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  • Masculinity for the Million:Gender in Dime Novel Westerns
  • Daniel Worden

On October 23, 1888, the New York Times reported a dime novel-inspired incident in Stockton, California. With the headline "She Wants to be a Cowboy," the paragraph-long story concerns Mary Abbott, a sixteen-year-old woman, who "is the victim of dime novels, and says she wants to be a cowboy." After repeated, failed attempts to leave her family and rough it, Mary went "to her father's barn armed with two pistols. She remained there for several hours, and when discovered, fired a shot, scattering her pursuers. A parson ventured into the barn, hoping to quiet the young girl, but she thrust a pistol into his face and he retired." After fending off the parson, Mary fled the barn, but was stopped when "a constable fired two shots above her head, which startled her, and she sprang into some bushes which stopped her progress and she was captured." Despite her failure to escape, Mary's desire to become a cowboy dislodges masculinity from an essential connection to a male body. For Mary Abbott, being a cowboy in no way requires being a man; one simply needs "a pony, . . . a lot of provisions, a camping outfit, and a pistol," along with the resolve to threaten the life of a parson, to become that prototype of American masculinity—the cowboy.1

The challenge here is not, as the New York Times suggests, Mary's "victimization" by dime novels but rather Mary's active affront to dominant power—her father, the parson, and the police, or patriarchy, religion, and the state. Mary's masculine performance belongs to a neglected history of female masculinity in literature of the American West. In the popular Deadwood Dick dime novels, Calamity Jane was a recurring character who dressed, fought, and cursed like a man.2 Scholars associate [End Page 35] frontier masculinity in the late nineteenth century with jingoism and imperialism, usually figured through the influence of Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt. Remarkably, though, the masculine heroes in dime novels and their real-life imitators adopt masculinity to produce alternatives to those very institutions of power.3 Mary Abbott's masculine rebellion conveys the threat masculinity posed to late nineteenth-century genteel norms and institutions, particularly through a proliferation of masculinities that are not essentially connected to a legibly male body.

Because it separates masculinity from not only the male body but also patriarchy, religion, and the state, "She Wants to be a Cowboy" stands in striking contrast to the vision of masculinity ubiquitous to recent studies of late nineteenth-century American culture. Works by Gail Bederman, Amy S. Greenberg, Dana D. Nelson, Alexander Saxton, and Shelley Streeby have coupled masculinity with the politics of American imperialism, nativism, and Social Darwinism.4 In contrast to these accounts, "She Wants to be a Cowboy" exemplifies what Constance Penley and Sharon Willis endorse in the introduction to Male Trouble: moving past the notions that masculinity and patriarchal power are "seamless and monolithic" and that "any approach . . . that would study masculinity as a split and contradictory construction, and would cast patriarchal power as uneven and sometimes unsuccessful in its effects represents a dangerous digression from 'properly' feminist projects" (xviii). As Penley and Willis point out, masculinity tends to be stabilized by associations with male dominance, patriarchy, masculinism, machismo, heterosexism, and/or heteronormativity.5 What interests me about "She Wants to be a Cowboy" is that Mary Abbott adopts masculine practices to challenge what critics have recognized as masculine authority. As Mary Abbott demonstrates, masculinity provides a way of resisting patriarchal institutions of power, something that current models of gender and power cannot fully explain. I contend that masculinity has no necessary relation to dominant politics, be they imperialist, patriarchal, or heteronormative. Instead, masculinity offers a site for protest, a way of channeling power into unconventional publics and subjects. Rather than finding evidence of the dominant chauvinism of late nineteenth-century America through masculinity, I wish to uncover the workings of masculinity that move against dominant currents of American culture and politics.6 [End Page 36]

The conflation of masculinity with oppression and aggression limits how one...