Cowgirls made great strides for equality with men through the 1920s. Pictures from the early 1900s show female competitors, such as Lucille Mulhall, roping and tying a steer in voluminous ankle-length skirts. This socially-acceptable attire, constantly in the way, impeded their riding and was extremely dangerous. The long skirts gave way to divided skirts. Rose Henderson, early on, defied
social standards with her flashy bloomer costumes, and Vera McGinnis scandalized the public by wearing pants in 1927.
Life in rodeo was not all glamour. It was hard, dirty work. Like my grandmother, many women riders were small, weighing maybe 110 pounds or less. But they had to lift their own 20-pound saddles, (especially the relay riders who changed saddles during a race), and care for their own horses. These petite women pitted themselves against a half-ton of raging muscle and bone when they rode or wrestled steers.
In 1929 Bonnie McCarrol was killed riding a bucking horse at the Pendleton Round-Up. Rodeo officials then banned cowgirl bronc riding in Pendleton, and set the stage for the decline of women’s rodeo participation. That same year, the Rodeo Association of America (RAA) was formed to standardize contest rules, but it did not sanction women’s bronc riding.
In 1933 Marie Gibson was killed in a collision between her bronc, which she had successfully ridden, and the pickup man’s horse. Margie Wright also lost her life in the arena when her horse fell over backward and she fractured her head on a fence. Reva Gray was killed during a relay race horse-change in Cheyenne in 1938.
As a result, cowgirl bronc riding became increasingly rare in the West, leaving only relay racing open to women competitors. For several years after, the female bronc and trick riders congregated in the East. But women’s rodeo gradually eroded nationwide for several reasons:
- Small, local rodeos were no longer financially lucrative and livestock was in short supply in the 1930s, leading to the demise of the Wild West shows.
- Men held the central control of the sport.
- Many well-known women rodeo stars retired.
- World War II, with tire and gas rationing, did not allow travel as in the past.
From the mid-1930s until the late 1940s, cowgirls became mere props in rodeo, “glamour girls” whose beauty and attire were emphasized instead of athletic skill. In 1948, 38 women formed the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA) to give women an opportunity to compete in calf roping, barrel racing, and trick riding. In 1968, barrel racing finals were finally included in the men’s Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) National Finals.
In 1981 GRA changed its name to Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) and today has more than 2,000 members. It sanctions 800 barrel races a year in conjunction with men’s PRCA rodeos. But women still do not compete with men.
As an entity of its own, Professional Women’s Rodeo Association (PWRA) puts on events in women-only rodeos that include bareback riding, breakaway and tie-down calf roping, bull riding, and team roping.
Rene Mikes, a corporate accountant from Denver and a bull rider, says, “It’s not a guy sport anymore.”
Lisa Stipp, a Las Vegas electrician and 1998 bull riding world Champion, puts it this way: “You feel so alive out there. I just love riding bulls-it’s my passion in life.”
However, women still are not on equal footing with men, in competition or in earnings. Highly paid performers, such as Tad Lucas, earned as much as $12,000 a year during the depression.
Barrel racing seems to bring in the most earnings today, but while World Champion Barrel Racer Sherry Cervi made history in 1999 by winning $245,369, and Brittany Pozzi-Pharr of Victoria won a total of $132,243 in 2007, many women riders earn $8,000 a year or less. The 2003 PWRA Women’s National Finals Bull Riding Champion, Mandy Shipskey, earned $1,411, while her male counterpart, Chris Shrivers, made history, winning $1 million at the men’s Professional Bull Riding Finals.
Leigh Ann Billingsley, 2006 WPRA World Champion All Around Cowgirl and Breakaway Roper, won a total of $11,132.94 in a combination of events-breakaway, tiedown, heeling and barrel racing last year. Debbie Robbins walked away with her first World title in 2007 and collected $4,800.
In her book Cowgirls of the Rodeo, Mary Lou LeCompte writes, “Cowgirls have overcome many obstacles in their efforts to succeed as professional athletes. They earn more money now than ever in the history of the sport. Yet they’ve lost the one thing that made them exceptional among all female athletes-the ability to compete as equals with men.”
That’s the difference between rodeo then and now.