Monday, November 18, 2013

Mad About the (Cow)Girls

It’s holiday crafts fair time here in the Rockies, when all the local artisans turn up every weekend at one venue or another, hoping to sell you something for Christmas. One weekend we found ourselves in a high school gym, looking at all the various tchotchkes we could buy but probably wouldn’t. Except for one booth. There the artist had taken several old time photographs and used them for coasters and the covers of wooden boxes. I probably wouldn’t have been so intrigued if it hadn’t been for the subjects of the photographs. Cowgirls. They were all cowgirls.

I admit it upfront: I have a thing about cowgirls, but maybe I should define what I’m talking about. Cowgirls did and do a lot more than herd cattle (although they did that too on occasion). Sometimes they lived on ranches and worked the livestock along with raising kids and keeping the ranch house in some kind of order (Lyle Lovett has a beautiful song about this called “Bosque County Romance”). They were also outlaws (Belle Starr), rodeo riders (Bonnie McCarroll and Kitty Canutt), sheriffs (Margo Frasier), and just about every other western role you can think of. In other words they were tough western women who didn’t take any crap, although occasionally they had to put up with crap that was pushed on them by others.

The rodeo riders are a case in point. Originally women did most of the same events men did in the rodeo, and there are lots of pictures of riders like Kitty Canutt going hell for leather on their bucking broncos. Then Bonnie McCarroll was killed in a bad fall (that’s Bonne in the picture at the top, although that’s not the fall that killed her). The male rodeo riders, who were apparently annoyed at being beaten by women, demanded that women be banned from most events since they were too “fragile” to compete. The picture of Kitty Canutt above should demonstrate that idea was horse pucky, but the rules were passed and ever since then women have been limited to “safe” events. Cowboys occasionally seem to find cowgirls a mite threatening.

But lots of other people find cowgirls fascinating. There are lots of pictures, historical and contemporary, available for viewing. I’m not the only one who has a cowgirl Pinterest board. Ft. Worth has an entire museum devoted to these women, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in town. You’ll find exhibits there about the women rodeo riders along with cowgirl country singers like Emmylou Harris and cowgirl actresses like Gail Davis (who played Annie Oakley on TV). But they also have pictures and stories of ranch women and pioneer homesteaders, the original cowgirls whose names have been lost to history. My favorite coffee mug has their motto: “My heroes have always been cowboys cowgirls”.

And here’s the thing—you don’t have to be a westerner to be a cowgirl. You don’t even have to own a horse. All you need is the cowgirl attitude: the belief that if something needs doing, you’ll do it because you can. That you’re strong enough and brave enough to get something done, whatever it may be.

Cowgirls, God bless ’em.

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