The idea of a cowgirl is something we constantly address at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. Like many of you, we work hard to convey our Museum’s message and mission to those that are unfamiliar with its purpose. We want visitors to understand our ideas and walk away with knowledge and a positive experience. Many visitors say they are unaware there IS a National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. So we start with the basics!
“What is a cowgirl?” is one of the first questions docents and staff ask visitors. The answers are varied and usually include Annie Oakley, Dale Evans and images of hats and boots and horses. Rarely do we receive the answer, Sandra Day O’Connor, Clara Brown and Sacagawea. But these women fit the Museum’s definition of a cowgirl — a woman with an incredible story who somehow changed the West.
As you enter the Museum, coming out of the ceiling is a partial horse figure with a rider surrounded in blue. It takes a moment for visitors to discover the blue is water and the rider and horse are diving into the water. The rider is Honoree Mamie Francis Hafley. She was a western performer. One of her performances involved prompting her horse to dive off a platform as far as 50 feet into the air into a 10 foot temporary pool of water. It is amazing to think of a woman trained a horse to leap from a platform several feet into the air into a pool of water. I wish I could get my dog into the bathtub! But this remarkable woman is just one of the many who is incredible in her own way.
With over 200 Honorees, the Museum has the opportunity to share the stories of rodeo champions as well as entertainers, artists, photographers, writers, trailblazers, and even architects. We have broadened the idea of the cowgirl to include women who made an impact in our western heritage…women of the west, past and present. While some names are more familiar such as Clara Brown, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Georgia O’Keeffe, Annie Oakley, and Dale Evans, there are others who also align with the idea of the “cowgirl” such as Sallie Reynolds Matthews, Narcissa Whitman, Esther Hobart Morris and Mother Joseph Pariseau. Each played a role in creating and shaping the West, and not all were horseback. Some were applauded for their efforts; others were criticized and considered too progressive. Many chose their path, many had the path chosen for them; yet all prevailed and left their place in history.
And, you can be sure that one connection between them all is that they all have a story, such as Jan Youren, the bronco rider, who went to the hospital with broken ribs, checked herself out and went to a dance. While dancing, her young male partner offered to get her something cool to drink…he didn’t want to feel her ribs cracking anymore. What about Alice Van Springsteen, the stunt rider, who had to go over a waterfall while doubling for a young actor. She didn’t know how to swim and told the cameraman, “If I don’t come up, jump in after me.” She hit her head on a submerged rock, but still came up. The director asked her to go over the falls again, but “slower.” And then there is Sacagawea, who helped Lewis and Clark with their expedition even though she had a baby, Jean Baptiste, on her back.
So the question continues…”What is a cowgirl?”
This is a question we continue to answer and people may have to answer for themselves. It may be a famous person in history, or a family member who survived insurmountable odds. Women throughout history have proven to be tough and survive adverse situations. Yet, they are the nurturers and caregivers to men, children and animals. They are able to adapt and change in a world that offers challenges and opportunities.
Cowgirls are women who somehow shaped the West…and changed the world. Know any?
Cindi Collins is Director of School Services at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.