Cowgirls: Women of the American West by Teresa Jordan
Reviewed by Julie Trevelyan
Riding on the range with only a trusty steed for companion and miles of open country ahead—what a romantic notion. I admit it’s been one I fantasized about ever since I was horse-crazy kid growing up in the very opposite of open range: the wilds of Southern California. Luckily for me, I actually found many ways over the years to indeed cowgirl it across open lands, although I cannot honestly claim the title of “cowgirl.” For one thing, I don’t even like cows. But the hardy, singularly focused women in Teresa Jordan’s intensive look at a marginalized way of life were and are indeed cowgirls, in every sense of the word.
In the 1970s, Jordan set off on a quest to find and record the voices of real-life cowgirls scattered throughout the West. Herself from ranching stock, she had no shortage of women to interview. She found many of them through word of mouth. After explaining the purpose of her project to people, someone would say, “Oh yeah, I know this woman you ought to see…” One by one, she ferreted out quiet yet amazing women who then shared their usually quiet yet amazing stories. Between 1978 and 1980, Jordan tells us she “traveled over sixty thousand miles…and interviewed close to a hundred women,” which only scratched the surface of the many more women in the West she could ever hope to contact.
What is a cowgirl? Jordan’s definition: “A cowgirl is not just a woman who lives on a ranch or hangs around the rodeo. She is the female counterpart of the cowboy. ‘Cowboy’ in its purest form means an itinerant hired hand who woks with cattle, but our sense of the word is much broader. It presupposes a knowledge of horses and stock (yes, even sheep) and a daily confrontation with the elements. I use ‘cowgirl’ in this way. Cowgirls are women who work outside, on ranches or in the rodeo, on a regular basis.”
I have never worked on a ranch or in rodeo. What I have done is work outside for much of my adult life, daily confronting the elements, riding horses, and getting my hands dirty while a huge smile (usually) lights my face. I have driven tractors, herded cattle, been somersaulted through the air by a horse who decided I should no longer be on its back. In these senses, I can relate to Jordan’s cowgirls. Yet they go far beyond my limited sphere. These genuine cowgirls pull baby calves from their laboring mothers, ride seriously bucking horses and bulls at rodeos, rise well before dawn day after day to ride (fix) fence and search for lost cattle all while facing the skepticism and sometimes outright derision of others who question their capabilities due to the mere fact that they are not men. They understand certain facets of life that city dwellers never confront. As cowgirl Pearl Tompkins said, “I loved Old Blue [her horse]. He was thirty-two when we finally had to shoot him. His teeth were ulcerating bad through his gums. Maybe some wouldn’t understand you have to shoot something you love. But you shoot a Blue because you love him.”
Jordan also offers up “cowgirl characteristics” she observed during her time spent with these remarkable women. Her short list:
- They come from widely varying backgrounds (they did not necessarily grow up on ranches).
- Most of them are natural storytellers.
- They do not fear the vast openness of, and possible dangers in, non-city, outside land.
- Most declared themselves to not be “women’s libbers” (keep in mind this book was first published in 1982), despite their insistence on doing and loving what many considered to be “men’s work.”
- They are “not concerned with fragile beauty. ‘It’s hard on you, I know,’ says Frances Bentley, ‘but I’m happy working outside. And my horse don’t care about the wrinkles. He knows who I am, anyway.’”
The stories weave in and out, fitting together in many ways, yet also highlighting differences between individual women. Each chronicle fascinates with its details, its portrait of a woman determined to live a certain life no matter the cost, even if it was never a life she’d pictured for herself when younger. Some of the women hailed from cultured money back East. They came West, fell for a cowboy, and engaged in an awesome shift in their lives that mirrored nothing they’d been brought up to believe they would ever experience. And did ranch life ever underscore their innate toughness, or build a strength they’d not known they possessed. As Gwynne Fordyce, original tenderfoot, said,
Living on a ranch, you learn to handle a lot of situations. You don’t get too upset when there’s an accident or the electricity or water goes off…you learn to make do with what is on hand. You become very much at ease around machinery and livestock and horses and all different kinds of people. You get mentally stronger because you have to cope with things most women never encounter.
Linen Bliss headed west in 1966, three children in tow. While learning to be “tough pioneers,” her nine-year-old daughter got into a horse wreck one day while pushing some cows back home. The girl’s horse “stepped on her chest and his hoof hit her eye.” Despite the sort of accident that would probably traumatize most city kids, Bliss’s daughter crawled the rest of the way home. She lost the eye—but thanks in part to her equally tough, newly-minted cowgirl mother, the girl grew up to have a normal life and never considered herself handicapped. How’s that for some backbone!
Sisters Elise Lloyd and Amy Chubb were born in England around the turn of the 20th century and started to ride when they were four years old. After their father moved the family to the American West in 1914, the two girls did everything a cowboy would, from branding cattle to avoiding rustlers to “bucking out” (training) horses. Yet despite these lives, exceptional particularly for the time in which they grew up, Amy only remarks, “You know, everybody says we’ve led such an interesting life. But it wasn’t unusual to us. That’s what we had to do, so we did it.”
Some of the women worked hand-in-hand with their husbands on their ranches, each shouldering specific duties. “There is so much responsibility to a ranch,” said Carol Horn (who might be, by far, the toughest cowgirl in these pages), “and I think a woman has to be keenly in the harness with her husband to make it successful. They work together.” But some of the women ran their own spreads for a variety of reasons. One of the most tongue-in-cheek observations came from Marie Scott, at the time one of the largest landholders in Colorado. She briefly married one of her hired hands. After the marriage ended, she kept the man on as an employee, saying, “Worst damn husband I ever had…but best hired hand.”
The rodeo cowgirls Jordan profiles seemed born with grit and determination. Women in rodeo had their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, although they got their start in the late 1800s in popular traveling spectacles such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Saddle broncs, bareback broncs, bulldogging, trick riding (such as the very perilous-looking Russian drag), trick roping, racing—anything the cowboys did, the cowgirls did, too. Tad Lucas rode in her first contest at age 14. Winning it started a long, storied career that took her all over the country and even the world for competitions. Every photo of her displays a sprite-like, broadly smiling woman. My favorite is the one of her on a bucking horse in Salt Lake City in 1924, a huge grin splitting her face as the horse tried its damnedest to toss her off. One of her trick riding specialties was going under the horse’s stomach at a full gallop (just writing that sentence gives me the willies). For Tad Lucas, though, it was “a simple trick.”
An integral part of both the history and current times of the West, these women shaped life for future generations as they gave their time, energy, and passion toward simply doing what they loved. Their very actions helped lead to greater freedoms politically, financially, and socially, despite the fact that few of these cowgirls ever struck a specific public note for women’s rights. They just did what they wanted and loved to do, and faced head-on whatever consequences their choices provided.
For anyone interested in the history of the West in general and real cowgirls in particular, Jordan’s book is a classic standout. Her own epilogue perhaps sums it up best: “These women have changed me. They taught me to ask more of myself, to pay less mind to small encumbrances, to forge a life out of raw material and live it.”
Julie Trevelyan lives in southern Utah and has been known to ride horses over the high desert open range as often as possible. She blogs at Wild Girl Writing.