The best books about the women of the American West

Who am I?

I have loved the history of the West since I was a child, as my family has lived here for over a century. I devoured historical fiction about pioneer girls in grammar school (including the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder), and as I got into college, I expanded my reading universe to include books about women’s roles in the West, and the meaning of this region in overall American history. This concept is what drew me to study the cultural influence of dude ranching, where women have always been able to shine -- and where I placed the protagonist of my first novel.


I wrote...

Dudes Rush In

By Lynn Downey,

Book cover of Dudes Rush In

What is my book about?

In 1952, restless war widow Phoebe McFarland decides to leave her home in San Francisco to spend six months on her sister-in-law’s dude ranch in Tribulation, Arizona, called the H Double Bar. But Tribulation soon lives up to its name when secrets from the town’s past collide with a shocking revelation of her own, leading Phoebe down a trail to both discovery and danger.

Dudes Rush In is my first novel, written after over 35 years of publishing non-fiction works about California and the West. It combines my love of western history, the unique culture of dude ranching, and my desire to amplify the lives of women of the West.

The books I picked & why

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Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane

By Karen R. Jones,

Book cover of 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.

Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane

By Karen R. Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Calamity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating new account of the life and legend of the Wild West's most notorious woman: Calamity Jane

"In this vivid and compelling biography, Karen Jones recovers the remarkable creativity of Martha Jane Canary, who helped to invent the mythic West by reinventing herself. As Calamity Jane, she told wild tales of adventure and blurred the lines between legend and history, male and female, and truth and possibility."-Alan Taylor, author of The Internal Enemy

Martha Jane Canary, popularly known as Calamity Jane, was the pistol-packing, rootin' tootin' "lady wildcat" of the American West. Brave and resourceful, she held her own…


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

By Lesley Poling-Kempes,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Lesley Poling-Kempes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ladies of the Canyons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WILLA Literary Award, 2016Reading the West Book Award for Nonfiction, MPIBASilver Medal, US History, 2016 IPPY AwardsWestern Writers of America Spur Award finalistLadies of the Canyons is the true story of remarkable women who left the security and comforts of genteel Victorian society and journeyed to the American Southwest in search of a wider view of themselves and their world.

Educated, restless, and inquisitive, Natalie Curtis, Carol Stanley, Alice Klauber, and Mary Cabot Wheelwright were plucky, intrepid women whose lives were transformed in the first decades of the twentieth century by the people and the landscape of the American Southwest.…


Twenty Thousands Roads: Women, Movement, and the West

By Virginia Scharff,

Book cover of 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.

Twenty Thousands Roads: Women, Movement, and the West

By Virginia Scharff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Twenty Thousands Roads as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Sacagawea's travels with Lewis and Clark to rock groupie Pamela Des Barres's California trips, women have moved across the American West with profound consequences for the people and places they encounter. Virginia Scharff revisits a grand theme of United States history - our restless, relentless westward movement--but sets out in new directions, following women's trails from the early nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. In colorful, spirited stories, she weaves a lyrical reconsideration of the processes that created, gave meaning to, and ultimately shattered the West. "Twenty Thousand Roads" introduces a cast of women mapping the world on their…


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

By Elizabeth Jameson, Susan Armitage,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Elizabeth Jameson, Susan Armitage,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Writing the Range as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A valuable introduction to the rapidly changing field of western history, Writing the Range explains clearly how race, class, and culture are constructed and connected. The first section examines issues raised by more than a decade of multicultural western women's histories; following are six chronological sections spanning four centuries. Each section offers a short introduction connecting its essays and placing them in analytic and historical perspective. Clearly written and accessible, Writing the Range makes a major contribution to ethnic history, women's history, and interpretations of the American West.


Levi's & Lace: Arizona Women Who Made History

By Jan Cleere,

Book cover of 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.

Levi's & Lace: Arizona Women Who Made History

By Jan Cleere,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Levi's & Lace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Award-winning author Jan Cleere brings her exceptional skills in research and writing to a new book about more than 35 heroic women of Arizona. From teachers and entrepreneurs to artists and healers, Cleere provides an informative text that highlights historical Hispanic, African American, Native American, and Anglo women who made their mark in the intriguing history of our state.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American West, women, and pioneers?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the American West, women, and pioneers.

The American West Explore 103 books about the American West
Women Explore 417 books about women
Pioneers Explore 81 books about pioneers

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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