“At home in men’s clothes”: Calamity Jane

“In fact I was at all times along with the men,” Martha Cannary Burke records in her brief 1896 autobiographical pamphlet, “when there was excitement or adventure to be had.” The words are straightforward and plain, like the rest of her narrative, with little room left for rhetorical flourish. This is probably due to the fact that Burke, otherwise known as Calamity Jane, was reportedly illiterate. The transcription of her story was meant to be an advertisement for her exhibition by “museum men” to cities on the East Coast (thus bringing into question much of its veracity). Much like her acquaintance or friend, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane was a living legend at the end of the nineteenth century. She was, however, as a woman who fought alongside men in the “Wild West,” an even greater oddity.

I started to research Calamity Jane as a subject for July’s column as a consequence of the month itself. Considering the American celebration of independence (complicated as that is), I wanted to focus on women or female writers who were iconic figures in American myth and folklore. Burke was a woman with an autobiographical record, exaggerated as it might be. She is also a figure that has been co-opted into speculative fiction—much as the Wild West itself has been. The “weird” version of the American West feeds off the elements of the unknown or wild frontier that were so prominent to readers of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fragments of this mentality have also been borrowed by more straightforward science-fiction, whether it be the frontier-mindset of Star Trek or the Western vibe of Firefly. The best of these genres will also acknowledge the error embedded in this inherited excitement: the erasure of Native American culture and rights or the objectification and misrepresentation of Native American peoples. Calamity Jane’s own account is not one of the best.

I wanted to write about Burke, because some depictions categorize her in simplistic and sexist ways: a “folk hero” for whom “sharp-shooting” and “kindness” are presented as antithetical—or who is described as “obnoxious.” Burke’s narrative itself is, in many ways, oblivious to the systems within which the legend operated. It is not a reflective piece. That said, she is very much aware of the inherent danger to herself as a cross-dressing woman. She reveals the threats surrounding her performance without dwelling on them.

Acknowledging that she was “a remarkably good shot and a fearless rider” even as a girl, Burke recounts a version of her travels and adventures. She becomes a scout for General Custer. As such, she first “donned the uniform of a soldier.” She remembers that it “was a bit awkward at first but [she] soon got to be perfectly at home in men’s clothes.” It is, I assume, this self-presentation alongside her admirable skills that allowed her to move relatively unbothered in her role as scout and Pony Express rider. Burke comments that she “was molested very little, for the toll gatherers looked on me as a good fellow and they knew I never missed my mark.” The comment is not completely comforting, even when taking the term molested in a more general sense. It implies that, as a woman, Burke was required to perform at an extremely high level in order to avoid harassment, in order to be treated as a “good fellow.”

Equally problematic in the narrative is how Burke navigates equality with her male counterparts by presenting a common “enemy.” Calamity Jane does not stray from the typical conventions of white Western literature. In her account, Native Americans are a threat to the Western military outposts and forts, the miners of the Black Hills, and the Overland mail stagecoaches. This realization seemed, in some ways, a predictable conclusion to my research into American folklore. It reiterated, for me, the need for all feminism to be intersectional, especially against the backdrop of American history and an American identity that supposedly prides itself on individual freedoms.

Burke signs off her account as “Mrs. M. Burke,” since she marries after she “thought she had traveled through life long enough alone and thought it was about time to take a partner for the rest of [her] days.” However, it was her single life that had made her a legend and that had brought the “celebrated museum men” to her door. She ends her account as an exhibition. I would be remiss to say this was due to her gender alone. The fascination for Western narratives made shows like Buffalo Bill’s extremely popular. However, her autobiographical pamphlet highlights that Burke considers her gender itself to be part of her spectacle. Despite her own comfort in men’s clothes, Burke’s society considered it part and parcel of her entertainment factor. And her role in these clothes was to reinforce patriarchal and colonial narratives. Even if Burke registers little explicit discomfort at this, it is important for modern readers to remember—even as we recycle her narrative—at what cost these narratives of Western legends are created, speculative or not.