What would the wild west have been like without cowboys and their female counterparts, cowgirls? Certainly not near as exciting as we know it today. There was a need in those days for a strong female presence, after all, the wild west was a harsh time to live in. Even today, cowgirls play an integral role in the ranching world, doing all of the same things that cowboys do.
Although the work that cowgirls did on ranches in the wild west is not nearly as well documented as that of cowboys, they made considerable contributions, particularly in times of war or when most of the men were gone on long cattle drives. In recent years, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame has taken steps to uncover and document as much of the women’s involvement as possible, to keep the history accurate as well as the legends alive.
Most cowgirls were the wives and daughters of cattle ranchers who couldn’t necessarily afford to hire a lot of ranch hands, and they even ran the ranches in some cases. And some historical events point to the influence that women brought to the west. The western states were among the first to allow women to vote, Wyoming being the first in 1869.
But cowgirls really began to shine and show their true skill when wild west shows began to be popular. These women were expert showpeople, entertaining the audiences that flocked to see them with their roping and riding skills and excellent marksmanship. Even going up against men in rodeo shows became a normal occurrence, especially as the popularity of cowgirls grew with the advent of movies in the early 20th century.
Rodeos in and of themselves played a major role in promoting cowgirls and their role in cattle and horse handling. Some women became very rich and famous by performing and competing against men in rodeos. Participating in major rodeo shows like the Cheyenne Frontier Days (which is to this day a very popular rodeo show, attracting thousands every year) and the Calgary Stampede.
There came a time when, due to the audience’s disapproval at seeing women injured or even killed, women were no longer included in some of the major men’s events such as bronc and bull riding. Today, most cowgirls that participate in rodeo are involved in timed events such as barrel racing, and there are fewer events for women than men. There are all women’s events now where women still perform bronc and bull riding, but in major circuit rodeo’s, the only event that men and women compete in equally is team roping.
By the time cowgirls were performing for packed arena’s the world over, the side saddle riding that was the norm in the 1800’s had been replaced by skirts that were cut specifically to allow riding astride, as men did. And costume designers for movies created stylish, attractive clothing that made riding astride more comfortable for the cowgirls of the day. Today, cowgirls dress in the same style as cowboys, with perhaps the only distinguishing factor being the color or print of materials.
By all accounts, women played their roles in the early days of the wild west as well as they do today, and cowgirls the world over have those ladies of the past to thank for their contributions to women’s liberation in the US and around the world.