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Reviewed by:
  • Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America
  • Martha McCaughey
Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America. By Laura Browder (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. xii plus 287 pp. $29.95[cloth]).

Cultural texts-including advertisements, novels, wartime posters, and publicity photos-are a barometer of a culture's hopes, anxieties, and frustrations. Laura Browder's book about representations of armed women in America provides a rich story about our culture's simultaneous celebration of and uneasiness with women shooters.

In a climate where gun advocates have insisted that women's ownership of guns has increased, magazines are devoted to armed women (Women and Guns and Woman's Outlook), American women soldiers are fighting in Iraq, and gun-toting action heroines have become widespread in Hollywood films, Browder's book reminds us that the image of the armed woman has long fascinated Americans.

Her Best Shot contains 34 illustrations of women with guns, including the androgynous Calamity Jane posing with her shotgun in buckskin pants, jacket, and necktie and the quite feminine trapshooters of a Wisconsin women's shooting club, whose guns rest alongside their corset-like bodices and long skirts (both from the late 1800s). A striking contemporary image is a photo of a smiling young bikini-clad woman posing with an assault weapon, from G. Gordon Liddy's "Stacked and Packed" calendar for men.

Given her background, it's perhaps no surprise that Browder's analysis consists of looking at past and present representations of women shooters without examining any connection to women's relationships or experiences with guns. Browder had no experience with guns or gun owners before embarking upon this book. She learned to shoot with the help of a former student and, having moved to Virginia, met more people for whom guns were a normal part of life.

Browder's eclectic chapters proceed in chronological order, each one illuminating the complex relationship between gender, race, and citizenship. The first [End Page 203] chapter examines citizenship and fighting for the state, beginning with the Civil War. The second chapter studies frontier expansion and the spectacle of live performances celebrating that expansion (e.g., Buffalo Bill's Wild West show). The third chapter discusses women outlaws of the 1920s and 1930s. The fourth chapter looks at the far left women of the 1960s and 1970s who sought to dismantle the state. The fifth chapter looks at women in the militia movement of the 1980s and 1990s. The final chapter examines the depiction of women by today's gun rights advocates. In each chapter Browder reveals the ways in which assumptions about gender, race, and national belonging have intersected in representations (including self-representations) of armed women. This consistent thematic focus combined with Browder's lively writing style are the strengths of the book.

While Browder gives us interesting snapshots of famous and infamous women with guns-including Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde, Elaine Brown of the Black Panthers, and Carolyn Chute of the contemporary militia movement-we are not given much information about what women's gun use meant to moderate civil rights activists (or moderate racists for that matter), women's liberationists, military employees, or regular law-abiding citizens. For example, Browder's focus on the notions of armed citizenship and self-defense in the black power movement is interesting, but tells us little about the far less sensationalized self-defense of women who were threatened by the men in their lives. Unfortunately, these more commonplace experiences with firearms are not discussed in Her Best Shot.

Readers curious about the number of women who have used or owned guns throughout American history, or the legal treatment of the women who used guns for sport, work, or self-defense, will not find any such information in this book. Browder draws no connection between the symbolism of women and guns and the actual gun culture in America or women gun owners specifically. Browder's analysis of the images and popular media framings of women shooters does not tell us anything about women's likelihood to shoot or own a gun for self-defense, for sport, or for paid work. Browder's...


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pp. 203-205
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