Women in the American West – History of the Rodeo Cowgirl

silhouettes of cowgirls with guns

The history of the rodeo cowgirl involves a long line of strong pioneering women in the American West. Since the early twentieth century, women had to learn to ride and rope in order to help their fathers, brothers, and husbands with the ranch chores and daily work. The American cowgirl did everything that a man can do with one exception, it was done while wearing a skirt and at times with a baby waiting behind the chutes. At Sheplers, our online western-wear store, we are highlighting the incredible women in the American West by sharing the history of the rodeo cowgirl and how far they have come since the very beginning. 


Rodeo Cowgirl Late 1890s-1910s

Most women were likely found at home in the traditional roles of wife and mother, taking care of the household and the children. The strong women in the American West adopted a separate set of skills, however, learning how to rope and ride broncos. During this time there was a wide variety of Wild West Shows that featured women doing the same tasks and roles as their fathers, husbands, and brothers. 


Lucile Mulhall was the first American cowgirl and inspirational icon for women in the western community. Mulhall hosted her own Wild West Show, which inspired women all over to follow in her footsteps. By 1910 Bertha Blancett became the first woman to ride a bronc and pursue a career in a man’s world. Her willpower led her to compete in front of audiences and set record-breaking wins for females in rodeo. Bertha Kaepernik Blancett has been inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, breaking beyond the boundaries for women at the time, changing the route for cowgirl riding and women in rodeo overall. 


Rodeo Cowgirls in the 1920s-Early 1950s 

Women in the American West did not stop there; rodeo cowgirls began surfacing. In the early 1920s, American cowgirl Mabel Strickland won steer-roping titles, setting a record for women in both Cheyenne and Pendleton. 


As people, namely urban spectators, started feeling uncomfortable with women competing alongside men, women were being excluded from rodeo main events. The achievements and success of the rodeo cowgirl came to a halt as ranch girls started replacing the rodeo cowgirls. A ranch girl was considered the predecessor to rodeo queens, creating a new role for women in American West. 


Gene Autry’s Flying A Rodeo Company joined the rodeo scene, taking over a number of rodeo shows and relegating women performers to ranch or sponsor girls alongside the singing cowboys. He allowed women in the American West to continue performing in pageant and horsemanship events. 


In response, 38 cowgirls in San Angelo, Texas, representing female ropers, women bronco riders, and female barrel racers created the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA) in 1948. The GRA approved 60 contests and had a grand total payout of $29,000 that same year. 


1955 was a significant year in the history of the rodeo cowgirl. The Girls Rodeo Association president Jackie Worthington signed an agreement with the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA) mandating that women’s rodeo events at RCA be GRA-sanctioned moving forward. 


Rodeo Cowgirls in the 1960s-1990s

Rodeo cowgirls started reclaiming their roles in the sport, even adopting barrel racing competitions. In 1967, Martha and her husband R.E. founded a barrel racing school that cultivated a more refined level of horsemanship within the community. Due to the youth in the community as well as high school rodeo clubs and the creation of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA), women roping events became more popular. As the number of bronc riding women declined, women began entering team roping and breakaway roping competitions 


Present Day Rodeo Cowgirls 

Rodeo cowgirls these days are earning championships and breaking records all over the American Wild West, competing in barrel races, breakaway roping, heading, healing, and tie-down roping. Cowgirl history continues to flourish as women continue to become rodeo cowgirls, although few allow women to compete side by side with men. Currently, the PRCA allows women to compete with men during rodeos and rodeo cowgirls have been included in some of the best rodeos in the USA.


Western Wear Store for the American Rodeo Cowgirl

At Sheplers, we have everything a woman needs to look her best in a rodeo cowgirl getup. We have a beautiful women’s western wear collection that is stocked with everything an American cowgirl could ever dream of wearing. 


Consider Sheplers your one-stop shop for all your women’s western wear needs including some of the best cowboy boots and women’s fringe handbags.


Additional Reading: 

How to Style Women’s Western Belts

Tips for Styling Turquoise Jewelry

What to Wear on a Western Date: Cowgirl Edition 

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