Why Annie Got Her Gun

Why Annie Got Her Gun

by Carolyn Gage

ANNIE OAKLEY HAS ALWAYS BEEN A PROBLEM FOR FEMINISTS. The world’s champion sharpshooter, she stalwartly refused to align herself with any of the women’s reform movements of her day, including suffrage.

Who should have understood better the need for the bloomer costume than the woman who made a career of slogging through marshy bogs at dawn with all-male hunting parties, practiced trick riding, and engaged in trapshooting competitions in the sports arena? But Oakley “abominated” bloomers. Instead she wore gaiters and shortened skirts, rode sidesaddle for her stunts, and designed her own special skirt with hooks and grommets after she took up the sport of cycling.

Oakley refused to participate in the suffrage debate, expressing her fear that not enough “good” women would vote. Married to the same man for 45 of her 66 years, she allowed her husband to manage her career, her finances, and her image of ladylike propriety.

“Every intelligent woman should become familiar with the use of firearms,” said Annie Oakley, shown here at age 65. Ambidextrous, she fired pistols with her left hand, rifles and shotguns with her right. Photograph from the collection of Bess Edwards, The Annie Oakley Foundation, Greenville, Ohio

But Annie Oakley had this thing about guns… And this thing about guns, as it turns out, had very much to do with her thing about men.

Annie Oakley hadn’t always been Annie Oakley. She was born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860 to a dirt-poor Quaker couple in Darke County, Ohio, the fifth of seven children. At age nine, she left her widowed mother to live at the county poor farm, an infirmary that housed orphans, indigent Irish and African Americans, and people classified as idiots. From there she hired out to work in the home of a man she would later refer to only as “the he-wolf.”

In the home of “the wolves,” Phoebe Ann was held prisoner, beaten, frozen, starved, overworked, and possibly sexually abused. Finally, after two years, she managed to run away, begging train fare from a stranger. Back at the poor farm, she lived in terror that the “he-wolf” would come back to reclaim his prisoner. The wife of the farm superintendent, however, had noticed the scars on the child’s back, and when the “he-wolf” showed up at her door, she ordered her husband and son to throw him out. In Oakley’s words, “That night I slept untroubled for the first time in long months.”

WAS ANNIE OAKLEY IN FACT SEXUALLY ABUSED? Today some of her family members as well as Darke County residents believe that she was. Certainly many of her later behaviors fit the profile of posttraumatic stress disorder. All her life she preferred living out of hotels and tents to owning her own home. She carried out compulsive daily routines for her nutrition, hygiene, shooting practice, and public appearances – and she had sharp words for those who dared object to these “particular” behaviors. Oakley seldom visited members of her family, and she wrote to them even less frequently. When she married she was 21 and Frank was 31. She never had children. Because Frank acted as her agent and assistant from the start, there is speculation that theirs might have been an asexual marriage of convenience. An intensely private person, Oakley did not cultivate intimate friends or confidantes, and her closest companion the latter part of her life was her beloved English setter Dave.

Was childhood trauma the explanation for the conservatism of Oakley’s personal life? If so, what about her exhibitionism as a sharpshooter? What about all those guns? Though Annie Oakley did not care a fig for women’s right to vote, she did care – passionately – for women’s right to bear arms.

What an earlier generation of women’s studies students may have overlooked in Annie Oakley’s biography was the radical implications of that right. A strong argument can be made that Oakley’s scrupulous cultivation of a conservative image was for the sake of rendering the sport of shooting more socially acceptable – fashionable even – for women. Everywhere she went, she argued that shooting was a healthy and proper sport for all females, not just performers, tomboys, or the daughters of backwoodsmen.

In her lifetime, Annie Oakley taught thousands of women to shoot. On her first visit to London, she took out a newspaper ad offering to give lessons on the use of pistols, rifles, and shotguns “to ladies only,” and back in the States she continued her campaign of free lessons. In 1897 she wrote a series of articles titled “Without Shooting Herself, Taught by Annie Oakley,” in order to dispel one of the most persistent and prevalent myths about women who own guns.

She argued that safety
would not be an issue if
both women and children
were properly instructed
in the use of guns.

IN THESE ARTICLES, OAKLEY INSISTED THAT NERVOUSNESS was the principal obstacle for women to overcome in handling guns, but she assured her readers that shooting was “one of the best tonics for the nerves and for the mind.” In 1898 she went so far as to send a letter to President McKinley offering “to place a Company of fifty lady sharpshooters” at his disposal. “Every one of them will be an American and as they will furnish their own arms and ammunition will be little if any expense to the government.” Twenty years later, in 1917, she made a similar offer to President Wilson: “I can guarantee a regiment of women for home protection, every one of whom can and will shoot if necessary.” Needless to say, both offers were politely ignored.

After her retirement from the arena, Oakley continued to teach classes for women at the various resort hotels where she took up residence. Despite her refusal to be drawn into political debate on the “women’s question,” she actively opposed state laws banning firearms in the home. She argued that safety would not be an issue if both women and children were properly instructed in the use of guns. According to Oakley, “Every intelligent woman should become familiar with the use of firearms.” She anticipated the day when women would handle guns “as naturally as they handle babies.”

Shunning any kind of sensational publicity, she was nevertheless willing to pose for photographers, demonstrating the correct way for women to carry a concealed weapon in public. She advised them to hold a revolver ready for use in the folds of their umbrella, arguing that in an assault situation, they would not have time to retrieve it from their purse. In 1906 she posed by her bedside table, serenely loading a revolver for the nightstand drawer.

Annie Oakley had learned the hard way that independence is something to be asserted, not granted. Far from being old-fashioned and conservative on the subject of women’s rights, Oakley was radical and farsighted. She seemed to understand that the shortest distance to reforms for women was not through the torturous machinations of the electoral process, but by the mere presence of a female population universally armed and presumed dangerous. We have yet to catch up to Oakley’s vision of a world made safe by women.

Contributing editor CAROLYN GAGE is a lesbian-feminist playwright. Her play collection The Second Coming of Joan of Arc, excerpted in ON THE ISSUES last spring, was a national finalist for the 1995 Lambda Literary Awards. 31