I can do anything you can do better. I can do anything better than you!

Annie OakleyCredit: kevinking.com

Annie Get Your Gun hit the stage shortly after World War II and the spunky Old West character won the hearts of Americans in film, in a variety of plays, and in a TV series to follow.  Annie Oakley was a woman that many young girls growing up in the 1950’s dreamed of being!  Women had played an important role during the war and had found a new independence while keeping the home fires burning and this woman seemed to emulate how they felt about themselves.

In film, Annie Oakley was portrayed as a lovable gun toting, hardheaded woman who could out shoot, out ride and out talk most men.  She was a rough and tough character but we all could see she really was a diamond-in-the-rough that blossomed when faced with romantic love.

However, the real Annie Oakley wasn’t quite the woman they portrayed in the movies. She actually always wore skirts and acted like a lady at all times.  She did like to dress up as an Indian Princess on occasion but was not the unkempt, rough and tumble woman she was shown to be in the movies.

Many people get her mixed up with Calamity Jane, who really was a harsh and tough woman that always wore men’s clothing and posed with her gun.  She didn’t feel the need to curl her hair or “paint” her face, and wasn’t worried about displaying her femininity.  The Broadway Annie Oakley really was a combination of the historical figures of Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane. 

The women of the early Old West were often a combination of these well-known figures. Their day began long before dawn with milking the cow, gathering eggs, carrying in water, chopping wood, and starting a batch of bread, all before the sun came up!

They were expected to be the sole caretakers of the children as the men of the family were expected to be the providers and tended to be stern authority figures.  Not only did they have all of the duties in raising and caring for the kids they usually were also responsible for their education as schools were few and far between. 

Cooking was done on wood burning stoves or in fireplaces, which required a strong woman that could wield an ax with a heavy touch.  It took a homemaking genius to produce golden baked loaves of bread under these conditions.  There were no microwaves, packaged foods or freezers.  Everything was raised in a garden, which she tended in her spare time, after she had milked the cow and carried water in from the creek or well. 

Laundry was done on scrub boards, after carrying in the water, heating it on a stove, and even making the soap that was used.  Clothes were hung out to dry on clotheslines if she was lucky, but usually ended hanging on bushes or corral fences.

We talk today about women being the "chief cook and bottle washer" at home and how busy and hard we have it.  The pioneer women living in the Old West would laugh at our easy lives with washers, dryers, dishwashers, and all of the other electric appliances that make our lives easier. 

The women of the Old West were the doctors and nurses not only to their own family but also to the neighbors.  They served as mid-wives to their friends and even tended and doctored their animals.

Knowing how to fix fences, plow the fields, and ride a wild horse was also part of their lives.  Believe it or not, many of these early pioneer women became tough competitors at riding broncs and tying steers weighing a 1000 pounds! 

They became as much the stars of the rodeo as men in the early years of rodeo.  Bertha Kapernik was the first woman to ride broncs back in 1904.  She first rode at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo.  When the weather became bad, the cowboys decided they would stop the bronc riding competition but Bertha went onto ride her bronc, even in the rain.  This shamed the cowboys and they had little choice but to continue with their competition despite the muddy arena conditions.  A couple of years later, Cheyenne added cowgirl bronc riding and a relay race contest to their program.

In the early days of rodeo the women’s times and scores were often just as competitive as the men’s.  This really didn’t set well with many cowboys!  At one rodeo, Bertha came within just a few points of winning the prestigious all-around title. 

Prairie Rose Henderson was the first woman to ride a saddle bronc in a rodeo competition, and finished just a couple of points behind the winning cowboy.  Mabel Strickland, who became known as one of the best women bronc riders in the 1920’s. also roped steers.  Steer roping by women was begun by Lucille Mulhall.  At one rodeo, Strickland roped and tied her steer I eighteen seconds, which was a time that only a few cowboys could match during those early years of rodeo.

Women were a major part of the rodeo scene until the 1930s.  The death of a bronc rider named Bonny McCarroll, as well as other rodeo-related deaths and injuries suffered by women in the arena, caused many of the early rodeos to put an end to women competing in roughstock riding events.  Even though women now compete in rodeo, it is unlikely that women will ever receive the recognition they enjoyed by the pioneer cowgirls.

The 1920s was a tough time for many Western ranches.  It is estimated that close to half of all of the ranches in the Western States were lost to foreclosure in the first half of the decade.  Bankruptcy was a common thing for many ranches during those years.  The wheat and cattle prices led to a major agricultural decline.  As the Western ranches were left behind, many pioneer women found themselves migrating to rural towns and leaving a way of life that demanded much but gave even more.

Yes, the women of the Old West were rough and tough but they were beautiful, spirited, accomplished, and made bigger footprints than the modern woman of today could even hope to fill.