The concept of the cowgirl didn’t really exist until the late nineteenth century. However women had been stepping into men’s shoes and performing aspects of their work ever since ranching began. This was especially the case when men went to war or on long cattle drives and the family-owned ranch was of a size that couldn’t afford to hire in outside labour.
There is a museum dedicated to the cowgirl in Fort Worth – The Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. Its collection covers the mid-nineteenth century onward to the present day, and features objects, images, books and documents connected with female pioneers, ranchers and performers. This in itself attests to the importance of the cowgirl, as also do the photographs of Evelyn Cameron. Her work, which only became famous after her death, documented the working lives of ranch women and cowgirls in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
It was above all performers in Wild West Shows who were responsible for bringing the skills of girls and women into public view. Annie Oakley was one of the first and most famous of these with her sharpshooting, but there were also those like May Lillie who performed on horseback and revelled in the role.
At this time women wore men’s trousers or alternatively bloomers for riding astride horses, and some sectors of the Victorian public were scandalised. Split skirts, which were considered a great deal more proper, weren’t introduced until around 1900. Using a sidesaddle continued, however, to be the genteel feminine way to sit on a horse.
Women became more and more accepted in rodeo shows. Sometimes they competed just against other women, and sometimes against men. But any accident or, God forbid, mortality occurring to a woman was a great deal harder for the public to accept than when the same thing happened to a man. When Bonnie McCarroll was killed in a rodeo in 1929, the response was to eliminate women’s bronc riding from rodeos.
Shows apart, cowgirls generally speaking are serious individuals who have either grown up to a life in the saddle, or come to it by choice. They wear tight-fitting jeans, heeled boots, chaps and Western hats not in order to improve their sex-appeal, but because such things are practical attire for the work that they do. They love the great outdoors and enjoy different kinds of weather. They work long hours, and they push themselves to their limits by trying not to refuse any tasks however heavy. They develop all relevant skills, striving to perfect their roping by arduous practice. They take care of their horses, and they minimise the stress to their bovine charges. The fashionable cowgirl image has an economic life of its own, but a real cowgirl would be one of the first to reject it.