Remembering the American cowgirl

Posted on November 12, 2012

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They were tough.

They were trailblazers, trend-breakers, precedent-setters.

And many of their stories have been forgotten.

Evelyn Cameron moved to Montana with her husband in 1899.  A proper Englishwoman from London, she wore full, billowing skirts that frightened every horse she approached.  Not about to be stopped by something so frivolous, Ms. Cameron sent away to Chicago for a $100 wide-legged split skirt.

“So great at first was the prejudice against any divided garment in Montana that a warning was given me to abstain from riding on the streets of Miles City lest I might be arrested,” she wrote in her diary, quoted in a recent article in The Hi-Desert Star.

Ms. Cameron was one of the many examples cited in a speech last Thursday by speaker Lynn Richardson at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum in Yucca Valley, California.  She spoke about how the cowgirls in the early days of the Old West broke the norm of their time and opened new doors for women across the country.  The Hi-Desert Star published an article summarizing her talk and the lives of many of the women that she highlighted.

“It took some brash women to break the rules and take the heat for it,” she said, as quoted in the article. “These women were on the fringes of society, for which we really have to thank them.”

Yet I wonder, how many of women lived similar lives of courage in the early decades of the century, when parts of the West were still wild and ranching was still a dangerous occupation, and yet we know nothing about them? How much of our history has been lost to time and neglect?

I recently interviewed a woman in her eighties named Billie Drewry.  An old-time Northern California cowgirl, she was riding horses and working by her husband’s side on local ranches through her seventies, until a horseback riding accident slowed her down.  But she said riding horses had always been her passion.

“I love to ride horseback,” she told me. “My mother used to say, ‘If Billie could do the dishes horseback she’d do them more willingly.'”

Ms. Drewry told me story after story about her community and lifestyle.  Listening to her was a privilege, yet it was sobering to think of the number of lives that would never be written down.  Ms. Richardson highlighted several ranching women in her speech.  But how many stories are unknown simply because no one took the time to hear them, to write them down, to preserve them for the next generation?  How many pieces of our national legacy do we lose every day? It seems to me that this is symptomatic of an age that is getting further and further away from the old model of learning from the past generation.

Whether, like Evelyn Cameron, they were proper ladies turned rough-riding ranching women by necessity, or young girls who grew up on America’s early plains, or women with independence and spirit not suited to the times in which they were born, the annals of history are filled with cowgirls who, standing with their men or on their own, helped to tame the Wild West.  They worked on ranches, rode in rodeos, and some even turned outlaw.

A desire to preserve these stories prompted artist Lynda Lanker to document the lives of 48 working ranch women — a project she completed this year.  Her book, “Tough by Nature: Portraits of Cowgirls and Ranch Women of the American West,” with an introduction by Sandra Day O’Connor, contains painted portraits along with short interviews.  Published earlier this year, it is already in its second printing.  Her exhibit of the same name has been also wildly popular since its opening in Eugene, Oregon last July, and is slated for a full tour in 2013.  Her website says of the project:

For the past 19 years she has been traveling throughout the western United States interviewing and creating portraits of women ranchers and cowgirls. As the American West undergoes transition and transformation Lynda has been committed to preserving the spirit and histories of these contemporary western heroines.

The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame inducted four such women on Thursday, October 25, honoring their stories and important roles in carrying on the legacy of the American cowgirl.  This is a group that recognized how many women were being ignored even as Western writers and filmmakers diligently documented the lives of noteworthy men who lived in the early days of the West. The Fort Worth, Texas group states as its mission:

The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame honors and celebrates women, past and present, whose lives exemplify the courage, resilience, and independence that helped shape the American West, and fosters an appreciation of the ideals and spirit of self-reliance they inspire.

In 2001, Evelyn Cameron was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.  It’s a good thing she wore those scandalous bloomers: the extra freedom and mobility they afforded let her to get a close-up view of the Old West, camera in tow. She picked up photography as a way to help make ends meet, and her photographs of early Montana life became a treasure that is still cherished by historians today. Her work — over 1800 photos and 35 diaries — documented the fascinating, changing scene of Montana in its early formation.

Many historical societies and museums, including the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, attempt to preserve the memory of the American cowgirl and to recognize those who further that lifestyle today. This article by Lorie Witkop gives some practical advice on how we can record the memories of elderly people in our lives.  She recommends keeping a blog, recording a CD, or compiling a scrapbook.  The National Cowgirl Museum website also has a nomination form to fill out if you think you know a ranching woman whose life and legacy belong in the Hall of Fame.

The perspectives of American women who helped to shape the West are an important part of our national heritage.  In my opinion, it is crucial that we as a generation ensure that the priceless memories of those who inspired and taught us are not forgotten.

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