America’s favorite sharpshooter suffered a sugary makeover in Hollywood and Broadway depictions, which depicted her as someone willing to throw matches and stomach bratty men. In truth, the Ohio-born performer was both steelier and savvier, with lots for a modern feminist to love. First, she married smart. If you’re going to wed at all, pick a husband as handsome and loyal as the Irish immigrant Frank Butler, who set aside his own flourishing career in order to promote hers. (He also wrote her cute poems.) Second, she went after her enemies with something more powerful than a shotgun.
When William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, allowed his chain of newspapers to run patently false stories depicting her as a thieving drug addict—a serious threat to her dignified brand—Annie Oakley took him to court, not once but fifty-five times. In a Harvey Weinstein-like move to thwart her, Hearst sent a private investigator to dig up dirt in Darke County, where Annie grew up, but nothing was found. In a series of expensive, historically significant lawsuits that lasted years, she prevailed in all but one courtroom. Take that, tabloids and haters.
My forthcoming novel, Annie and the Wolves—a blend of fact and speculative fiction—links Annie’s determination to battle adversaries with trauma caused in her childhood, when she was hired out to live with a farm family that abused her. (The backstory is, unfortunately, true.) It also suggests her battle with Hearst exaggerated other midlife woes. Whether she herself would have admitted the connections, Annie Oakley undeniably pioneered her own route out of poverty and thrived as a modern businesswoman, insistent upon protecting her brand, whether she was traveling with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show or working her own profitable gigs.
Like an 1800s Dolly Parton, she appeared to be apolitical and demure, yet at the same time led by example, championing the inclusion of females in the military and training women to protect themselves from men. Knowing that still wasn’t enough to right the world’s gender wrongs, she donated her wealth to underprivileged girls. That strength and generosity—not only her ability to shoot dimes tossed in the air—are what endear me to Annie Oakley, a badass whose real actions outshine the silly musicals that got her so wrong.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of Annie and the Wolves (Feb 2, 2021) selected by Oprah Magazine as one of 2021’s best and most anticipated historical novels.