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Women of the Old West and Rodeo

By Edited Apr 4, 2016 6 20

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

Annie Oakley

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. 



Mar 11, 2011 3:10pm
I really enjoyed reading this article on 'Women of the Old West and Rodeo.' I hope this will become a featured article this month. Thanks for sharing.
Mar 12, 2011 6:40pm
I really enjoyed reading your article, 'Women of the Old West and Rodeo.' I never would have thought that women completed in rodeo. This is a well-written and informative article. I enjoyed it very much; thank you for sharing.
Mar 12, 2011 10:38pm
Wonderful article! I actually watched a rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming back in the 1960s, when I was hired to work on a ranch in Duboise, Wyoming as a babysitter one summer while I was in college. Interestingly, I never thought about the fact that there were no women competing! Perhaps, one day, girls will compete with men again in rodeos, just as they do in Hunter/Jumper riding competitions!
Mar 13, 2011 3:11pm
GREAT, I vote for feature too!!!
Mar 13, 2011 8:33pm
Interesting and well written article. I agree that this would make a wonderful featured article!
Mar 20, 2011 11:54pm
I loved this article as I love all things western. It took a strong determined, special breed of people to make it out west back in the day. The only thing I abhor is the way the Native American Indians were treated -but that was not only in the West. Great article!
Mar 25, 2011 6:41am
congrats.....Finally this article is featured......:)
Mar 25, 2011 8:47am
Thank you for all of the wonderful comments. The Western way of life is dear to me and I am grateful for those who endured so much to build it.
Mar 25, 2011 10:26am
Congratulations! I am glad this is a featured article.
Mar 25, 2011 11:43am
Great to read about someone's lifestyle when the author lives and feels the work. Excellent job, well done and well deserved feature!! Thumbs up all the way.
Mar 25, 2011 12:22pm
I'm glad your article became a Featured Article --- it's that great! Congrats!
Mar 25, 2011 4:06pm
Congratulations on this Featured Article, westernmom!!
Mar 25, 2011 7:56pm
Really well written article. I enjoyed it tremendously. I love the old west era! Comparitively we have it so much easier these days. I'm glad this article is a featured article. Congrats.
Mar 25, 2011 8:27pm
You guys are wonderful. Thank you!
Mar 26, 2011 10:20am
This certainly is an interesting article. Congrats on making the Featured Article. It is well deserved.
Mar 29, 2011 7:38pm
Congratz on the feature, and this is a very well written fun article to read! I love the women of the old west...
Apr 3, 2011 11:12am
Great article. :) My great grandmother was a woman just like you described. She used to ride out with the men on cattle drives and cook for them, leaving my grandmother at home to cook and clean for her brothers. I'm fascinated by what these women did in their lifetimes.
Apr 7, 2011 4:26pm
I love too the women in the old west... You are talented - it was a very pleasant lecture. I love riding a horse and have great plans to buy a black horse soon! It it thousand times better than driving a car!!!! -:) what an approximation
Thumbs up!
Apr 8, 2011 10:21am
I love history and this was a very informative article. I learned a lot!
Aug 25, 2012 10:40am
I absolutely love this article--it is historically informative and just plain good reading. As an enthsuast of the pioneering woman I am well aware of their hardships but also their determination and daring. Greatr article two big thumbs up for U
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