history of women in the west, and women who worked on cattle
ranches in particular, is not as well documented as that of men.
However, institutions such as the National Cowgirl Museum and
Hall of Fame have made significant efforts in recent years to
gather and document the contributions of women.
There are few records mentioning girls or
women working to drive cattle up the cattle trails of the Old
West. However women did considerable ranch work, and in
some cases (especially when the men went to war or on long
cattle drives) ran them.
There is little doubt that women,
particularly the wives and daughters of men who owned small
ranches and could not afford to hire large numbers of outside
laborers, worked side by side with men and thus needed to ride
horses and be able to perform related tasks.
The largely undocumented contributions of
women to the west were acknowledged in law; the western states
led the United States in granting women the right to vote,
beginning with Wyoming in 1869. Early photographers such
as Evelyn Cameron documented the life of working ranch women and
cowgirls during the late 19th and early 20th century.
While impractical for everyday work, the
sidesaddle was a tool that gave women the ability to ride horses
in "respectable" public settings instead of being left on foot
or confined to horse-drawn vehicles. Following the Civil War,
Charles Goodnight modified the traditional English sidesaddle,
creating a western-styled design. The traditional charras of
Mexico preserve a similar tradition and ride sidesaddles today
in charreada exhibitions on both sides of the border.
It wasn't until the advent of Wild West
Shows that "cowgirls" came into their own. These adult women
were skilled performers, demonstrating riding, expert
marksmanship, and trick roping that entertained audiences around
the world. Women such as Annie Oakley became household names. By
1900, skirts split for riding astride became popular, and
allowed women to compete with the men without scandalizing
Victorian Era audiences by wearing men's clothing or, worse yet,
bloomers. In the movies that followed from the early 20th
century on, cowgirls expanded their roles in the popular culture
and movie designers developed attractive clothing suitable for
riding Western saddles.
Independently of the entertainment industry,
the growth of rodeo brought about the rodeo cowgirl. In the
early Wild West shows and rodeos, women competed in all events,
sometimes against other women, sometimes with the men. Cowgirls
such as Fannie Sperry Steele rode the same "rough stock" and
took the same risks as the men (and all while wearing a heavy
split skirt that was more encumbering than men's trousers) and
competed at major rodeos such as the Calgary Stampede and
Cheyenne Frontier Days.
Rodeo competition for women changed in the
1920s due to several factors. After 1925, when Eastern promoters
started staging indoor rodeos in places like Madison Square
Garden. Women were generally excluded from the men's events and
many of the women's events were dropped. Also, the public had
difficulties with seeing women seriously injured or killed, and
in particular, the death of Bonnie McCarroll at the 1929
Pendleton Round-Up led to the elimination of women's bronc
riding from rodeo competition.
In today's rodeos, men and women compete
equally together only in the event of team roping, though
technically women now could enter other open events. There also
are all-women rodeos where women compete in bronc riding, bull
riding and all other traditional rodeo events. However, in open
rodeos, cowgirls primarily compete in the timed riding events
such as barrel racing, and most professional rodeos do not offer
as many women's events as men's events.
Boys and girls are more apt to compete
against one another in all events in high-school rodeos as well
as O-Mok-See competition, where even boys can be seen in
traditionally "women's" events such as barrel racing.
Outside of the rodeo world, women compete equally with men in
nearly all other equestrian events, including the Olympics, and
western riding events such as cutting, reining, and endurance
Today's working cowgirls generally use
clothing, tools and equipment indistinguishable from that of
men, other than in color and design, usually preferring a
flashier look in competition. Sidesaddles are only seen in
exhibitions and a limited number of specialty horse show
classes. A modern working cowgirl wears jeans,
close-fitting shirts, boots, hat, and when needed, chaps and
gloves. If working on the ranch, they perform the same
chores as cowboys and dress to suit the situation.
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