It’s really damn hard to find Western movies with strong female leads! Or strong women at all.
I should know – I’ve spent a lot of money buying all the movies and TV series I’ve found in other people’s lists of the best women in Westerns.
I’m not saying women aren’t PRESENT in the most popular Westerns. There’s always a love interest, right? A saucy dame to get the men fighting. A delicate wife to leave behind on the adventure. A gaggle of girls in a whorehouse. Women are everywhere in Westerns, just not in the juicy roles.
Those frontier women had to shoot, build, cook, sew, work with livestock, and deal with unimaginable hardships. And many had to also do all of that for an entire family. They deserve mad respect.
If you look hard enough, there ARE Westerns that do their female characters justice. Here’s my roundup of the best women in Western movies and TV. They’re in no particular order, and I’ll keep updating this list as I build my collection.
The Best Women in Westerns
1. Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Now, I meant it when I said this list isn’t in order. But if it was, Sharon Stone would probably still be in my number-one spot.
She is everything you could possibly want in a badass Western female lead. The Lady is fierce but flawed, she wears appropriate attire for riding and gunfighting, she rarely smiles, and she’s loyal AF. Stone also hand-picked director Sam Raimi and costar Russell Crowe, and paid Leonardo DiCaprio’s salary out of her own pocket – she helped make this gem of a movie happen. I would pay anything to see her in another Western.
2. Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (1954)
The movie’s title should have been ‘Vienna’, because Joan Crawford plays the lead and she f*cking owns the movie – just like her character owns a saloon and commands half the town. Crawford doesn’t waste a moment of screentime, always passionate, and always simmering with a fiery intensity.
3. Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit (2010)
Before she was dazzling us with her vocals in Pitch Perfect 2 and on her own albums, Steinfeld wowed the world as the no-nonsense Mattie Ross, on her mission to avenge her father and kill Tom Chaney. Steinfeld should have won more of the awards for which this performance got nominations, because the movie couldn’t have been so awesome without her.
4. Robin Weigert in Deadwood (2004-2006, 2019 movie)
Weigert’s Calamity Jane is a masterpiece. You can try to fight me on that, but like Jane when she’s passed out drunk, I won’t budge. By season 3, Deadwood’s Shakespearean dialogue became incomprehensible, but you could only ever understand half of what Weigert slurred throughout the series anyway. She’s f*cking brilliant.
5. Katy Jurado in High Noon (1952)
Not only was Jurado one of the first Mexican women to ever be cast in a Western, but she’s stunning in this surprisingly powerful female role. Helen Ramírez is a business owner, she regularly puts men in their place, AND she is shown as vital help to the hero. This movie is a must-see.
6. Rosamund Pike in Hostiles (2017)
Rosalee Quaid is a true survivor, and Pike brings it on every level. You watch her suffer horrific incidents and feel every bit of her pain in this performance. The movie is hard to watch for many reasons, but you absolutely have to see it.
7. Jodie Foster in Maverick (1994)
Annabelle Bransford is devious and duplicitous, and Foster is damn delightful to watch in this role. She delivers on charm, grace, and a thoroughly enjoyable stream of one-liners and burns on Mel Gibson’s Maverick.
8. Merritt Wever in Godless (2017)
Don’t get me wrong, Michelle Dockery was great as the lead in this TV series. But Wever stands out in her performance as the tough, tomboyish Maggie. She’s the one getting shit done at every point in the story, but she also has a soft, subtle queer storyline.
9. Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953)
Who says you can’t be perky, cute as a button, and also a strong female lead? Doris Day’s Calamity Jane is loyal, determined, and a joy to watch. From her physical comedy to her impressive singing and choreography, I could watch her on any type of day and it would make me giddily happy.
10. Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun (2015)
Although I didn’t love this movie, I thought Natalie Portman was outstanding. Her portrayal of Jane Hammond is equal parts capable and vulnerable, and she delivers these moments of emotion that are so raw you will be dragged through all of the feels.
11. Thandiwe Newton in Westworld (2016)
Even though Dolores is the main host and also a strong female character, Newton’s performance as Maeve steals the show. She is so rich and layered, so much more interesting, and somehow more relatable. Honestly, I would watch a show that’s just about her world.
12. Carolyn Jones in Last Train from Gun Hill (1959)
If you loved her as Morticia Addams, you’ll absolutely enjoy Jones here as Linda. She’s no delicate flower, although Jones still radiates femininity. She’s smart, fearless, and crucial to the story. The whole movie is great, you definitely need to see it.
13. Annette Bening in Open Range (2003)
Bening’s performance as Sue Barlow feels so completely REAL. She’s not out kicking ass, but she evokes this quiet intelligence and strength that a frontier woman would need to get by. I don’t know what else to say except that she’s perfect.
14. Laura San Giacomo in Quigley Down Under (1990)
I originally had San Giacomo in the Honorable Mentions list, but my fiancé convinced me to bump her up. Yes, most of her performance as Crazy Cora is varying levels of kooky comedy. But that’s the character – a front to hide her pain, which she does reveal.
15. Paula Malcolmson in Deadwood (2004-2006, 2019 movie)
There’s NO WAY I could leave Trixie off this list. She starts out as Swearengen’s favourite whore, but right away you see that fiery spirit. Over three seasons and right to the final scene of the movie, Malcolmson takes Trixie on a captivating arc from damaged goods to a capable leader – without ever compromising her volatile, foul-mouthed charm.
16. Anjelica Huston in Buffalo Girls (1995)
This one is tough for me because Huston does a fantastic job with her take on Calamity Jane. She’s also a colourful character – awkward, funny, and brave. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll love her in this. But they changed her character so much from the book that I can’t truly love the miniseries. Still, worthy of this list. (Sadly I couldn’t find a better quality clip to share.)
17. Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939)
Dietrich’s Frenchy exudes confidence and power. She may fall for the man, but she never compromises herself to do it. This is a surprisingly feminist Western for the ‘30s – all of the female characters are depicted as strong – and whether she’s drinking, singing, or brawling, Deitrich is a lot of fun to watch.
18. Hilary Swank in The Homesman (2014)
As hard as this Western is to watch, and as many trigger warnings as it needs, Swank does a fantastic job. Mary Bee Cuddy is almost off-putting in her determination, but she has this undercurrent of rising panic and hopelessness that sucks you in. She’s not a relatable character or one you want to be, but it’s a scarily good performance.
19. Kelly Reilly in Yellowstone (2018-present)
She may be blunt, and at times cruel, but Beth Dutton IS essential to the Yellowstone story. She’s one of my favourite characters and you can’t argue that she’s a powerful Western woman. Reilly excels at saying and doing shocking things without ever abandoning Beth’s trademark semi-inebriated, dead-eyed facial expression.
20. Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
The ray of light in this bleak, existential Western is Julie Christie’s portrayal of Constance Miller. Her fast-talking Cockney confidence thoroughly shakes up the small, self-absorbed world of John McCabe (Warren Beatty). Christie is not only the most interesting character in every scene, but she’s also the loudest – which goes a long way in a Robert Altman movie.
21. Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns (1957)
The fact that the clip below is the movie trailer and only shows the amazing Barbara Stanwyck for a few seconds is the problem with Hollywood. She gives you everything you need in a powerful female cattle baron, and then some. Her performance is equal parts coy, vulnerable, daring, and unforgettable.
22. Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog (2021)
As hard as it is to watch this film, watch it you MUST for Dunst’s gut-wrenching performance. The character’s strength isn’t immediately obvious – Rose is driven into alcoholism and needs saving. But it’s her perseverance purely in the name of creating a good life for her son that makes her trauma so painful to watch. Bonus points for a strong female director AND director of photography on this Western.
23. Faith Hill in 1883 (2021)
Hill’s performance isn’t flashy. It isn’t full of melodrama. You don’t question if a woman could or would actually do the things her character does. Instead, you get this wholly believable pioneer woman who has learned to be as tough and capable as she needs to be to survive. She’s worked hard, and she doesn’t give up – but she’s also warm, kind, and sympathetic. Hill makes Margaret Dutton exactly the kind of woman you’d want with you on the Oregon Trail.
These women in Westerns made a powerful impression, and are definitely worth a watch. They just had a smaller role or weren’t quite as strong as those in my main list, in my humble opinion.
You might think they deserve to be on the winners’ list. If you want to defend your favourites, get into it with me on my Facebook group! Convince me to bump them up.
I’ve reviewed all of these next Westerns too, I’m just getting tired of adding links to this damn post so you can use the search box in the upper corner to read more.
- Kerry Washington in Django Unchained (2012) – A riveting performance, but her character isn’t in much of the movie.
- Jane Fonda in Cat Ballou (1965) – Fonda does well with the character, but the role isn’t as strong as the winners on this list and she’s overpowered by Lee Marvin.
- Irene Bedard in Into the West (2005) – Margaret Light Shines is a strong Indigenous character, and one of the ONLY characters worth watching in this entire tedious miniseries.
- Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles (1974) – Hilarious and definitely worth watching, but she’s not a main character and the original Dietrich version wins.
- Joan Hackett in Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) – Hackett has great physical comedy, the character is just a bit playground-level immature in her crush.
- Ruby Dee in Buck and the Preacher (1972) – Great performance, and an unquestionably strong character, the part was just really small.
- Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954) – Powerful acting, just a slightly smaller and less captivating role than Joan Crawford’s.
- Isabella Rossellini in Wyatt Earp (1994) – She does an excellent job as Big Nose Kate, she’s just not in much of the movie.
- Jennifer Landon in Yellowstone (2018-present) – Another case of a powerhouse performance and badass character, Teeter is just a smaller role.
- Regina King & Zazie Beetz in The Harder They Fall (2021) – Both fierce, powerful female characters and phenomenal performances, just too little screentime and a not as authentically Western as those on the main list.
- Tantoo Cardinal in Godless (2017) – Cardinal is brilliant in every tiny role she’s given, but here she’s a tough older Indigenous woman with more sense than most of the town.
- Candice Bergen in Soldier Blue (1970) and Bite the Bullet (1975) – She can ride, she can act, and she plays these fierce, independent women. The writing is all that lets her down in both cases, still fun to watch.
- Vera Miles in Molly and Lawless John (1972) – What starts out as a gullible and naïve character turns into a resilient badass… as far as women in ’70s Westerns go.
- Shelley Winters in Winchester ’73 (1950) – Although the Winchester steals the show, Winters delivers a refreshingly strong, blunt character who regularly puts the men in their places.
- Maureen O’Hara and Juliet Mills in The Rare Breed (1966) – Their stories both become about their love interests, but these two spend plenty of screentime before that being fierce, capable, independent women.
- Virginia Madsen in Crossfire Trail (2001) – She isn’t as overtly bold as the others on this list, but she’s no delicate flower. She shows her real sand at the end.
- Danielle Deadwyler in The Harder They Fall (2021) – Cuffee is actually a nonbinary character, but Deadwyler herself deserves to be on this list for her small but seriously impactful performance.
There you have it – my roundup of the best women in Western movies and TV shows.