‘Blazing A Trail’ exhibition highlights triumphs of women in the West
Blazing A Trail, an exhibition at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, focuses on western women’s efforts to spark change across the nation.
Addison Kliewer, Oklahoman
From icons like Annie Oakley and Sacagawea to trailblazers like first U.S. Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin and suffrage sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser, many women have made their mark on the history of the American West.
But everyday women like Boley dressmaker and milliner S.A. Montgomery, taxidermy enthusiast Martha Maxell and living Dine (Navajo) weaver Rose Blueeyes also have created lasting legacies worth celebrating.
“There are kind of two approaches to history: history with a capital H, and history with a little h. Capital H is (the idea that) the history of the world is the biography of great men. But I take issue with that on a couple points, because 1. where are the women? And 2. why does it have to be great? Why does someone have to be famous or infamous? All the people throughout history, that weren’t leaders or these famous figures, are they not a part of history? Do their lives not matter? And to me, of course they do, because we are all a part of history,” said Kimberly Roblin, director of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Dickinson Research Center.
March is Women’s History Month, and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum is celebrating with two exhibits on view through Mother’s Day: “Find Her West” and “Blazing a Trail,” both in the museum’s main hallway.
“We like to do exhibitions in the east and west ends that kind of talk to each other and sort of build on a similar theme. So, ‘Blazing a Trail’ really focuses on sort of these larger social movements of the time, where ‘Find Her West’ really takes it down to an individual level. I really wanted to research these women, and hopefully help visitors get a sense of what these individual women’s lives and experiences were like,” said Roblin, who curated “Find Her West,” which is on view on the west end.
“We’re not doing these exhibitions because it’s trendy. We’re doing it because we should, because any discussion of the American West that doesn’t include women’s stories is inherently inaccurate and incomplete.”
‘Blazing a Trail’
“Blazing a Trail” caps a series of exhibits the museum has organized in the past year to honor the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Proposed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote.
“Western women did in fact lead the way in the women’s right to vote — and other issues, too. … It wasn’t just the right to vote. It was about healthcare, it was about recognition, it was about women in sports. … So, we threw a wide loop, as we do here at the Cowboy Museum, to take in all those different issues,” said “Blazing a Trail” curator Michael Grauer, the museum’s McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture.
“We started with Sacagawea … the guide of Lewis and Clark and the corps of discovery. Sacagawea was the first woman in the west to cast a meaningful vote in any sort of election, and a lot of people don’t know that. It was for a minor issue, but nevertheless, she did do that. And so she eventually became adopted by the women’s suffrage movement as sort of their symbol.”
Western women were making progress before their suffrage became part of the U.S. Constitution — Montanans elected Republican candidate Rankin to Congress in 1916, four years before the 19th Amendment was ratified — but the exhibit highlights that the right to vote was not initially available to all women.
“It didn’t include Native people, because Native Americans are not U.S. citizens until 1924, four years after the passage of the amendment. Asians are affected; Hispanic Americans are affected. Blacks, who were very much part of the women’s suffrage movement, also were victims of the lack of equality,” said Grauer, who is also the museum’s curator of cowboy collections and Western art.
Along with Rankin and Sacagawea, “Blazing Her Trail” includes notable women in a variety of visible fields, including Oakley and Gail Davis, who played the legendary sharpshooter in the 1950s television series “Annie Oakley,” author Willa Cather and Western artists Glenna Goodacre and Fraser. The latter was the first woman to design a coin for the U.S. Treasury.
“She’s also part of a deal where women artists reclaim the female form by making realistic rather than exaggerated depictions of women. … For the longest time, they’re just window dressing. They’re certainly not active participants in anything. … What we tried to do in here is show women not just as bystanders or pedestrians or spectators, but as actively pushing all these issues forward — and they truly did, especially in the West,” Grauer said.
“Women and rodeo, for example, is an offshoot actually of how women were part of the New Woman Movement … which was women being outdoors, women riding bicycles, women going to the beach and then women riding horses astride. … People forget that in early rodeo women did all the same events men did, both timed and roughstock, and that, of course, went away later.”
‘Find Her West’
Famous faces from hall of fame steer wrestler Fox Hastings and retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to frontierswoman Calamity Jane and Kiowa Six artist Lois Smoky Kaulaity are featured in the “Find Her West” exhibit.
But the stereotype-shattering exhibit centers on everyday women and girls and their real-life stories, using photographs and other archival items from the museum’s Dickinson Research Center.
“The DRC, as we call it, is a huge collection. We have more than 800,000 photographs, 45,000 books, manuscripts, maps, movie posters, movies, pop culture material. … People know that museums collect and preserve items, but just as importantly, we collect and preserve the stories behind those items. And so ‘Find Her West’ really allowed us to highlight just some of these photographs from the collection and really dive into the lives of these women,” Roblin said.
“Historically, women stories have not been told as often or as loudly, not just in the history of the American West, but really in all of history. And they should be. And so this exhibition explores the lives of 50 women who are from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities and ages, but who each experienced West — and they weren’t bystanders. These weren’t passive women. They were participants, they acted upon the West and shaped it. And those stories are critical.”
Roblin said she made sure to include woman of various ages, ethnicities and walks of life since “the women’s stories that have been included are often white women’s stories.” A photograph of a Chinese woman who lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown and images from an African American business directory are fairly recent acquisitions for the museum.
“It goes back to that idea of more accurately reflecting the West — in showing all those different experiences and the differences among the experiences but still the commonalities that exist. So many of these women were risk takers, and that really stood out to me. Now, maybe in ways that might not seem like a risk to us today: A woman pursuing the career she wants today doesn’t necessarily seem like a risk, but that wasn’t the case for women in 19th and early 20th century America,” Roblin said.
“One of the women traveled from Pennsylvania to Montana to work at a boarding school in early 1900s. … One of them was a laundress at Fort Yellowstone in the early 1900s. That’s bold, working six days a week, but you look at her photographs and she’s taking these candid snapshots of the women that she works with, and on the rare days they have off, they’re seeing the sights around Yellowstone.”
In seeing and reading the stories of the wives and daughters, sisters and mothers, grandmothers and friends who experienced, influenced and built the American West, Roblin said she hopes museum visitors see themselves and the women who inspire them.
Even when the stories are as mundane as Lula Brannon Briscoe writing her mother to complain of her toddler getting into the eggs and cracking one over her freshly washed head.
“She lived in Sugden, Indian Territory, in early 1900s. And (childbirth) was so risky that she didn’t even tell her mother — her mother lived in Washington state — that she was pregnant until after the baby had arrived. And then she wrote to tell her that she had had a little girl, because she didn’t want her to worry. So, I think that’s a testament to the risks that were involved,” Roblin said.
“But for the difficulties that they faced and the hardships they encountered, there are also these great moments of kind of humor and relatability. … She talks to her mom about her 2-year-old, Fern, who is a terror — and I love that because the ‘terrible twos’ are terrible, no matter if it’s 1909 or 2021. … More than a century might separate us that there’s still so much we have in common with these women.”
‘Find Her West’ and ‘Blazing a Trail’
When: Through May 9.
Where: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63.
Tickets and information: nationalcowboymuseum.org.
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