HERstory: Why Writing About Empowered Women From A Distinctly Female Gaze Is Important

By Donna Baier Stein

One of the first things I noticed about the male re-tellings of Baby Doe Tabor’s fascinating life was the way they focused on her role in the biggest love scandal of the 19th century West. She was viewed as a scandalous mistress, as a wife to a wealthy silver baron, as a home wrecker.

And yet the historical figure I’d first chanced upon when I visited Colorado at age seven was far, far more than a petite, violet-eyed, blonde bombshell. Even as a young girl, I knew that this woman—pictured on one postcard in a luxurious ermine coat and on another as a bedraggled old woman standing in front of a cabin holding a rifle—lived a life of extreme contradictions.

I found those contradictions fascinating and wanted to tell her story from her point of view. From the female gaze.

Here was a woman who bucked all the social expectations of her time. She worked in the silver mines, despite prevailing superstitions about women being bad luck in the mines. She chose to leave her philandering, opium-addicted first husband, Harvey Doe, despite her Catholic religion’s decree against divorce.

She traveled alone from Central City to Leadville, Colorado, and began an affair with a man 30 years her senior. Horace Tabor was worth about $24 million in 1883 (that amounts to nearly half a billion dollars in today’s currency) and married to plain-faced Augusta.

Lizzie Doe had an affair with Horace, much to the consternation of all concerned. When she married him at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, President Chester Arthur and the men of his Cabinet attended the wedding, but the Cabinet wives refused to grace the divorced Lizzie and Horace’s nuptials with their presence. Lizzie returned with her new husband to Denver, where the elite society continued to shun her. They lived in a huge villa, with 100 peacocks and nude statues from Europe on the grounds.

As I researched Lizzie’s life in preparation for writing my novel, I was intrigued by the fact that the years she lived in phenomenal wealth did not seem to be her happiest. She and Horace obviously loved each other. When he lost his fortune, Lizzie remained by his side, to the shock of Denver society.

And when he died, she returned to the Matchless Mine where he’d made his great fortune, fulfilling his dying wish. She then spent the last 35 years of her life living in a one room shack at the mine, writing down thousands of her dreams and visions of Jesus and Mary and her beloved Horace.

Lizzie was definitely a complicated woman, someone who should never be pigeon-holed. At first I naively assumed that because so much had happened in her life, it would be easy to write a novel about her. Not so! There was an overabundance of information. An American opera had been written about her – ‘The Ballad of Baby Doe’, which Beverly Sills had first starred in. Two novels. Again, all written by men and all focusing on the scandalous love triangle rather than Lizzie’s fascinating inner, spiritual life.

Judy Nolte-Temple, a professor at the University of Arizona wrote a wonderful nonfiction book about Lizzie Tabor called ‘The Madwoman in the Cabin’. This was a fabulous resource since it explored who this historical figure really was—as a wife, mother, single widow, prolific dreamer.

I turned to the book often and referenced many other books on mining, clothing and food of the period, spiritualism, and more. I traveled several times to Leadville and Denver and Central City to do on-site research. Each time I visited the shack at the Matchless Mine, I felt chills. Lizzie came to me in my dreams just as others had come to hers.

I discovered fairly quickly that in order to make her story a readable novel, I had to have a compelling narrative arc. What was it that drove Lizzie? What did she most want in life? Contrary to what the men had seen, I didn’t think it was wealth that was her goal. Love certainly.

For two men and two daughters, Rosemary Echo and Silver Dollar. I also saw that her spiritual journey was a compelling thread throughout her life – from her childhood in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where she was raised by two devout Irish Catholic immigrants to the many visions of Jesus she noted on her wall calendars in the shack at the mine.

Nolte-Temple told me that when she was doing the research for her nonfiction book, several theologians said that Elizabeth Doe Tabor may have been a true female American mystic.

We don’t have many of those here in America, do we?

It can sometimes be hard to determine who is a true mystic and who is simply eccentric. Baby Doe Tabor could be seen as either. Or both.

And even as I unraveled the story of her life, I found it paralleled my own. I too had longed for love, marriage, motherhood, money. And I too had still felt something was missing. My own spiritual journey, though unlike Lizzie’s, was as compelling as hers. I even felt that the two main men in her life had similarities to two men in my own.

I certainly don’t want to end up alone in a shack in my 80s, but writing the story of a woman who lived in a time other than my own, who made her way despite great barriers that women of her era faced, has compelled me for many years.

I’m happy to say that ‘The Silver Baron’s Wife’ was published in 2016 and received rave reviews from Kirkus and Foreword Reviews and debuted as #1 best new release in biographical fiction on Amazon. Even though the writing of Lizzie’s tale is finished, I still want her story to be known more in the world. I think it’s an important one, with lessons for us all. Love and spirit really do outshine silver and gold.



DONNA BAIER STEIN is a three-time Pushcart nominee and author of Sympathetic People (Iowa Fiction Award Finalist and 2015 IndieBook Awards Finalist) and Sometimes You Sense the Difference (poetry chapbook). She is the recipient of a Johns Hopkins University MFA Fellowship, Allen E. Ginsberg Poetry Prize, grants from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and Poetry Society of Virginia, and more.



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  1. Pingback: 'Queen Of The South' - A Female-Driven Show Portraying The Drug Cartel Through The Female Gaze - GirlTalkHQ

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