It seems there’s a trend afoot. Though we all know the famous names of notorious cowboys littering the folklore of the wild west, we’re less likely to be quite so familiar with the equally notorious cowgirls. Modern women of the west like Martha Birkett and Lona Louden are aiming to change that.
Women of the Wild West was founded in 2006 by Martha and Lona partially for fun, and partially as a platform for charitable fundraising for women and children in need.
“It’s a powerful warm sisterhood,” says Lona.
And, clearly, a lot of fun. The group is comprised of about 20 women — in real life, pharmacists, flight attendants, executives, health practitioners, stay-at-home moms, school teachers, kindergarteners and retirees — who dress up in character of “famous female outlaws and infamous characters of their time,” Martha explains.
The group are regulars in the Calgary Stampede parade and at the CBC Pancake breakfast, (said to be the biggest free breakfast in the city during the annual 10-day party) and in the Cochrane Labour Day Parade. Members of the group range in age from five to 70ish.
On horseback and on foot, the Women of the Wild West bring a bosomful of entertainment wherever they wander.
“Parades are so fun!” says Lona.
“We have several ladies of the evening sashaying down the road, respectable townswomen with their elaborate hats, parasols and Bibles tucked into their satchels… they all converse with the crowd, introducing the group and telling stories about our characters.”
The Women of the Wild West — like the characters they play — are a motley lot, and not all characters attend all events. The women playing roles on horseback wear serapes with names like Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley, Belle Starr, Zee James, Kissin’ Kate Barlow, Poker Alice, Etta Place, Cynthia Parker, Cattle Kate and Josie Earp. Some of the other characters on foot include Etta Clark, Sarah Winchester, Diamond L’il and Laura Ingalls Wilder, to name a few.
“Women in the crowd show pride for us… and maybe just a little bit of envy because we have so much damn fun,” Lona laughs.
“Men have huge grins, especially when Kissin’ Kate Barlow, (played by Peggy Hemstock) blows them a kiss. Deb Beynon as Dr. Eliza Cook, (one of America’s first female doctors and an ardent, active suffragette) drives her white pony and buggy. Martha (Birkett) plays Annie Oakley, packing her six shooters and training us all to yahoo!”
Each member of the group has researched their own character and put together their own costume and you see in their performances not only the lighthearted fun of dressing up and playing a scoundrel or a hero of a role but a rich appreciation for the history, culture and demography of the characters they play. The Women of the Wild West remind their audiences of the largely unsung triumphs women who braved the pioneering life managed in a time and place when gentility was neither cultured nor, for the most part, prudent.
“This year, we have a Molly Brown and Vera Dyck — from Calgary! — both who were on the Titanic,” says Martha.
Outside of parades and purely-for-fun events, the Women of the Wild West aim to support charities that support women and children in need. One of the group’s biggest fundraisers to date — Giddy Up For Wishes, (a charity Martha founded and which we featured in Horses All in August this year) — raised some $210,000 for children living with life threatening illnesses and registered with the Children’s Wish Foundation as wishing for equestrian-related experiences.
“Peggy Hemstock, Marva Debow, Deb Miller along with Martha and myself and a lot of other volunteers showed us that women working together can make what sometimes seem impossible, possible.”
The Women of the Wild West have also sponsored United Way events, the Children’s Wish Ride, cowboy poetry gatherings and the TSN Kraft Celebration Tour.
For more information, and to inquire about booking the Women of the Wild West for your next event or charity, surf to www.womenofthewildwest.ca or phone Lona Louden at 403- 239-2390.