The best books about the women of the American West

The Books I Picked & Why

Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane

By Karen R. Jones

Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane

Why this book?

If you’re a fan of Deadwood or, going further back, the 1953 Doris Day movie, Calamity Jane, you will be fascinated by Jones’s book about the buckskin-wearing Martha Jane Canary, a.k.a. Calamity Jane. Details about her life are either sparse or exaggerated, so Jones tells us what the frontier legend has symbolized, both in her own time and in ours. Dressing like a man made her stand out and made her the object of both derision and decades of bad biographies. She still serves as a symbol of the way that women could defy expectations in the West, and Jones’s book gives us a Calamity Jane we can root for.


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Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest

By Lesley Poling-Kempes

Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest

Why this book?

The title of this marvelous group biography is a play on the title of the film and comic book series, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and suits the characters perfectly. Natalie Curtis, Carol Stanley, Alice Klauber, and Mary Cabot Wheelwright left their safe and secure lives and found a calling in the Southwest in the early 20th century. Along the way, they met important Hopi and Navajo leaders, as well as western enthusiasts like Theodore Roosevelt. This book is a marvelous read because the author weaves their lives together in ways that show how much they had in common, as well as how individual each woman was.


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Twenty Thousands Roads: Women, Movement, and the West

By Virginia Scharff

Twenty Thousands Roads: Women, Movement, and the West

Why this book?

When we think of the West, we so often think about people moving and traveling, but rarely do women come to mind, except as pioneers in covered wagons. But ever since Sacagawea walked with the Lewis and Clark expedition, women have not only traveled West, they often led the way, both physically and metaphorically. Scharff’s book is a fascinating look at how hard it was for women to actually move through the region, whether stumping for suffrage or civil rights. Scharff’s book is especially valuable because she includes so many women of color, and you can feel their pain and their exhilaration on the page.


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Writing the Range: Race, Class, and Culture in the Women's West

By Elizabeth Jameson, Susan Armitage

Writing the Range: Race, Class, and Culture in the Women's West

Why this book?

This hefty tome is a comprehensive and valuable collection of articles about women who were bound by race and class, and who also defied the expectations of these categories. Native American, Latinx, Asian, and Black women fill this fascinating volume, with stories that span colonial New Mexico to modern-day Hollywood. If you need a reference work on women of color, this book is not only your starting point, but it also has an extensive bibliography for further reading.


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Levi's & Lace: Arizona Women Who Made History

By Jan Cleere

Levi's & Lace: Arizona Women Who Made History

Why this book?

Although this book is about the influential women of Arizona exclusively, they stand in for the many women who have made contributions to the history and culture of the entire West. Cleere begins with indigenous women, and moves on to both historic and modern women in medicine, the arts, business, education, and the law. The short biographies of the nearly forty women profiled here are just enough to whet the appetite for more, and are written in an engaging and accessible style.


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