Cowgirl Up

Sometimes it seems as if women are almost invisible in the history of the West, but the truth is that they were there the whole time, working cattle, going up the trail, and building ranches all across Texas. Problem is, the only word we have to describe them makes you think of buckle bunnies or Nashville queens. I aim to change that.
Jesse Blue, 22, who dayworks at ranches around Perrin.
Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Lizzie Crosson and her husband, George, were some of the first ranchers to settle in far West Texas. A cavalry post existed, but by the time the cavalry arrived, the Indian raiders were usually long gone. Lizzie, who was 24 years younger than her husband, soon learned that if she, George, and the livestock were to survive, they needed to be their own police, fire department, and doctor. Sometimes they even needed protection from the cavalry itself. Once, while George was away, Lizzie prevented hungry soldiers from stealing her sheep with a gun hidden under her apron. At George’s death, in 1885, the Crossons owned 640 acres. When Lizzie died, in 1924, she owned more than 30,000 acres. He raised sheep, she raised cattle. She also raised six children and played the piano.

Some years ago, I would have called Lizzie a cowgirl, a proud and honorable title that I used to spend most of my time trying to earn. But now the word has been stolen and corrupted by dime novels, Nashville, Hollywood, and haute couture. Today it hits my ear like a derogatory term, calling to mind a buckle bunny or a concho whore, boots and breakfast or trolling with turquoise. In her introduction to Leaning Into the Wind, a collection of essays and poems by rural women, Linda Hasselstrom wrote, “Over and over, we debated what to call these women. Naturally, we wanted a handy collective term, but we agreed on only one thing: it wouldn’t be ‘cowgirls.’ ” This isn’t surprising. Most of the rural women I’ve known—women who bought, inherited, or married ranches, women who rodeo or break and shoe horses, women who rope, build fence, fight grass fires, jockey pickups and trailers, pay bills, keep records, homeschool the kids or haul them to town on long muddy roads, and educate themselves in everything from environmental law to curanderismo—hate the word “cowgirl.”

For these women, and myself, it’s become a slur. In the world of cattle and horses the preferred word is “cowboy.” This is a verb. Men, women, and children can and do cowboy. The word already mixes gender: cow (female) and boy (male). Within the ranching world, even cowboys are seldom referred to collectively as “cowboys.” We just call each other by our given names: Jeff, Candi, Chris, or Liz. We don’t seem to need a word that singles out females from teachers, writers, or ranchers, so why do we even need the word “cowgirl”?

Part of it has to do with history. In the past few decades, historians have spent a lot of time worrying about how much women are overlooked in the factual record, and cowgirls are no different. In Women of the Range, Elizabeth Maret notes that “given the particularly legendary character of the Texas cattle industry, women’s part in this great and historic activity can most accurately be described as invisible.” Historically, women did anything they wanted to do—they went up the trail, rode saddle broncs, and owned ranches in their own names. But this is often dismissed. Fay Ward’s classic 1958 manual for working cowboys doesn’t mention women at all (Fay was a man). It does include certain other females, among them the cow, the granny knot, the squaw hitch, and the gal leg spur.

Books are not my primary concern. The problem is that eventually all this invisibility put us afoot. It led to what I call the dark ages of the cowgirl—a time when the rural culture itself forgot its own history and women were not even allowed to ride on some ranches because it was not “tradition.” It became a “fact” that women did not go up the trail or show their face at the chuck wagons.

But women did all those things and more. As a direct descendant of Mayflower pilgrim William Bradford, I can claim thirteen generations as a cattle raiser on the North American continent. My grandmothers were often among the first one hundred settlers into new states. Like them, I’ve lived under many identities—great-granddaughter, granddaughter, and daughter of the outfit; daughter of the seller of the outfit; college rodeo team member; range management club sweetheart; two-stepper; ag major; cowboy’s wife; mother of a girl who cowboys; livestock journalist; cowboy photographer; cowboy poet; horsewoman; big-outfit crew member and small-outfit jack-of-all-trades; scholar of rural literature; divorced owner of cattle and leaser of land; cowboy’s mother-in-law; and grandma of two cowboys—one from each gender.

There’s a common denominator to all these roles, and we might as well use the word “cowgirl” to describe it. It will take some effort to reclaim the word, but it’s worth it. Like “cowboy” on a good day, “cowgirl” can be made to stand for something larger than a skill. Frances Octavia Smith, better known as Dale Evans, once said, “ ‘Cowgirl’ is an attitude, really. A pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head-on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses.” Of course, Dale Evans herself bears some responsibility for rhinestoning the cowgirl, but she appears to have understood that there’s more to being one than simply wearing a hat and boots.

When Richard King took his bride, Henrietta, to the banks of Santa Gertrudis Creek, they hung their cooking utensils on the wall outside the front door of a small mud jacal. The first King Ranch brand recorded was the “ HK” connected, Henrietta’s initials. She saw her existence as idyllic: “I doubt if it falls to the lot of many a bride to have had so happy a honeymoon. On horseback we roamed the broad prairies. When I grew tired my husband would spread a Mexican blanket for me and then I would take my siesta under the shade of the mesquite tree.”

Richard King was “largely unread” and likely depended heavily on Henrietta. She gained such a reputation for tenacity that, according to a 1925 obituary cited by Tom Lea and Elizabeth Maret, “the outlaws and renegades who infested the neighborhood preferred to approach the house

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