O’Connor grew up on a Texas cattle ranch before earning a law degree from Stanford University in 1952. She served as a deputy county attorney in California and Attorney General of Arizona before her nomination and election to the Supreme Court in 1981. She was the first woman to serve on the Court.


Oklahoma’s Prima Ballerinas

Maria Tallchief (Osage), Marjorie Tallchief (Osage), Rosella Hightower (Choctaw), Moscelyne Larkin (Shawnee-Peoria), and Yvonne Chouteau (Shawnee) are known collectively as Oklahoma’s Prima Ballerinas. They achieved international acclaim during the 1940s and 1950s.



Ellen Ochoa (b. 1958), Astronaut and Director of the Johnson Space Center

In 1993, Ochoa became the first Hispanic, female astronaut. She served as a mission specialist and a flight engineer on four missions and logged almost 1,000 hours in orbit.


Admiral Michelle Howard (b. 1960), Navy, retired

This 2015 Annie Oakley honoree is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Army’s Command and General Staff College, California and Colorado native Howard became the first African American woman to command a ship in the U.S. Navy in 1999. A pioneer in the armed services, Howard is the also first woman to achieve the rank of four-star admiral and the to serve as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations. Her leadership led to the rescue of Maersk Alabama Captain Richard Phillips, made famous in a 2013 film starring Tom Hanks.


These stories are brought to you by the Annie Oakley Society of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in honor of Woman’s History Month


The Annie Oakley Society at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum was formed seven years ago to celebrate the past and present leadership roles that women play in Western heritage. The society celebrates the diversity of America’s heritage by honoring significant women who have achieved a remarkable first or who have been a trailblazer of national notoriety. The honorees are recognized each year at the Annie Oakley Society Awards Luncheon, with all proceeds benefitting educational programing initiatives at the National Cowboy Museum. For additional information regarding membership please contact e-mail or call  (405) 478-2250, Ext. 233 Diana Fields for assistance.








About Kimberly

Kimberly Roblin is Curator of Archival and Photographic Collections at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. For the native Oklahoman, sharing western history through research, exhibitions, and publications is much more than business. It’s personal.