As children, we often impersonate heroes. For many of us of the 1950s-60s generation, that probably included cowboys and Indians, or, possibly, cowgirls. Although not raised on a ranch, I loved Annie Oakley and I recall my very special Annie Oakley outfit that I got one year—and that I ruined when I foolishly ate a big ripe olive off of our olive tree (not knowing that they are bitter and contain a black bitter juice that STAINS!).
Unbelievably, while checking on ebay for one like it, I found it, the
exact outfit--going for $225! Surely my parents didn't pay more than
a few dollars for it...
No one in my family thought it out of character when I actually married my fourth-generation cowboy rancher fourteen years later. In short order I became a rancher’s wife and cattlewoman. I still work with my husband as often as I can, I ride (even tried my hand at barrel racing for fun, but mostly help work/move cows or ride in the mountains), I wear jeans and boots and have even taken up training my own horse, along with writing and teaching school, raising children (and chickens, too, over the years), raising a large garden, and cooking for "the guys" almost daily. I have become a ranching woman in the last 44 years, and nothing could pry me away from my life here in this rugged mountain valley. But, though I would love to call myself a cowgirl, the label has to be reserved for the most dashing of Western women, the real cowgirls.
I live around many of them—some who have ranched independently their entire lives—women, like Jessie, who, at 92, still spends all day outside with her cows, or Nancy—who took over the family ranch as a young woman and has remained at the helm for more than 25 years. Nothing deters these often quiet but resolute women.
But cowgirls have been with us for generations, and a number of women have held registered brands in Texas since the late 1700s. In 1795, a list of ranchers “legitimately engaged in the business of raising cattle,” included ten women. According to records, these ten held title “to more than one if five of the early cattle spreads.”
One Spanish Doña, Doña Rosa Hinojosa de Ballí, inherited 55,000 acres of land in in 1790. She raised cattle, horses, sheep and goats and grew her ranch to over one million acres. Another, Doña Maria del Carmen Calvillo, inherited her ranch in 1814, and was said “to have cut a fine figure as she flew across her lands on her white stallion!” Moreover, she was “a superb rider and markswoman...noted for her flowing black hair, her scandalous male attire and her financial success.”
Other early cattlewomen included pioneer women like Ann Burke who emigrated from Ireland with her husband to ranch in Texas. Sadly, her husband died on the voyage, but Ann—who delivered her first child one hour after landing on the Texas coast—went forward with their dream, raising cattle and horses on their large land grant.
Mary Ann "Molly" Goodnight, married to Charles, helped establish the famous JA Ranch and rode the trail to Dodge City twice. Molly also owned her own herds, in addition to those she co-owned with her husband. She became known as the Mother of the Panhandle.
Interestingly, it was the western frontier that first established the rights of married women to own land or earn their own income. In 1849 in California, lawmakers hoped that by improving property laws, they could attract more women to the rough and tumble mining regions. Of course, along with improved property laws, there followed fairly “loose” divorce laws so that a number of women—after arriving as brides—divorced and went on to become their own bosses and entrepreneurs. In Helena, Montana, in the 1860s -70s, it is said that for every three marriages granted, there was one divorce.
The lure of owning land, therefore, was ample reason for many women to travel west and take up homesteads or acquire land grants, even to the chagrin of many men who thought the Homestead Act far "too equitable!" Across the Midwest, single, divorced, even married women pursued their dream for owning and working their own land. Without being "feminists," they established a reputation as competent and respected landowners.
Throughout the West, cattlewomen and cowgirls continued to take up the rope and saddle. Most were girls raised on the family ranches who often inherited their holdings. Between 1875 and 1900, in fact, approximately 250,000 ran their own farms and ranches while millions worked alongside husbands or fathers on their multigenerational spreads. Even Buffalo Bill Cody wrote, in 1899: “What we want to do is give our women even more liberty than they have. Let them do any kind of work that they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them the same pay.”
Annie Oakley, the cowgirl star of the Old West, who actually appeared as “ladylike” off the stage—and never as a floozy—nevertheless, embodied the first national image of the sharp-shooting cowgirl.
Her skills of marksmanship rivaled any man's, and she was revered during her day and seen as a western icon; that image was not mythological or contrived, even if it was staged. Her fame brought recognition to what many western women were capable of.
Cowgirls also became part of the rodeo circuit. Daredevil cowgirls, like Vera McGinnis, rode standing on her horse, at a hard gallop in a race called The Drunken Ride, at the Pendleton Roundup in Oregon. Kitty Canutt became the "Champion Lady rider of the World" on a horse called "Winermucca" in Rawling, WY, in 1919. There were even female rodeo bulldoggers. About Fox Hastings--born Eloise Fox-- who ran away from home at age 14 to ride bucking stock, it was written (in 1929): "To the rodeo crowd she is Fox Hastings, cowgirl extraordinary. To neighbors, she is Mrs. Mike Hastings, a good cook and tidy housekeeper."
As writers of the western tradition, we should be sure and not reduce the cowgirl to myth. Complex and multifaceted, they were women of unique qualities and character. And for urban readers, it's important to recognize that though these historical figures are legendary, the cowgirl is as real today as she was 150 years ago; she is a powerful and important part of our Western cultural inheritance.
She has also coauthored five nonfiction regional histories and has contributed to a number of anthologies, including ANKLE HIGH AND KNEE DEEP (GlobePequot/Two Dot), also Prairie Rose's LASSOING A BRIDE, PRESENT FOR A COWBOY, and COWBOY KISSES. She writes for NPR/JPR's historical series and for JEFFERSON BACKROADS, a monthly regional publication. She is also a co-partner in the family's "all female" online business, JENNER FAMILY BEEF.
As a ranching wife, Gail is an active CattleWoman and works hard to share a better understanding of life on a ranch. She has presented at various conferences on issues and challenges faced by agriculturalists in this modern world. Most of all, she loves the life that she shares with her cowboy husband, her children, and her grandchildren--who now represent the 6th generation on this family-owned operation. She and her husband live in the original family homestead, a house built c. 1870.......And she's still bemoaning the loss of her Annie Oakley outfit!