When Cowgirls Rode the Broncs

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2001. All rights reserved.

Before there was Venus Williams or Nancy Lopez or even Billie Jean King, there was Lulu Belle Parr and Bertha Blancett and Lucille Mulhall.
Cowgirl With HorseThe true pioneers of women's professional sports gripped reins instead of golf clubs, rode wild horses and bulls instead of thoroughbreds, and competed in dusty arenas rather than on grass courts. America's first female pro athletes grew up on farms and ranches of the West, like Lorena Trickey of Oregon, who started competing as a bronc rider to support the family after her parents died. They were cowgirls competing head-to-head with cowboys in rodeos all across America.
From the late 1890s through the 1920s, cowgirls like Dorothy Morrell and Tad Lucas were popular stars of big-time rodeo competitions like the Calgary Stampede, the Pendleton Roundup and the World Series Rodeo in Madison Square Garden of New York City.

"Rodeo was the first, and perhaps the only, sport in which men and women truly competed as equals," writes Mary Lou LeCompte in her book, Cowgirls of the Rodeo. She documents how women raised on the cattle frontier often grew up working side-by-side with their brothers shoeing horses and dehorning or castrating cattle, and they were respected for their riding and roping skills in rodeo contests.

Lucille Mulhall told reporters that the rodeo cowboys treated the cowgirls like one of the group, and liked to see them succeed. The cowboys "admire a girl who can handle a horse well," she said.
But as the sport of rodeo organized under the Rodeo Association of America in the 1930s and came under the dominating influence of  Gene Autry, who believed women belonged at home rather than in the arena, cowgirls found fewer and fewer opportunities to compete.

One of the last of the great cowgirl bronc riders of the era, Bonnie McCarroll of Idaho, tragically hastened the demise of the women's sport for her time when she was thrown and fatally trampled at the Pendleton Roundup in 1929.

"The incident created a furor that would not abate," LeCompte points out, "and for the first time a rodeo fatality had a dramatic and lasting impact on the sport... Bonnie was an extremely popular member of the rodeo family, and adding to the tragedy was the fact that Pendleton was to be her last rodeo. After seventeen years on the road, Bonnie and her husband had already announced they would retire, and she had hoped her winnings would help pay for decorations in their Boise new home."

After McCarroll's death, cowgirl bronc riding was dropped from the Pendleton Roundup. Many other rodeo producers followed suit. The cowgirl's participation in professional rodeo dwindled to almost nil by the end of World War II.

Cowgirls of the Rodeo documents the return of women to professional rodeo, beginning with the Girls Rodeo Association and later the Women's Professional Rodeo Association.

"Today, they earn more money than ever before in the history of the sport, and are featured at the top rodeos in North America," LeCompte reports. "Yet they have lost the one thing that made them exceptional among all female athletes in American history, the ability to compete as equals with men in otherwise all-male contests."

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