Women’s History Month: The Strong, Independent Women in My Life

I have a great legacy of history from my grandmother and my mother.

My grandmother was a true cowgirl. She was not famous like Alice and Margie Greenough, Prairie Rose Henderson or Bonnie McCarroll, but she did ride steers in rodeos in the 1920s and ’30s, and she was an avid horsewoman. I like to say that I believe she was more at home on the back of a horse than behind a dustmop. Her life was hard, enduring the social stigma of rodeo cowgirls, who were considered “loose women” because they dressed like men and traveled around the country with men, competing with men. She and her family also endured the drought and Great Depression of the 1930s, at one point trailing their herd of horses from Northern Montana to Salmon Idaho, looking for grass to feed them.

I admire her “cowgirl attitude” (to do the hard thing, the right thing and not whine about it) and it is something I’ve tried to live by.

My mother was not a cowgirl, but she knew how to “cowgirl up.” She was a courageous woman who came to the “wilds” of eastern Montana from Germany after World War II to find a better life. She was a nurse and my dad met her while serving in the Army as part of the American Occupation in Germany. When he returned to the States, he wrote and asked her to come to Montana and marry him. She said yes, and then it took two years before she could wade through all the red tape and paperwork to get here. I’ve often thought about how difficult it must have been to immigrate to a new country, learn a new language, new customs, come from an urban setting to an extremely isolated rural area, where people still considered Germans “the enemy,” and where she knew no one except a man she hadn’t see for two years!

I’ve had two novels published based on my grandmother’s life: Cowgirl Dreams and Follow the Dream, and I am working on a third. The fourth book in the series will chronicle my mother’s courageous journey.

I don’t feel like I’ve had to draw on the same well of courage that my grandmother and mother did, and I can only hope that I’m leaving something of note for my nieces and nephews.

Autographed copies of Cowgirl Dreams and Follow the Dream are available from my website http://www.heidimthomas.com They are also available from my publisher, Treble Heart Books http://www.trebleheartbooks.com/SDHeidiThomas.html as hard copy books and e-books. Follow the Dream is available on Kindle.

My blog is https://heidiwriter.wordpress.com

Cowgirls Don’t Cry

by Heidi M. Thomas

As the popular country song says, Cowgirls don’t cry. Even when they’re bucked off a nearly-half ton of fanniel-sperry-steele1angry muscle and bone–a wild steer, a bull or a bronc.

As I researched my novel, Cowgirl Dreams, based on my grandmother in the 1920s, I found a theme of courage as well as competitiveness. I’m in awe that someone as petite as Grandma (5-feet, 2 inches and 102 pounds) would even consider pitting her strength and skill against such a large animal whose goal is not only to get that foreign weight off its back, but also (in the case of a steer or especially a bull) try to stomp on the rider once she’s down.

But she wasn’t the only one. Most cowgirls of that era were not of average height. Annie Oakley and Lucille Mulhall (first to be dubbed “Cowgirl” by Teddy Roosevelt) were just five feet. Other top riders, Mable Strickland,Tad Lucas, Fox Hastings and Ruth Roach were about 5-feet, 3 inches, and Florence Hughes Randolph was only 4-feet, 6 inches.

And those intrepid Cowgirls rode with injuries–taped ribs, casts, bruises–just like their male counterparts.

Fox Hastings who began rodeoing about 1916, was once thrown from her horse and then it fell on her–twice. Her neck appeared to witnesses so twisted they feared it was broken. She was carried from the arena. But about 15 minutes later, she rode back to the judges stand in an open car and asked for a re-ride. She got it, rode to the end, and dismounted on her own. Only when out of sight of the crowd did she collapse.

Tad Lucas was one of the most famous trick riders. At the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, when going under her horse’s belly, Tad slipped. She hung there, her horse kicking her with every step as he kept galloping around the arena. Finally she was able to roll free, ending up with a badly broken arm. At first the doctors wanted to amputate. She said, “Absolutely not.” They told her she’d never ride again. Within a year, she proved them wrong, riding with her arm in a cast.

bonnie-mccarroll-thrown-from-silver-1915-fsdm2_md1Marie Gibson, a Montana cowgirl with whom my grandmother competed, went to London with Tex Austin’s troupe in 1924. The first week out, she dislocated her knee, had it wrapped and came back later for trick riding. But when she stepped off the horse, she felt it go again. The doctor reset it, and told Marie to lay off. She did-for two days,then rode again. Marie had to have help saddling and mounting and had to be carried from the stadium, but she kept coming back.

Marie was killed in a freak accident in 1934 when a pickup man’s horse collided with hers. Several other cowgirls met their end at rodeos, including Bonnie McCarroll at the 1929 Pendleton Rodeo. But nothing would  stop the cowgirls’ dreams. They had to compete, to feel the exhilaration of the ride, and the thrill of winning.

That’s why cowgirls don’t cry. At least until they’re alone.

©Heidi M. Thomas 2008

Published in: on November 21, 2008 at 4:01 am  Comments (2)  
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