Wholesome yet wild, hard-working but with satin shirts to die for, the cowgirl is arguably the great American heroine.
To many, she’s just a figment of show biz or a recent, financial necessity on the struggling family ranch. She’s the fringed barrel racer at the rodeo squeezed between the “real” events, the men’s events. Or else she’s Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley warbling “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” while demurely losing a shooting match to her future husband in “Annie Get Your Gun.”
But while the cowboy has been thoroughly mythologized, inflated, deflated, analyzed and appropriated, no one doubts his actual existence - either out on the frontier or in the generations of working ranch hands who succeeded him.
The same should be true of the cowgirl. She was there. She is there. A list of ranchers in Spanish Texas in 1795 includes the names of 10 women, who owned one-fifth of the region’s cattle. Lizzie Williams (1843-1924) was one of Texas’ most successful cattle dealers. Sally Skull has a historical marker in her name near Refugio, Texas, commemorating her life as a whip-cracking, gun-toting horse trader. Molly Goodnight, co-founder with her husband, Charles, of the famous JA Ranch in the Panhandle, rode the trail to Dodge City and owned her own herds.
And by the way, the real Annie Oakley won that shooting match.
The cowgirl was part of the West, homesteading, ranching, panning for gold, bounty hunting, working the railroad - and she helped shape the later image of the West in movies and in rodeos as a professional sports figure. Cowgirls, in fact, were the first professional female athletes to organize (the Girls Rodeo Association, formed in 1949).
A number of books about real ranchwomen, rodeo riders and their more legendary sisters have come out the past several years. They include “Cowgirls” by Candace Savage (Ten Speed), “Cowgirls: Women of the American West” by Teresa Jordan (Bison), “By Grit & Grace: Eleven Women Who Shaped the American West,” edited by Glenda Riley and Richard Etulian (Fulcrum) and Joyce Gibson Roach’s revised version of her 1977 classic “The Cowgirls” (University of North Texas).
There’s even a new children’s book of hand-tinted photos, “Cowgirls,” by Bob “Daddy-O” Wade (Gibbs Smith), as well as a collection of paintings and sketches celebrating an eternally spirited, mythic cowgirl by the North Texas painter Donna Howell-Sickles, “Cowgirl Rising” (Greenwich Workshop).
Beginning with Roach’s book, several of these histories argue that not only did cowgirls have a hand in the West (and its later packaging), they also pioneered a new freedom for women. When Susan B. Anthony and other 19th-century feminists were articulating their principles of emancipation in the East, working ranchwomen already embodied those ideas - out West.
Says Savage: “Many of the women who worked on ranches would not have seen any equation between themselves and the early suffragettes. They were avowedly “antisuffragette” because early feminism got sidetracked into temperance drives and the purity of women - neither idea popular among hardliving ranchwomen.
But despite such class and regional antagonisms, “cowgirls, whether they realized it or not, were doing with their bodies what Eastern feminists were doing with language and education,” says Savage. “People press their cases in different ways, and the working class often uses ‘body talk.”’
The body talk of cowgirls spoke of a woman of authority, a woman on horseback, wearing pants, riding like a man - scandalous activities at a time when, even on the Plains, skirts and sidesaddles were considered the proper riding gear for women. The West has long represented an escape from the confines of the East, the opportunity to shed one’s old identity. For many women, it also meant an escape from the strictures of Victorian femininity. Wearing pants may have been considered a sign of instability or social defiance, yet ranchwomen learned the practical reason why pants were invented: to ride horses.
At the same time, writes Savage, many frontier ranchwomen “were troubled by the loss of their womanly dignity.” They were raised back East, and ranch work was and is bruising and dirty. It hardly fit the norms of demure feminine behavior.
It has its compensations, however. Roach, a folklorist who lives on a ranch near Keller, Texas, says, “The emancipation of women may well have begun when they mounted a good cowhorse and realized how different and fine the view was. … It may sound pat but it’s true - once you’ve learned to manage a horse, work with one, there’s not much in life after that that you can’t handle.”
But the great attraction in the West, as it was for men, was free land. The U.S. Homestead Act of 1862 treated men and women equally as potential landowners - a remarkably radical move for 19th-century property rights. Between 1875 and 1900, approximately a quarter of a million American women ran their own farms and ranches.
The Wyoming Territory was the first jurisdiction in North America to enact woman’s suffrage (1869), appoint a female justice of the peace (1870), welcome a woman into the state Legislature (1910) and seat a female governor (1925). Montana was the first to elect a woman to Congress (1916). Western states were also among the first to recognize a married woman’s right to her own property.
In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt came to the obvious conclusion when the drive for woman’s suffrage raged on the national level. He quipped: “I think civilization is coming Eastward gradually.”
Cowgirls became a tourist attraction, as unusual as buffalo herds or native Indians. Their independence infiltrated popular depictions of women. According to Henry Nash Smith’s classic cultural study of the frontier, “Virgin Land,” before 1880, women in dime novels existed solely to give the hero a prop to rescue. Pioneer women were depicted as patient, loving and dutiful.
But after 1880, the heroines began to change from genteel victims to “Amazons of the range” and “bandit queens.”
For good or ill, many of our notions of the West were formed at the turn of the century in the development of the rodeo and the Wild West show - which, in turn, influenced the early, silent-film Westerns. And cowgirls figured in all three, sometimes the same cowgirls. Early rodeo champions Bertha Blancett, Mabel Strickland and Vera McGinnis spent the off-season working in movies as stunt riders, wranglers and performers. Lucille Mulhall made a fortune in silent films - she was one of the great early steer-ropers and the woman whom Teddy Roosevelt dubbed a “cowgirl,” thus popularizing the term.
The development of all of these Western entertainments was part of “selling the West to the East,” says Roach. “It came at a time of great national thirst for adventure: Teddy Roosevelt, the dime novels, the sensationalist newspapers. All of these social movements converged at roughly the same time on the West and on a folk heroine, the cowgirl.”
Phoebe Ann Moses, Roach points out, was an unlikely candidate to step forward at this moment as a cowgirl heroine. She’d never been west of Cincinnati and knew little of cattle or cowboys.
But as Annie Oakley, she made the American cowgirl an international figure. As the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, she defined the essential cowgirl.
Annie Oakley didn’t become a pop-culture icon just because of her prodigious marksmanship or her hard-working professionalism. It was her personality, the combination of ambition and charm - her “girlishness” - that set people at ease with a woman who could casually blast a cigar out of her husband’s mouth. Annie always wore long skirts, for instance, never pants. She set the mold for the hundreds of Western performers who followed, from Patsy Montana to Dale Evans to k.d. lang: the tomboy and the little lady, audacious yet innocent.
But through the line of development from ranch to rodeo to movie reel and radio hit, Savage notes, the cowgirl’s spirit was watered down and commodified. By the ‘30s and ‘40s, she was just another clothing choice offered by our pop culture, a matter of cute hats and fringe, tight jeans and boots.
What happened, Savage says, is that since Annie’s heyday, the cowgirl went through a series of “cultural gatekeepers,” who diluted her strength. First, there were the rodeo managers, who refused to let women compete with men. Then there were producers such as cowboy singing star Gene Autry, who in addition to his film and music empire, owned the Madison Square Garden Rodeo, once the home of the national finals. In his Westerns, radio shows and rodeos, Savage says, Autry reduced the cowgirl to “a ranch glamour gal.”
“They stopped doing the roughand-tumble stuff,” she says. “They became decorative. That the cowgirl came through at all with any spirit intact was a miracle.”
Thanks to Barbara Stanwyck, Dale Evans and Gail Davis (TV’s Annie Oakley), she did. There were occasional flashes in the ‘50s, strong-willed women in such films as “Westward the Women” or “Johnny Guitar” with Joan Crawford. But it was primarily these three performers, in their very different ways, who portrayed independent, self-reliant cowgirls - some of the few such media images for young women at the time.
These days, with the Western film in a long decline partly because it has had difficulty adapting to social changes such as feminism, the cowgirl has reappeared in pop-culture manifestations like the Dixie Chicks or the current off-Broadway musical “Always, Patsy Cline.” She is revived as a figure of girl-group camp or sweet nostalgia. With her gender-busting crossover appeal, k.d. lang has been one of the very few inheritors of the cowgirl saddle who kicked up some dust.
But then, there’s always women’s rodeo. It remains a small, controlled explosion of female energy that the wider culture has rarely tapped.
Author Sara Bird of Austin, Texas, followed “alternative” rodeos for years (women’s rodeos, black rodeos, kid rodeos, Native American rodeos) to write her 1993 novel, “Virgin of the Rodeo.” She says the character of Annie Oakley - and the obstacles she surmounted - are still very much a part of the rodeo scene.
“It is fascinating to see how really hard it is to be female in that world,” she says, “how easier it is to be a man. It’s a victory of sorts for them, just retaining their femininity while trying to gain the same freedom to be wild.”
Or as Roach puts it, “There’s a tradition to uphold, to dress the part. It’s the cowgirl way - being a woman on your terms.”
Bird sees that tradition split into two rodeo subcultures today. There are the more mainstream and traditionally “ladylike” performers. “Some of these gals are packing more weight in their hair mousse than on their hips,” she jokes.
And then there are the roughstock riders. “They’re the wild ones,” Bird says, “the ones who shut down bars. I didn’t meet too many roughstock riders who had all their teeth.”
That division cuts to the heart of what the cowgirl offers. It has to do with the roles that are open to women, says Savage.
She recalls watching Lynn “Jonnie” Jonckowski in the ‘80s - the former champion bull rider and later sports commentator. “She’d deliberately wear provocative outfits,” Savage says. “She wanted to get more attention for her sport, she said, so it would get commercial endorsements like men’s rodeo. So playing on her sexuality is what she felt she had to do.”
In fact, ranchwomen and rodeo riders may have disdained organized feminism, but the dilemma they face is familiar to many women in the urban workplace. As long as they act conventionally feminine, the women may consign themselves to being specialty acts, not the “real” professionals.
But if they don’t act feminine, they may be marginalized. “Bull dagger,” Savage notes, an old pejorative term for black lesbians, is derived from “bull dogger,” that is, a steer wrestler. And Bird believes that lesbianism as an instrument of accusation is a force in women’s rodeo - invoked by threatened male riders or competitive women against each other.
A strong woman working hard, having fun, handling powerful animals and powerful weapons, dressing up and getting in the dirt, taking part in one of America’s defining moments on the Plains: The cowgirl straddles any number of sexual, cultural and class ambiguities, fears, dreams. No wonder Hollywood has accommodated her only fitfully, despite her presence in the historical record.
Even so, she remains America’s singular contribution to female independence. No one else had cowgirls.
“Throughout history,” says Roach, “cultures have idealized the horseman - the knights, the warriors, the adventurers. That’s really what all those legends and chivalry come down to - the advantages of a man on horseback.
“We just did the same with cowgirls.”
Staff illustration by Molly Quinn
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Several cowgirls reach mythic status The Dallas Morning News If the cowboy legend can include gunslingers (who actually had little to do with the cattle industry), then cowgirls can certainly accommodate what today we’d call “gender outlaws.” These are the only two women popularly admitted into Western mythology: Belle Starr: Born Myra Bell Shirley in 1848, she was a passionate Confederate and involved with William Quantrill’s Raiders, the outlaw guerrilla outfit that included Frank and Jesse James. Her brother was a member and she married one, too, who was killed by lawmen. A crack shot and expert rider, a lover of outlaw Cole Younger (by whom she had a child), Belle later married Sam Starr, a Cherokee who owned a ranch, a bandit hideout, in Indian Territory. Known for her plumed hat and velvet riding skirt, she fancied herself a “bandit queen,” and was once convicted of horse theft. But her notoriety really took off only after she was shot in the back in 1889 by an unknown assassin. Lurid pamphlets about her life promptly appeared, and she was later portrayed on film and television by Gene Tierney, Pamela Reed and Elizabeth Montgomery. Calamity Jane: Unlike Belle, Calamity Jane fictionalized her own life, although it was a ragged adventure in its own right. Born Martha Jane Cannary in 1852, she came to Montana at 11 and was soon orphaned. Fending for herself, she became a teamster and Army scout, wearing a man’s buckskin outfit. She met Wild Bill Hickok during the 1876 South Dakota gold rush, but there’s no evidence they were lovers. Jane did, however, help smallpox patients during an epidemic there. A binge drinker and hard curser, Jane flashed into Wild West celebrity with dime novels, a drama and her own dubious pamphlet, “My Life and Adventures.” But she never made the transition to performer the way Buffalo Bill did. She died at 47, worn-out and sick. Her wandering mess of a life has inspired dozens of novels and movies, including Larry McMurtry’s “Buffalo Girls.” Most recently, the Warner Bros. cartoon “The Legend of Calamity Jane” was one of the only animated adventure series on TV with a heroic female lead. It was canceled this month after a brief run. Three runners-up for mythic status: Cattle Annie and Little Britches: Anne McDoulet and Jennie Stevens were the source for a Robert Ward novel and the 1980 film starring Burt Lancaster, Amanda Plummer and Diane Lane. The two were juvenile delinquents who rode with the Doolin gang in 1894 in the Oklahoma Territory, stealing cattle and horses, and peddling whiskey when they were 17 and 16, respectively. After the Doolin gang was brought to justice, Marshalls Bill Tilghman and Steve Burke tracked down Cattle Annie and Little Britches. They were sentenced to short jail terms. Anne married and settled down near Pawnee, Okla. Jennie died of consumption in New York. Texas Guinan: Born Mary Louise Cecilia in 1883, the infamous nightclub hostess grew up on the Guinan ranch near Waco, Texas. After studying music in Chicago, she toured as a vaudeville chorus girl. In Hollywood, Texas became the toughest, most self-reliant of the early silent-film cowgirls, appearing in some 200 tworeelers. But by 1921, she’d divorced her third husband, ditched her fifth producer and formed her own film company because producers found her no longer young and pretty enough. Three years later, she was in New York as queen of the speakeasies for gangster Larry Fay. She fueled her boisterous, smart-mouth reputation with her many arrests and her famous greeting, “Hello, sucker.” The Depression and her inability to parlay her notoriety into a major hit on stage or screen led her to keep touring. She died on tour in British Columbia in 1933. (Source: “The Cowgirls” by Joyce Gibson Roach and “Cowgirls” by Candace Savage)