When we think of the Old West, images of cowboys gun fighting, horse riding, and gambling might come to mind. We also think of them on cattle drives, ranches, saloons, dusty roads, and homesteads. But what about the cowgirls? Where did women fit into this way of life?
As women made their way out West, they carried with them the Victorian gender roles of the times. Yet life demanded more, paving the way for women to adapt to their new environment and take on more traditionally masculine jobs. In short, the West gave us a new kind of woman.
From the Inside, Out
Women still managed the house, reared the children, and cooked the food for everyone. This responsibility to maintain the inside happenings of the home did not change after moving from East to West.
However, with the move came the need for women to add to their responsibilities and move outside of the home, assisting her husband and children with whatever work was required. A woman who lived on the frontier needed to be quick and clever, coming up with ways to overcome harsh living conditions.
As generations passed, women became just as skilled as their male counterparts in shooting, roping, riding—developing what we today know as Cowboy Culture.
Cowboy Culture Defined
The term cowboy developed in the late 1700s and early 1800s. A cowboy was anyone who worked on a ranch herding cattle. In essence, they were stockmen, keeping track of a ranch owner’s inventory.
As time went on, the profession became synonymous with specific cultural traits:
- Cowboy boots, chaps, and hats
- Horse riding
- Specific food
- Specific lingo/dialect
- Hard work ethic
There were also character traits such as a cowboy’s work ethic and rules on how and when to shoot. For example, never shoot someone in the back.
Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane are two women who quickly come to mind when we talk about cowgirls. Hollywood has even made movies about these two greats. However, there were more women who embraced this new culture than people realize, and they were more than rodeo or show performers.
One famous name that comes to mind is Ellen Watson, also known as Cattle Kate, who over the years has become somewhat of a folk hero. Accused of stealing cattle, Ellen Watson was ultimately lynched. Her life shows that cowboy culture wasn’t so much about gender than it was about upholding certain traditions and understandings. The work was difficult and physically taxing, but most of all, it was also dangerous.
Women understood this danger and continued alongside their male counterparts to develop a way of life that epitomizes American history. Some, like Bonnie McCaroll and Fox Hastings, were famous bronco riders and bull doggers. Others were more infamous like “Poker” Alice Ivers who was a gambler.
Whatever their profession, these cowgirls shaped more than a culture. They demonstrated that despite social traditions, women could participate in occupations outside of the home—an influence which continues today.
The modern cowgirl has evolved into more than a woman who likes to participate in adventurous activities associated with frontier life. Today, a cowgirl represents and honors the ideas her great pioneer sisters worked hard to enjoy.
Modern cowgirls are women of the world. They paint; they participate in government; they are successful business women; they are mothers. They love a variety of activities. They enter rodeos. They win.
She, like the women of yesterday, values freedom, loves her family, and appreciates a culture developed over time. Her culture. Because she is a pioneer, continuing the legacy begun centuries ago.