Photos: The Marlboro Man has nothing on these pioneering cowgirls
‘Little House on the Prairie’ this is not
The cowboy is an enduring symbol of American grit and determination. A lone horseman riding the range expresses a uniquely individualistic spirit, popularized in movies and TV shows watched the world over. But long before John Wayne and the Marlboro Man, the cowboy ideal was created in traveling spectacles. Some of the biggest stars to break out of the Wild West shows also happened to be women.
Early westward migration was certainly male-dominated, but successive homestead acts encouraged families to settle the plains. It was hard work taming the wilderness, and both boys and girls grew up doing frontier chores. Women weren’t just relegated to starting farms, either. Thrice-widowed Lone Star rancher Margaret Borland made the papers in 1873 when high commodity prices compelled her to drive a thousand Texas longhorns up the Chisholm Trail to the stockyards of Wichita, her three small children in tow.
In 1883, William Cody — Buffalo Bill to the history books — started the first Wild West show. These traveling vaudevillian bonanzas were filled with talented ranch hands, American Indians, and assorted frontier characters showcasing their skills with a gun, in the saddle, and mastering cattle. A rambling, alcoholic, and rapidly declining Calamity Jane spent the last few years of her life trading on her self-made fame. Sharpshooter Annie Oakley was on the opposite trajectory and launched herself into stardom as a Buffalo Bill act. Any farm girl not satisfied with a little house on the prairie would have been mesmerized by the possibilities.
Ranching scion Lucille Mulhall — America’s first cowgirl, according to Teddy Roosevelt — was an early star of the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch shows at the dawn of the 20th century. She worked for her family’s troupe as well as traveling the nascent rodeo circuit as an expert rider and roper, besting her male peers. Teenage runaway Fox Hastings started out as a trick rider for the Irwin Brothers during World War I, then launched a celebrated bulldogging career in 1924. During her best performance, it took her only 17 seconds to drop from her charging horse onto the back of a steer and wrestle it to the ground.
Wild West shows and rodeos opened their doors to anyone who could tackle a steer or stay on the back of a bucking bronco, regardless of race or sex. It was perhaps the first opportunity for women to be professional athletes, and it was a very dangerous sport. Mamie Francis was almost killed multiple times during her horseback high-diving stunts, and Hastings pulled off three days of bulldogging with a broken rib to fulfill a contract. Men proved to be too squeamish to watch women risking life and limb in the pen, and as early as the 1920s rodeos began closing their gates to women competitors.