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Cowgirls

CowgirlsThe 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 riding.

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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More US History

History of the Old West
Frontier Begins
Settling the West
Before the Civil War
Civil War in the West
After the Civil War
Frontier Life
Frontier Warfare
American Cowboy
People of the Old West
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