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Natalie Lennard

Born of Calamity

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Edition of 15
Medium Collector Edition on Hahnemuhle Pearl Paper
Image size 60 cm x 80 cm


‘Of all the half legendary characters who roamed the frontier in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and whose exploits have provoked the imagination, one of the most amazing was Calamity Jane.” — Roberta Beed Sollid

Martha Canary, better known as Calamity Jane, was an American frontierswoman, professional scout and the best known heroine of the American Wild West. Orphan, prostitute, bullwhacker; likened to Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale, and long celebrated in novels, plays and movies. She was also a mother, living in one of the most dangerous eras to give birth. 

Disease like cholera, smallpox and dysentery were rampant before the advent of sanitation and hygiene. Poverty, malnutrition, lack of contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and bad birth care leading to infection and fatal puerperal fever, are just some of the reasons it was harrowing to give birth in the 1800s Wild West. Yet it does better justice to understand how rather than childbirth being inherently dangerous, it was made so by those mitigating factors.

The overriding, touted memory of the Wild West is that childbirth was simply dangerous and that many mothers and babies died. What we overlook is that many mothers and babies survived. One of those mothers was Calamity Jane. Calamity drank, smoke, lived an immoral life, spent time with a host of miners with smallpox, and ultimately died young in her 50s. And yet, in spite of that, childbirth did not take her life nor that of her children.

There is little dispute that the Wild West was a dangerous time to bear children. Rather than blindly glamorise the women who were fortunate, a depiction of the Wild West’s greatest masculine heroines in the ultimate depiction of her biological femininity helps remind us of the maternal existence behind the paternal voice that has dominated the narrative of the historic American West. Birth still happened, often simply than always complicated. Mothers lived, babies lived. In the scourge of great calamity, humanity was still capable, and the generations it bore are its legacy.

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