I really didn’t like playing with dolls, much to the despair of my mother. Back in the 1950’s, little girls were expected to want to play mommy to their inert little babies, who would just lie there in their doll beds with their sleep-a-bye eyes closed tight. Where was the fun in that? I craved action and excitement, like the boys had with their toys. It wasn’t until Barbie was introduced in 1959, when I was approaching age 12, that I finally got enthused about dolls.
Now we’re talkin’!
I ask you, would you rather play with a typical 50’s doll that looked like this…..
…..or a Barbie that looked like this…..
Who looks like a better time? I rest my case.
Awhile back I read an article in the New York Times about the powerful women in our country who read Nancy Drew books when they were young. The list ranged from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to Nancy Pelosi, to many women in law, education and industry whose eyes were opened to the possibilities that had seemed beyond their reach. If Nancy could be daring and adventurous and go against what was deemed the norm for young ladies back then, well so could they.
I remember owning some Nancy Drew mysteries, but they never became my favorite reading, although I did (and still do) love to read. I think her books probably wound up somewhere at the bottom of my toy drawer underneath my toy Winchester repeating rifle and the wooden tomahawk my Dad made for me. (I think there was a little derringer in there too, like the one Paladin had on “Have Gun Will Travel.”)
My heroines were of the action variety; ones who could give the good ol’ boys a run for their money. So I thought I would put together a list of the ladies whom I held in the highest esteem during my childhood, along with some sketches of them to illustrate my point.
First up…..Joan of Arc.
I loved reading about how Joan heard angelic voices telling her that it was up to her to go to battle to save France. She cut her hair short (like mine!), put on armor (basically boys’ clothes), and got to ride around on her steed telling the guys what to do. What’s not to like?
(Except for that whole burning at the stake thing.)
Most of the paintings of Joan show her wearing a skirt over her armor. I have a difficult time believing anyone who went as far beyond what was considered proper behavior for a young lady as she did would even think about adding a skirt to keep the neighbors’ tongues from wagging. Joan was such an all-time favorite of mine that I created an artist trading card in her honor for my “Great Cats in Art” series, starring my cat Neferkitty—“The Pussycat of Orleans.”
Next up is Gail Davis of the “Annie Oakley” television show of the 1950’s.
From the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture:
“Gail Davis was an Arkansas-born actress who starred as the legendary sharpshooter in the groundbreaking TV Western series Annie Oakley, which ran from 1954 through 1956. She appeared in thirty-two feature films, was guest on a number of TV shows, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and was an early role model for young women.
At just over five feet tall and under 100 pounds, Davis was a charming heroine on Annie Oakley who wore pigtails and stopped criminals by outsmarting them or shooting the guns out of their hands. She rode horses and did many of her own stunts. She was the first woman to star in a TV western. Many young women later said they were influenced by watching Gail Davis as Annie Oakley, a female character in a traditionally male role. In the show, Gail took care of her younger brother, Tagg, in the fictional town of Diablo and solved crimes with handsome deputy sheriff Lofty Craig.”
My kind of gal. Plus, she had cute outfits.
Finally, we have Irish McCalla as “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.”
“In a newspaper interview, McCalla recalled being discovered by a Nassour Studios representative while throwing a bamboo spear on a Malibu, California, beach, famously adding of her Sheena experience, “I couldn’t act, but I could swing through the trees”. Her 26-episode series aired in first-run syndication from 1955-56.
The athletic, reportedly 5’10” McCalla said she performed her own stunts on the series, filmed in Mexico, until the day she grabbed an unsecured vine and slammed into a tree, breaking her arm. Her elder son, Kim McIntyre, once told the press he remembered watching his mother swinging from vine to vine and wrestling mechanical alligators.”
I was so enthralled with Sheena’s capabilities. (She could really kick butt.)
Near our house in Southern California was an orange orchard that was being turned into a housing tract development. There had been a lot of excavating done by heavy equipment and one morning my mother got a phone call from a neighbor who said “I don’t want to alarm you, Iris, but Melissa’s walking down the street with a snake around her neck.” (I was around seven or eight years old—Nancy Drew had unsupervised adventures too.)
I remember sashaying down our street with the snake draped around me, a la Sheena, with a gaggle of admiring followers trailing behind. God knows what kind of snake it was or how long it had been dead, but that didn’t matter to my mother who hated snakes of any stripe or color. My homage to Sheena was cut short. But I loved it….it was so cool.
I enjoy looking back at the heroines of my youth. I still hold them dear to my heart. I’m just so glad that there are so many more now for young girls to emulate than there were in my childhood.
But I still think these gals hold up pretty well even after all these years.