Their legs, kicked high enough in the air that their boots brush the brims of their hats (a strict requirement), almost completely obscure their faces so that all we see of each Kilgore College Rangerette is an improbably straight column of thigh and calf, interrupted by a neat patch of blue miniskirt and red underpants. The photograph, reprinted in this magazine’s January 2000 issue from Annie Leibovitz’s Women, hardly represents the ideal feminist image of womanhood. These dancers are anonymous, their personalities replaced by their striking bodies. “As soon as they did their kick,” Leibovitz told a CNN interviewer, “the drill captain said, ‘Okay, wipe the lipstick off your legs.’ It was such an extreme kick. It was pretty amazing.” Yet, lipstick, legs, and all, the overwhelming effect of the picture is one of physical strength, a fitting contribution to a collection of strong images of women, from socialites to soldiers. As Susan Sontag writes in her foreword to the book, no reader “will fail to note the confirmation of stereotypes of what women are like and the challenge to those stereotypes. . . .”

This contradiction is a recurring theme in the history of the oldest all-female drill team in the country. The Rangerettes, often described as “Barbie dolls” and criticized for their representation of women as physical ideals and for their hard-core slogan “Beauty knows no pain,” were actually founded in 1940 as part of an early, proto-Title IX initiative on the part of Kilgore College president B. E. Masters to encourage more women to attend the school and, more specifically, to exercise and participate in sports. The Kilgore Rangerettes literally stormed the men’s playing fields, taking over the gridiron of this East Texas oil town as the main attraction. And attractive they were. Masters’ secondary inspiration for the plan points to a similar ambiguity in the Rangerettes’ image and history. These small-town Texas girls, who earned the nickname the Sweethearts of the Nation’s Gridiron from sportscaster Red Grange, were brought on the field to lure Kilgore’s men away from the competing halftime claims of a sub-bleacher booze-up. The Rangerettes were as pure as their white cowgirl boots, but even founder Gussie Nell Davis had to admit, “We were little devils wearing the skirts two inches above the knee!” Though the Rangerette uniform has stayed pretty constant over the years, that hemline has crept famously upward.

Gussie Nell Davis was a pioneer in the world of women’s drill teams, but she was not without role models. Already in the nineteenth century, stage acts would involve amazon drills—tight formations of women in scanty military costume marching in unison. In the 1920’s Texas high schools began to develop pep squads, in which girls marched in modest military-inspired dress and occasionally twirled batons. After studying physical education in college and receiving a master’s in science from the University of Southern California, Davis returned to Texas to teach gym class and run the pep squad at Greenville High School. She soon had the girls’ outfits trimmed down and their kicks snapping up. The Greenville Flaming Flashes quickly became known for their precision routines and cute looks, and once they caught the eye of the Kilgore College president, they were destined to become the model for the most famous female drill team in history. Masters hired Davis, and the Kilgore Rangerettes stepped out onto the football field for their first performance on September 12, 1940, kitted out in their distinctive gear by a company in Dallas that specialized in uniforms for drive-in waitresses. The military influence was thus gone, cut from the show along with the drums and bugles of the pep squad, and replaced by a cross between Texas cowgirl and drive-in darling; but as Rosie the Riveter took over the job of her brothers at war, some rosier girls were riveting audiences not only at local football games but also at “bond shows” in support of the war effort, and by 1946 at the Rose Bowl. The Rangerettes were soon famous across the nation.

The drill team and its denizens were as American as apple pie, born of the Texas heartland, a true product of their origins. The girls presented to the world a steady smile and a reliably conservative image—traits that may have won them a staring role in the 2001 inauguration parade of another conservative Texan, George W. Bush. And yet the Kilgore Rangerettes were able to jump gulfs few others could, traveling to Europe, Central America, and Hong Kong to perform and even spending a couple of weeks touring behind the Iron Curtain in Romania in 1977. The picture of these young East Texas ladies, in their red, white, and blue uniforms, performing in Eastern Europe at the height of the Cold War, is perhaps in some way related to the strength of those straight, muscular columns in the Annie Leibovitz photograph. It’s amazing how far a little “poise and projection,” to quote a famous phrase from one of Gussie Nell Davis’s most forceful instructional speeches, will take you. Davis retired as director of the Rangerettes in 1979 (though she continued to be involved with the team until her death in 1993), but the Rangerettes are here to stay, as is the all-female drill team. Currently, every year about 15,000 high school students and 1,000 college students participate in drill teams across Texas.