Calamity Jane: a possible Genderqueer icon?
When I was small I loved Calamity Jane. The film version that is, as portrayed by Doris Day. When we played “Cowboys” I always wanted to be Calamity Jane. The fact that I kept singing The Deadwood Stage/ Whip Crack Away and slapping my thigh whenever I “shot” a “baddy” made the other boys look at me strangely though. I was so much in love with Calamity that my dad started calling me Calamity John (my middle name back then and my family were all agreed that I was… well… accident prone so, Calamity stuck for a while with me too) till it stopped being cute around the age of seven.
As I grew up I came to be interested in the real Calamity Jane and the only information was that she had been in Buffalo Bills Wild West Show as a marksman(?) with a rifle. Recently I have been trying to look at her life and there so much information on the internet that it is hard to know where to start. In the USA she is a legend, though not among the Native American peoples. You will see why. I came to the conclusion that even if only a quarter of the stuff that is written about her is true she lived a pretty remarkable life. Now, back to the film.
The point has been made that one of the subplots (of many Hollywood films of the era), far from showing a courageous woman being independent, it was meant to encourage women, after their breath of freedom going out and doing important World War 2 war work, to settle down and get back in the kitchen. Also quite a bit has been written about homoerotic subtexts in the plot and “retrospective queering of the film”: e.g.
And yes, looked at through twenty-first century eyes it looks sexist, racist and camp, but to my confused five, six, seven-year-old self in broke, grey England in the 1950’s, that was me, even including the ending where she and her friend fall out over two men then made up and had a double wedding, each marrying the right guy. Though at that point I did a child’s leap of imagination and it was me who married Calamity.
However, the real Calamity Jane’s life was just as fantastic a mixture of fact and fiction.
The real Calamity Jane was a much tougher, more street-wise character altogether than the blond buffoon portrayed by Doris Day in the film version. (Allegedly, they gave her an army cap rather than the Stetson hat in some of the real photos in order to show off her blonde curls.) Born into a poor family, Martha Jane Cannary was orphaned and left in charge of five younger siblings at about the age of fourteen. It is often reported that she grew into a tall, attractive girl with pretty eyes, which only matters because one of her ways of making ends meet was to be a sex worker. However,
“Martha Jane began to find her way in a man’s world taking on men’s work and a male persona”. 1
She scraped and, apparently, scrapped out a living, including in prostitution, driving an ox-wagon, being a scout for the army and wagon trains, and had very many larger than life exploits, allegedly.
Top picture shows Doris Day as Calamity. Courtesy Warner Brothers (?)
The others are pictures of the real Calamity Jane , Martha Jane Cannary. (These pictures are widely used over the internet and I couldn’t find the owners of copyright, if any. If you know who has the copyright please let me know and I will take the appropriate action).
She ended up in Deadwood, where she earned a reputation as a hard-drinking woman. Here she worked as a scout and became known for fighting against Native Americans. She became a friend of Wild Bill Hickok, according to some reports she was said to have married and had a son by him, and caught Wild Bill’s murderer (though a contemporary paper reports he was captured by towns folk). Most stories have them just being good friends. Which is true? I don’t know, but when she died they buried her next to him. Later in life she took part in Buffalo Bills Wild West Show. She died quite young, probably of alcoholism, in 1903 aged 51.
She gave different accounts to different people as to how she got the name Calamity Jane. The older she got the bigger and braver the story. Personally, I like the idea that at some drunken gathering a hard of hearing old timer mis-heard her family name, Cannary, and thought it was Calamity, and it stuck.
She was certainly a wild child and did not conform to the gender norms of the time. She took on men’s work and clothing (some of the time), but she probably did not do a lot of the stuff that surrounds her legend. There seem to be almost as many reports of her not being involved in the stories told by her and about her, as there are reports of all her larger than life activities, e.g.:
Captain Jack Crawford served under Generals Wesley Merritt and George Crook. According to the Montana Anaconda Standard of April 19, 1904, he stated that Calamity Jane “never saw service in any capacity under either General Crook or General Miles. She never saw a lynching and never was in an Indian fight. She was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish, but possessed a generous streak which made her popular.” (Wikipedia)
I wonder how many of the denials were due to the mid-western morality of the officers in the army, and of some newspaper proprietors, and she would certainly have offended the sobriety of god-fearing citizens in the towns where she ended up… we can’t know. However, when she died here’s how the Black Hills Daily Times reported it thus:
“She has always been known for her friendliness, generosity and happy cordial manner. It didn’t matter to her whether a person was rich or poor, white or black, or what their circumstances were, Calamity Jane was just the same to all. Her purse was always open to help a hungry fellow, and she was one of the first to proffer her help in cases of sickness, accidents or any distress.”
After some townsfolk were “outraged” at such laudatory verbiage, the paper changed its tune, and a month later “atoned for its indiscretion by referring to Calamity as ‘a notorious ruin”.2
She was born to people of very low standing in society. She was certainly an alcoholic. Certainly hard living, but then she lived in a hard place in hard times where many women lived hard lives. She certainly did men’s work and was a crack shot with the rifle. That’s enough for me.
Would I actually like to have been her??? No way, but it doesn’t stop me seeing her as another of those amazing women who ploughed their own furrow throughout an unforgivingly masculine time in history.
If I’ve peeked your curiosity about her, Wikipedia has a pretty good entry about her and you could try the sites I took my quotes from listed below.