In an 1851 Indiana newspaper editorial, John B.L. Soule famously advised: "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country." Apparently, young women were either better off back East, or didn't need to grow up. In any case, a lot of young women did go West, and many of them found the freedom of the frontier allowed them to escape their traditional Victorian roles as wives and mothers. Oklahoma's The Donald C. & Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center at The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum has organized an exhibit that highlights the women who took advantage of Manifest Destiny to forge a freer future for themselves.
The exhibit, Not Just A Housewife: The Changing Roles Of Women In The West, highlights 13 women whose boots were made for walking miles away from home and hearth. Some of their names are well known, such as Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley. But others are unsung heroines of the Wild West. Their stories may be unfamiliar, but their refusal to be fenced in by stereotypes made them true female mavericks. The life and career of one of these women, rodeo star Fox Hastings, proves that the "weaker sex" was often anything but.
A true adrenaline junkie, fearless Fox soon tired of horsewoman-ship, and decided, literally, to tackle the cows. In 1924 she made her debut as a bulldogger at the Fort Worth, Texas Rodeo. Her soon-to-be manager and publicist, Fred M. "Foghorn" Clancy, recalled the arena that day was "as muddy as a hog wallow," but that didn't stop Fox, "the nerviest cowgirl [he] ever saw," from wrestling her steer to the ground in 17 seconds flat, a record time. A newspaper account at the time indicated the confusion the "Red-Headed Feminine Daredevil Of The Arena" inspired among those used to more traditional womenfolk: "To the rodeo crowd she is Fox Hastings, cowgirl extraordinary. To neighbors, she is Mrs. Mike Hastings, a good cook and tidy housekeeper." There's little doubt which way the balance tipped on that see-saw.
Continuing to bulldog on the rodeo circuit, Fox Hastings became as renowned for her toughness as her skill. A newspaper write-up of her arena exploits recounts a near superhuman bravura: "Notable among the special attractions was Fox Hastings who, though she had suffered a broken rib the day before the show opened, bulldogged her steer each of the three days of the rodeo proper. She had a contract to fulfill and she couldn't let the management down..." Fox herself summed up her steer wrestling style this way: "If I can just get my fanny out of the saddle and my feet planted, there’s not a steer that can last against me."
Foghorn Clancy's P.R. flair and Fox's moxie combined to make her one of the most celebrated and photographed cowgirls in rodeo history. Fox was not only an ace athlete, she was a shrewd show-woman. When trick riding and bronco busting she sported spectacular scarlet costumes. Enormous red bows replaced a cowboy hat, the better to show off her ginger hair. When bulldogging, however, she boldly went butch: knee-high boots, knickers, a turtleneck sweater, and sometimes even a football helmet, showed she was ready to get down and dirty. Still, Fox never forgot to play to the crowd; she was known for flashing a camera-ready smile even while lying covered in muck, still gripping a newly-thrown steer.
By 1929, Fox had divorced Mike Hastings, the stress of the rodeo circuit proving too much for the marriage. Her second marriage, to Arizona cattle rancher Chuck Wilson, was by all accounts a happy one. Finally ready to settle down, Fox retired from the arena after 5 bone-breaking years on the road. But another occupational hazard was waiting in the wings: in the early 1940's Fox developed tuberculosis, a common ailment among rodeo riders and ranchers of the era, caused by contact with contaminated cattle.
Her second husband stuck by her through several years of extreme illness, and the disease was in remission by 1946. Sadly, after years of nursing his wife, Chuck Wilson's own health gave out. He died of a massive heart attack on July 30, 1948, shortly before his 49th birthday. Fox, despite all of her cowgirl courage, found his death more than she could bear. A mere two weeks later, on August 16, she checked into the Adams Hotel in Phoenix and shot herself in the stomach and head. Eloise Fox Hastings Wilson died instantly.
For more stories of Wild West women, check out the virtual online exhibit created by The Donald C. & Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center. Or visit the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in City, where the exhibit continues through March 2011. It may be the cowboy's museum, but for now the cowgirls are getting the final close-up before riding off into the sunset.