LAST FALL, I RECEVIED AN invitation to one of the social events of Fort Worth’s season: the annual luncheon to induct new members into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. The dress was black-tie—bolo tie, that is. Fine beaver-skin hats, fancy tooled boots, and big silver belt buckles were in vogue too. It was a shindig with plenty of Cowtown style.
Hundreds of revelers streamed into the cavernous Amon G. Carter Exhibits Hall at the Will Rogers Memorial Center—members of prominent local families like the Basses, Marions, and Moncriefs along with well-heeled citizens and curious onlookers like me. We dined on $100-a-plate pepper-crusted tenderloin, sipped champagne, and gawked at the cowgirls’ embroidered-and-sequined jackets. The crowd cheered as cowboy poet and singer Red Steagall read the names of the five women being honored, including Hollywood stuntwoman Polly Burson; the late Fort Worth matriarch, rancher, and quarter horse breeder Anne Burnett Tandy; and Sandra Day O’Connor, an El Paso native who was raised on an Arizona ranch and is now an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. One thing was clear: In Cowtown, cowgirls rule.
Looking around the audience that day, another thing was clear: The archetypal Texas cowgirl is aging. The lovely lined faces and graying hair tucked under brimmed hats seemed to tell the story of the state’s western half—of growing up on a ranch, working cattle, riding horses under the sun, and cherishing independence above all else. I realized that I was in the company of some of the last of the old-time cowgirls. I had come to the luncheon to praise the cowgirl, not to bury her. But I couldn’t help wondering: In a state where technology, not cattle or horses or even land, is king, what is to become of one of Texas’ most cherished icons?
MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN cowgirls (sorry, Willie). Women ranchers, trick riders, and rodeo queens were much more intriguing to me than the dusty cowboys I saw at the King Ranch when I was growing up in South Texas. Daring and free-willed and expert at handling horses, they were symbols of what the state had been—and what we still wanted it to be. They also had a unique fashion sense. I remember seeing a group of them years ago at a small-town rodeo in the Hill Country. They wore fringed satin shirts and smiles as they performed daredevil stunts on horseback or raced around barrels in a cloverleaf pattern without appearing to break a sweat.
The early cowgirls had unconventional names like Tad and Dude, and they were liberated long before anyone had heard of “women’s lib.” “The emancipation of women may have begun not with the vote, nor in the cities where women marched and carried signs and protested, but rather when they mounted a good cowhorse and realized how different and fine the view,” wrote folk historian Joyce Gibson Roach in her book The Cowgirls. I couldn’t agree more. To me, the cowgirl is the quintessential role model for any strong Texas woman: When she got knocked down in the dust, she got back up and kept going.
Any notions I had about becoming a real cowgirl myself were unrealistic, of course. I lived in the city, and the only horses I handled regularly were the plastic models that little cowgirl wannabes collect and play make-believe with. I lived out my fantasy in the spectators’ seats at rodeos, in the pages of books about cowgirls like Annie Oakley, and in my living room, watching Dale Evans on TV. So it was a fortunate twist of fate that, after I moved to Fort Worth, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, which was founded in the Panhandle town of Hereford, decided to relocate there too.
When the new, $21 million museum opened last June in Fort Worth’s Cultural District, I had to be there for the inaugural ceremonies. The shrine’s site seemed both fitting and symbolic. The Remingtons and Russells at the Amon Carter Museum down the street had celebrated the American cowboy for decades; now the cowgirl was getting some overdue validation too. Inside the museum, the cowgirls’ contributions sprawled across three galleries: cowgirls in the rodeo arena, cowgirls as entertainers, cowgirls living on the land as ranch women. I was fascinated by the story of the late Tad Lucas, one of the most famous cowgirls. A longtime Fort Worth resident, she had ridden broncs and steers and been a trick rider, doing handstands on horseback, jumping off a running horse and vaulting back into the saddle, and performing other gymnastic feats. An athlete on a horse, Lucas was the all-around champion and trick-riding champion at the big Madison Square Garden Rodeo in New York for eight straight years in the twenties and thirties. A photograph in The Cowgirls shows her performing one of her most daring tricks, the “suicide drag,” in which she would hook her feet into straps on the rump of her galloping horse and dangle off it backward, with her head close to its pounding hooves and a calm look on her face. She passed on the love of rodeo to her daughter, Mitzi Lucas Riley, who was a talented trick rider in her day and is also in the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. Riley’s daughter-in-law, Pat Riley, is the cowgirl museum’s executive director.
Lucas epitomized the romantic perception of the cowgirl as a Western heroine, but other Texas cowgirls led far less glamorous lives. “Cowgirls were involved in every part of the process of making the state,” says Mitzi Riley. Some went on the cattle trail drives along with men. In The Cowgirls, Roach wrote that in 1886 Mary Taylor Bunton, who lived on the Cross S ranch near Sweetwater, persuaded her husband to take her up the Chisholm Trail to Kansas. “Riding ahead of the herd, I would turn in my saddle and look back, and it would look as if the entire face of the earth was just a moving mass of heads