By: Rebecca Lackie
The term cowgirl embodied an emboldened, pioneering spirit.
Ever since her biblical beginning, it was believed by many that the woman was the weaker sex. Eve was smaller, frailer and more easily tempted than Adam – an error that women would not be allowed to forget.
In the 1600s, Shakespeare wrote about the frailty of women in the famous play Hamlet.
“Frailty, thy name is woman,” Shakespeare proclaimed.
He would not be the last to make such a statement. Although the sentiment is not as popular today as it once was, it still holds a place in American society; thus the saying, ‘It’s a man’s world.’
Today, men still earn higher wages than women, and still dominate some of the world’s most prestigious professions, such as the stock market, many areas of the business world and the political world. In those arenas, women are still struggling to find their equality.
However, in spite of men’s dominance in many areas, there are still women throughout history who have been willing to stand in firm opposition to this stereotype. Trailblazers, entrepreneurs, and pioneers, these innovative women found ways to prove that women are anything but frail.
The Emergence of the Cowgirl
The word cowgirl originally emerged in the early 19th century. However, unlike the term cowboy, which defined a man as one who tended cows, herded cattle or worked in rodeos, the term cowgirl embodied an emboldened, pioneering spirit.
That is perhaps, because in those days it was virtually unheard of for a woman to perform the tasks of a cowboy. However, that didn’t stop some women in history from trying their hand at ‘man’s work.’
Some of the earliest examples of cowgirls in history are also the most recognized among American culture. Names like Annie Oakley and Belle Starr were legendary long before their stories made the big screen.
Annie Oakley was a well-known marksman by the age of 16
One of the earliest and most notable cowgirls in history was Annie Oakley, a famous rodeo markswoman who could outshoot virtually any man or woman around. Born in 1860 as Phoebe Anne Oakley Mozee, Annie, as she was called by her family, began her career as a marksman by hunting game at the age of nine. Oakley was able to help support her widowed mother and sisters with her hunting expeditions, and by the age of 16, she became well known as a marksman.
It was then that she went to Cincinnati, Ohio and entered a shooting contest with marksman and vaudeville star Frank Buttler, a match she won by a mere point. Unwittingly, she also won Buttler’s heart and became his bride, although she started as his assistant in his traveling act, which joined up with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885.
Annie Oakley in front of her tent at Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show (left); Annie Oakley circa 1880's (right)
Soon, Oakley out shadowed her husband and became the show’s star attraction for more than 17 years where she performed such feats as shooting the ashes off a cigarette held in the hand of Wilhelm, the Crown Prince of Germany, and shooting a dime in mid air from 90 feet away. Oakley died of pneumonia in 1926, at age 66, but was known as a lady and a fighter, as she broke barriers for women with her skill and class.
Years later, Oakley would be honored in both a musical and feature film entitled, Annie Get Your Gun.
Annie Oakley in 1922, less than 4 years before her death.
Although Annie Oakley became famous for her skill, there were other cowgirls who earned their fame by their scandalous behavior. Belle Starr, born Myra Belle Shirley, was one such woman, and although Starr was pioneering in her own right, the scandal that surrounded her always lent air to rumors of violence and crime, many of which to this day remain unsolved.
Starr, in stark contrast to Oakley, was known for her wild, outlandish behavior. As a teenager during the civil war, Starr was rumored to have worked as a spy for the Confederate Army, telling the confederates the position of Union Soldiers. A childhood friend of outlaw Cole Younger, Starr, herself turned to lawlessness, and eventually married Jim Reed, a member of the infamous Starr Clan.
The infamous Belle Star.
After giving birth to two children, son, Ed and daughter, Pearl, the Reed family fled to Texas after rumors of their involvement in a robbery in the Creek Indian Territory submerged. The pair was accused of stealing over $30,000 in gold coins, but no proof of Starr’s involvement ever surfaced.
While in Dallas, Texas, Starr was said to have spent much of her time in saloons, drinking, gambling, and riding through the streets shooting off her pistols. On many occasion, Starr wore men’s clothing, and was known for her wild reputation, which only furthered the rumors of lawlessness.
After holding up a stagecoach in 1874, Starr’s husband went into hiding, only to be captured in 1875, where he was shot to death while trying to escape deputies.
Starr left Texas, and took up with the Starr clan in Ft. Smith, Ark. where she later married Sam Starr. During that time, Starr earned her infamous reputation by bootlegging, hiding wanted clan members and horse thievery. Starr and her husband, Sam, eventually spent a year in prison in Detroit, Mich., in 1883 for horse thievery, but after their release, the two went back to their old ways until he was finally killed by a rival in 1886.
Starr’s life was filled with rumor and obscurity. However, one of the greatest mysteries was her death. Starr was shot in the back in 1889, while riding home, but the crime was never solved. There were many suspects, including Starr’s lover Jim July, her son Ed, and a neighbor named Edgar Watson.
Although her end was tragic, and her life was criminal, Starr is awed for her audacity, and even admired by some for her tenacity, as she lived the infamous life of an outlaw in an era where many women struggled with fear and helplessness. Still, Starr was one of the early cowgirls who redefined what it meant to be a woman by changing societal expectations of what a woman was capable of.
The Rodeo Girls
Although early cowgirls such as Oakley and Starr are the cowgirls most often remembered because of novels, musicals, and films, there are other noteworthy cowgirls in history, many who have shaped the images of women we have today. Among them are women like mother/daughter rodeo act Tad Lucas and Mitzi Lucas Riley, who proved that stunt riding was more than just for the boys.
For many years, Texas-native Tad Lucas was known as the world’s best rodeo performer. Entitled, “Rodeo’s First Lady,” Lucas collected numerous awards in the rodeo circuit, but became famous as one of the most fearless and imaginative trick riders. The youngest of 24 children, Lucas began her career in 1917 as she began touring with a Fort Worth Wild West Show. Among her successes, Lucas was Champion All-Around Cowgirl and World Champion Woman Trick Rider in Madison Square Garden for eight consecutive years, and was the only woman to ever ride a Brahma Bull in New York’s Time Square.
Lucas’ daughter Mitzi was practically born into the rodeo circuit. Mitzi Lucas Riley learned to ride before she could walk, and made her rodeo debut at age six as she filled in for her mother, who was injured in a riding accident. Known as a fearless performer, Riley performed and invented daring moves, while simultaneously saying no to Hollywood, preferring instead to perform in the rodeo circuit that she called home. Although Riley studied art at Tarleton State University, she only used her training to perfect her costume designs. She later married calf-roper Lanham Riley and the two traveled the rodeo circuit with their two sons until 1954 when Riley retired to be a full-time mother to her school-aged children.
Vera McGinnis (left); Vera McGinnis in front of London's Wembley Stadium in 1924 (right)
Although famous in the rodeo circuits, the Lucas family didn’t corner the market on female riders. Legendary cowgirl Verna McGinnis, born in 1902, began trick riding at the age of 13. McGinnis also contributed to the rodeo’s female wonders. A creative and daring trick rider, bronco and bull rider, and Roman racer, McGinnis perfected such famous moves as ‘the flying change,’ as she leaped from one mount to another in full gallop. Considered an exceptional beauty, McGinnis was an interesting combination of beauty and strength as she outdid many of her male counterparts. McGinnis was an exceptional rider that awed audiences world-wide until in 1934 a terrible riding accident left her near dead and ended her riding career. McGinnis lived until 1990, and in spite of her retirement was never forgotten by her admirers in the rodeo circuit.