A century ago, women on the East Coast rebelled against gender norms with bobbed hair and hip flasks. Meanwhile, Western women subverted traditional roles by climbing atop bucking broncos. Female ranch hands like Lucille Mulhall had been riding broncs and roping bulls alongside men for years now, proving that rodeo wasn’t just for men. In fact, Mulhall was the first woman to be referred to as a “cowgirl.” (It was nothing new for a woman to be skilled on horseback; on the contrary, it was a necessity in the West, but no one had used the term “cowgirl” to describe a female cowboy until the 1900s when Will Rogers invented the word to describe Mulhall’s ranching and rodeo expertise.)
Mulhall’s father ran a Wild West Show, so her exploits were known around the country. The New York World described her as a ninety-pound woman who could break a bronc, lasso and brand a steer, and shoot a coyote from 500 yards away. Her feats were admired across the U.S. and by historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt and Geronimo. Mulhall’s example would help to pave the way for the “Golden Age” of women’s rodeo in the 1920s.
One of the cowgirls who hit it big in this era was Fox Hastings. As a rebel and a runaway, Eloise Fox Wilson left California at fourteen to become a trick rider for the Irwin Brothers’ Wild West Show. By sixteen, she was married to Mike Hastings and learning to perform rodeo stunts. Her interest in rodeo, coupled with her rough and tumble attitude, led her to become one of the first female steer wrestlers, setting a record in 1924 at seventeen seconds. Her skills as both a steer wrestler and a trick rider made her a fan favorite throughout the 1920s, and she competed alongside both men and women, flaunting her rodeo expertise and proving that she was just as good as (if not better than) any or cowboy.
Another rodeo cowgirl of the 1920s was Montana’s own Fannie Sperry-Steele. Sperry-Steele was born on her parents’ homestead at the base of the Sleeping Giant (North of Helena). By the time they could walk, Sperry-Steele and her siblings were already receiving riding instructions from their mother.
Rachel Sperry would put Sperry-Steele on top of a sturdy horse and give her instructions not to fall off. If the young girl did lose balance and tumble, her mother would spank her and put her back on the horse to try again. It’s no wonder that Sperry- Steele, along with her brothers and sisters, was an outstanding rider even before reaching adulthood. By age sixteen, in 1903, Sperry-Steele had already built a strong local reputation for rounding up feral horses in her family corral, riding the rowdiest of the lot.
Over the next decade, Sperry-Steele would win awards and admiration for her daring horse-riding feats. In 1912, she participated in her first rodeo in Calgary. On the last day of the competition she rode a bucking bronco named Red Wing, earning the title of “Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World.” What made this achievement particularly exceptional was the fact that Red Wing had thrown and trampled cowboy Joe LaMar to death just days before Sperry-Steele’s ride.
After marrying Bill Steele in 1913, Fannie Sperry-Steele began touring with Buffalo Bill Cody, riding broncos and performing other stunts. She competed in rodeos until 1925 but continued riding exhibition horses until she was fifty. Having conquered the horse that killed Joe LaMar, as well as proving herself alongside Western legend Buffalo Bill, Sperry-Steele demonstrated that a cowgirl was capable of doing anything that a cowboy could. Sperry-Steele’s strength and determination made her a trick-riding legend and her passion rodeo is evident by her quote, “If there are no horses in heaven, I do not want to go there.” Despite her attraction to danger, Sperry-Steele lived to be ninety-four and died of natural causes.
Lit was the tragic death of fellow rodeo cowgirl Bonnie McCarroll that would lead to the decline of women’s admittance in rodeo competitions. McCarroll was a champion rodeo performer – bulldogger, steer rider, and most notably, a bronc rider. Having grown up on a cattle farm, she was no stranger to steers and horses, and by age eighteen McCarroll had won first place in the Pendleton Round-Up. It was at this competition in 1929 that McCarroll suffered her fatal accident. Pendleton Round-Up rules dictated that cowgirls ride with their stirrups hobbled (tied beneath the horse), making it easier for cowgirls to hold on. The downside, however, was that it was very hard for them to free their feet from the stirrups in case of an emergency. When Bonnie McCarroll’s bronc, Black Cat, was un- blindfolded for her ride, the horse fell. In its confusion, it summersaulted and then began bucking wildly while McCarroll’s unconscious body bounced around, her foot stuck in the stirrup. She suffered several hard blows to the head and was taken to the hospital. She passed away eleven days later from her injuries.
Though McCarroll’s death was a fluke, the Pendleton Round-Up decided to ban women’s bronc riding, and by the 1940s, the event was banned in all major rodeos. Other women’s events were pushed out as well, until the role of the rodeo cowgirl was almost strictly reduced to pageantry.
In 1948, however, a group of women decided that they weren’t going to let men box them out. Thirty-eight cowgirls (many of them who had operated their family farms during WWII) gathered in San Angelo, Texas to discuss women’s participation in rodeo. The group decided that if men weren’t going to let them compete, they would create their own competitions. Thus, the Girl’s Rodeo Association (GRA) was formed.
From those original 38 women, the GRA grew to include other ropers, riders, and racers. As the first women’s sports association in the country, it was well received by cowgirls across the nation, who appreciated the chance to participate in rodeo competitions again. By 1981, the GRA changed its name to the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA). It has continued to inspire cowgirls to participate in rodeo and honor those first women pioneers of the sport, who were unafraid to saddle up alongside the men.