Breaking boundaries: The legacy of sharpshooter Annie Oakley

Breaking boundaries: The legacy of sharpshooter Annie Oakley

No comments

One of the wonderful things about this modern age is that the deeply gouged and clearly defined dividing lines of “gender roles” are not only being blurred, but completely erased. Little boys can play with dolls, little girls can play with toy trucks, and both can safely do so with the knowledge that they truly can do anything they want to do, and be anything they want to be, when they grow up. Yet it has been a long, hard road to get to this place, especially for little girls. Until the mid-20th century, the women of this country were entirely oppressed. Women who wanted more from life than simple domesticity found themselves facing the barriers of a misogynistic hierarchy in place at the time. Women weren’t legally allowed to attend college until the 1830s and weren’t allowed to vote until the 19th Amendment was put in place in 1919. Even after those historic changes, women continued to earn less money and face constant doubt about their role in the “man’s world.” This doubt extended beyond the professional realms; women were expected to be wholly subservient to men, staying home to take care of the house while their husbands “provided.” Yet there were some women who resisted this oppressive destiny. Women who pushed back, spearheading the idea of gender equality and proving they were capable of accomplishing anything. There is no better example of this than “Little Miss Sure Shot” herself, the great Annie Oakley.

Annie Oakley rose to fame in the late 1880s, when the repression of women was still prevalent in society due to the enduring culture of the Victorian era. At this time, it was largely believed women had a singular purpose in life: to marry and support their husbands’ interests and businesses. Oakley’s prowess as a sharpshooter led her to become one of the biggest stars in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, the most famous and popular theatrical show at the time. Being in the public eye, Oakley’s outspoken opinion of women’s rights and blatant disregard for her expected role in society was a catalyst, lighting the fuse of enlightenment about women’s true capabilities. Annie set an example for women. She helped change the American public’s mind about not only what sports and activities were appropriate for women, but she proved women could be better at them than men.

She vehemently championed women’s right to bear and use firearms—not only for sport shooting, but for hunting and self-defense as well. She changed America’s perception, proving women didn’t need a man to provide and protect. Over the years, Annie coached more than 2,000 women in firearm safety and shooting. At the height of her fame, her shooting prowess and ability to teach were such that she was actually brought to weapons training sessions by the U.S. Army, where she demonstrated the safe and effective use of firearms for soldiers preparing to deploy in World War I. Annie Oakley also used her influence to shape a future for women beyond shooting. She helped orphaned girls with no family money, and widows left destitute by the deaths of their husbands, to further their education by hosting benefit shooting exhibitions and donating massive amounts of her own earnings to their causes. She  fully funded the college education and professional training for dozens of young women. Yet Annie Oakley never let her great fame and influence go to her head, as her life was shaped from extremely humble beginnings.

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Anne Mosley in Darke County, Ohio in 1860. Her parents, Susan Wise and Jacob Mosley, were Quakers who had moved to the area from Pennsylvania. Annie was the sixth child of nine born in her family and one of seven who survived to adulthood. The Mosley family was extremely poor. Annie’s father, who was 60 years old at the time of Annie’s birth, was an invalid from injuries sustained during the war of 1812. He could barely work and mostly supported his family by begging and from his military pension. In 1866, Jacob Mosley was caught in a blizzard and developed pneumonia, dying when Annie was just six years old. His death would have left the Mosley family completely destitute if not for Annie, who refused to stay at home with her mother and sisters and allow her elder brother John (who was only seven at the time) to become the sole provider for the family. Annie Oakley learned to trap by the time she was seven.

By the time she turned eight, she had taught herself to use her father’s old rifle, discovering she had a particular talent for shooting. She became a keen hunter. Soon she was providing meat and fur for her mother and siblings, helping to keep the family afloat. At the time, though, it still wasn’t enough. So in 1870, along with her sister Sarah, Annie was sent to the Darke County infirmary for a time to be fed and educated by the state to ease her mother’s burden. While there, Annie was “bound to” a local family to help care for their infant son for what turned out to be a false promise of 50 cents a week. While with the family, Annie was tortured and abused, spending two years in near-slavery until the spring of 1872, when she fled back to her family. Upon her return, Annie continued to hunt avidly. Her now incredible shooting ability, combined with natural hunting skill, provided more than enough meat for her family. So Annie began to hunt professionally, selling wild game meat and furs to local hotels and restaurants. Her success was such that she actually paid off the mortgage on her family’s farm when she was just 15.

By the mid-1870s, Little Phoebe Mosley was going by the name of Annie and making quite a name for herself as a hunter and a shooter around Ohio. So much so, when the traveling Baughman and Butler shooting act came to Cincinnati, a local hotel owner who was buying meat from Annie made a $100 bet with the show’s traveling marksman, Frank E. Butler, that Annie would beat him in a shooting match. Butler accepted and a contest was set up between the 28-year-old Irish immigrant and the 15-year-old Ohio farm girl. Annie beat Butler in the match, making 25 bullseyes to Butler’s 24. Yet in later years, Butler would refer to the loss as “his greatest accomplishment,” as he fell madly in love with the young Annie. The two were married less than a year later. Annie and Frank lived in Cincinnati for a time, providing for themselves by shooting in Butler’s traveling show. Eventually though, Frank began to shoot less, realizing that his wife, who had taken on the stage name of “Annie Oakley,” was the real attraction and the more talented of the two. He would shoot on occasion, but was mostly content to allow his wife’s fame to grow.

By 1886, the couple’s reputation as sharpshooters had grown so much that they were eventually hired by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and left Ohio to go on tour with the traveling show. The three-year tour with the show eventually elevated Annie Oakley to the most famous woman in the world. She began earning more than any other performer in the show, besides Buffalo Bill himself. Annie Oakley never failed to delight and enthrall her audience. She could do things with a gun no one had ever seen before, such as splitting a playing card held edge-on at 30 paces. She could hit dimes tossed into the air by audience members. She regularly shot cigarettes and cigars from Frank’s lips. One of her most famous acts was to snuff out the flame of a candle without hitting the candle itself, all while shooting the gun over her shoulder and aiming with a mirror. She truly was one of the greatest trick-shooters in history, performing amazing feats with rifle, pistol, and shotgun.

Annie Oakley died in 1926 at 66 years old, succumbing to a decline in her health after she was injured in a car accident. Frank was so grieved that he stopped eating, passing away himself a mere 18 days later. Though her time on this earth was brief, Annie Oakley’s influence on the world and the legacy she created is one that has lasted far beyond her short life. Her shooting prowess helped pave the way for women to be accepted into military service. Her advocacy for women’s rights led to an empowerment movement that helped women gain education and position in society. Women today are looked at as more than simply wives and mothers; they are viewed as equals, capable of doing almost anything a man can do (with exceptions to obvious physiological feats like peeing our names in the snow). Fathers now take their daughters hunting as readily as their sons, and women have become leaders in the outdoor industry. Much of that is owed to leaders like Annie Oakley.

Leave a Reply