The classic image of a cowboy is a wandering man. Symbolically, the American Cowboy has come to represent large, abstract values: freedom, honesty, bravery. In these stories, cowboys meander and conquer the open range alone with their trusty steeds.
But how do women fit into these pervasive stories of troubled, wandering heroes? Let's take a look at three western films: Shane (1953), Unforgiven (1992) and True Grit (2010).
The women in many classic Western films are rooted to one place: their home. Often in cowboy films, we see women either victimized or punished for venturing out as the cowboys do, serving as a warning to women.
We see the role of women at home very clearly in Jack Shaefer's 1953 classicShane. The title cowboy stays at the house of a homesteading family whose matriarch Marian Starett is firmly grounded in the domestic sphere. While the men, particularly Shane, are out protecting the ranch from cattle rustlin' men, Starett is the one being fought for, not the one doing the fighting. She is not the one wandering—she is the one left behind at home when Shane inevitably sets out for the road again.
If you'd asked me a couple of months ago when the pop cultural trend of dads as primary caregivers began, I might have guessed the 1970s (when we saw an increase in single moms on TV). Turns out I'd have been off by a couple of decades.
Like many people, I associate the 1950s with nuclear families like those on Leave it to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and I Love Lucy. But the '50s also brought an avalanche of shows about single fathers, most of whom were widowers. The earliest example, My Little Margie, was about the relationship between a dad and his daughter, who was 21 but still lived at home (and would always be his little girl, etc).