By Heidi M. Thomas

“…Rearing, bucking, fighting, a frenzied bronco tears at the burden on its back. Claimed by a thousand devils, he kicks and plunges with the fury of the damned. The rider, a woman, is buffeted and tossed like dust in a storm…”

While we are not likely to see this scenario at rodeos these days, it was not uncommon in the 1920s and ’30s for women to compete in the same rodeo arenas and draw from the same rough stock as the men.

The first cowgirls learned to ride out of necessity to help on their family ranches. At an early age they learned to ride horses, rope cattle, and stay in the saddle atop an untamed bucking bronc.

The 1920s are known as the “heyday” of women’s rodeo, producing more world champion female riders than any time since. These cowgirls were products of working-ranch values, where athleticism, skill, competitiveness, and grit were acceptable traits in women.

Some cowboys were skeptical of women rodeo riders, and society in general branded them “loose women.” It was claimed that women who participated in such a rough sport would not be able to bear children.

World Champion bronc rider Margie Greenough Henson proved that adage wrong when she brought her months-old son along to rodeos, cradled on a pillow in an apple box. When it was her turn to ride, she turned to the nearest cowboy, asking him to hold the baby “for just a few seconds.”

These cowgirls were also criticized for the practical, comfortable clothing they adopted—first, divided skirts and then pants.

Well-known British-born photographer Evelyn Cameron found out what could happen when she wore a split skirt she’d designed and sewed. Going about her shopping in a rural Montana town, she was accosted by a group of angry townswomen, along with the sheriff, who threated to throw her in jail unless she got out of town immediately.

But these cowgirls proved themselves capable of surviving the rough life of rodeo, while still hanging on to their femininity, and they became accomplished athletes well ahead of the athletic and feminist movement of the 1970s.

Arizona has its share of women inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Ft. Worth, Texas. The most well-known name is Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court judge, who grew up on the Lazy B Ranch near Duncan, AZ. Other old-time rodeo cowgirls are Eloise “Fox” Hastings, a bronc and trick rider and one of the few female bulldoggers of the early 1900s; Dorothy Satterfield, a trick rider from the 1940s; Nancy Sheppard, trick rider and roper whose career spanned from 1939 to 1961, and Louise Serpa, the first woman sanctioned by the Rodeo Cowboys Association to photograph rodeo action inside the arena.

Rodeo cowgirls pursued their dream nationally and internationally until the 1940s. Madison Square Garden Rodeo in 1941 was the last time a woman (Vivian White) was able to compete on rough stock in a sanctioned rodeo.

It has only been the past 15 years that a woman, Kaila Mussel of BC, Canada, has qualified to compete with men, riding saddle broncs, on the PRCA circuit.

    

Cowgirl is a state of mind, to paraphrase Dale Evans, who goes on to say, “Cowgirl is a pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses. Cowgirls take stands. They speak up. They defend the things they hold dear. A cowgirl might be a rancher, or a barrel racer, or a bull rider, or an actress. But she's just as likely to be a checker at the local Winn Dixie, a full-time mother, a banker, an attorney, or an astronaut.”

About the author: Heidi M. Thomas of Chino Valley is the author of Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women, and the “Cowgirl Dreams” novel trilogy, based on her grandmother, who was a roughstock rodeo rider in Montana during the 1920s. http://www.heidimthomas.com

Heidi Thomas will be at Sharlot Hall Museum on Saturday, July 15 to present more tales of early cowgirl life. Admission is free, so come early to be sure of a seat in the West Gallery of the Lawler Building at 2 pm sharp!

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlothallmuseum.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.