How Annie Oakley, "Princess of the West," Preserved Her Ladylike Reputation

Born in 1860, the famed female sharpshooter skillfully cultivated an image of a daredevil performer with proper Victorian morals

Born Phoebe Ann Moses in Darke County, Ohio, on August 13, 1860, Annie Oakley was not exactly a product of the Wild West. (Bettmann / Corbis)

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“She had to make a girl that could shoot acceptable to a Victorian public,” says Scharff. “She’s inventing this new identity of the spunky Western girl who’s no threat to men who are good men.”

As a female shooter, Oakley took measures not to be perceived as dangerous; very few (if any) images exist that depict her killing any live animals. It was Oakley’s girlish manner—combined with her talent—that captivated audiences throughout the country and launched her to stardom.

Oakley carefully picked her political causes as part of her public persona. She was a vocal proponent of women earning equal pay as men and of carrying guns to protect themselves, advocating that women conceal weapons in their parasols (pocketbooks were less convenient). Throughout her career, Oakley proudly trained hundreds of women to shoot, and during World War I, she volunteered to train female sharpshooters to serve in the U.S. Army, though Woodrow Wilson, who was president at the time, did not approve the idea.

Nevertheless, Oakley came out against woman suffrage, a stance that continues to perplex scholars today. It remains unclear whether her politics were truly conservative with regards to the female vote or whether Oakley saw that she “wouldn’t do herself any favors in the public relations department” (as Stange puts it) by aligning herself with the woman suffrage movement. Regardless, her politics distanced her from emergent first-wave feminists without making too many enemies on either side of the feminist movement.

Though Oakley was certainly one of the best shooters of the day, she was not leaps and bounds better than several of her contemporaries, including her rival in her last years with Buffalo Bill, the “California Girl” Lillian Smith. A fast-talking cocksure 15-year-old, Smith had outshot some of the premier marksmen of her day, many over twice her age. In contrast to Oakley, Smith was known to wear revealing costumes and emphasize her sexuality. While she was nearly Oakley’s match in skill, Smith never had Oakley’s celebrity. Oakley’s clever manipulations of her own image in favor of her modesty made her appealing to many different groups and for many different reasons.

One winter’s day in 1887, Smith and Oakley, on tour in England, stepped forward to greet Queen Victoria. The two young women of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show stood in stark contrast to each another. Lillian Smith was a proud, round-faced teenage girl with a coarse manner; Oakley, a bit older, with finer features and long, dark hair, had a certain reserved elegance implicit in her posture. The former would soon fade into the annals of history, but Oakley would become the subject of books, musicals, and even a mid-1950s television series. Their performance had left the queen eager to personally congratulate them, but as she faced the two women, the queen addressed only one.

“You are a very clever girl,” the queen famously said as she took Annie Oakley’s hand.


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