1890s–1910s While their urban counterparts were restricted to more traditional female roles, women of the American West were roping and riding broncs. Wild West Shows featured women like Annie Oakley shooting and riding, and Lucile Mulhall, who was the first woman to be called a cowgirl, hosted her own Wild West Show. And in 1904, Colorado’s Bertha (Kaepernik) Blancett was the first woman to ride a bronc at the Cheyenne Frontier Days. As rodeos gained popularity, producers capitalized on the novelty of special exhibitions and women who rode broncs. The Pendleton Round-Up was also one of the first to feature female performers.
1920s–Early 1940s Mabel Strickland won steer-roping titles in Cheyenne and Pendleton in the 1920s, but the rodeo cowgirl was already being slowly replaced by the “ranch girl,” predecessor to rodeo queens. Some historians cite the death of bronc rider Bonnie McCarroll at the 1929 Pendleton Round-Up as contributing to the shift, but really, urban crowds were less comfortable with women competing with men. Producer Col. W.T. Johnson included women bronc riders at New York City rodeos in Madison Square Garden, but by the time the Cowboy Turtle Association formed in 1936, women were excluded from rodeo’s main events.
Late 1940s–1950s Gene Autry’s Flying A Rodeo Company took over Johnson’s shows and relegated female performers to ranch or sponsor girls that rode alongside the singing cowboy and performed in pageants and horsemanship displays. In response, 38 female ropers, bronc riders, and barrel racers came together in San Angelo, Texas, on Feb. 28, 1948, and created the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA). The association had 60 approved contests and a total payout of $29,000 that year. In 1955, GRA President Jackie Worthington signed an agreement with the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA) for women’s events at RCA rodeos to be GRA-sanctioned.
1960s–1990 Competition between Autry’s ranch girls led to the development of barrel racing. These first events included figure-eight style patterns, which evolved into today’s cloverleaf barrel pattern. In 1967, Martha Josey and husband R.E. Josey founded their barrel racing school that pushed the sport to a more refined level of horsemanship. While women’s bronc riding continued to decline, roping events like team roping and breakaway roping grew in popularity thanks to youth and high school rodeo and the formation of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA). Wanda Harper Bush earned 32 WPRA world titles in this period.
Present day The world champion barrel racer is crowned at the annual Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s (PRCA) National Finals Rodeo. Reigning champ Lindsay Sears earned $238,864 in winnings in 2011 alone. The WPRA World Finals crowns world champions in the all-around, breakaway roping, heading, heeling, and tie-down roping, as well as barrel racing’s junior division, and derby and futurity divisions. The United States Team Roping Championships host popular female divisions, as well. Though roughstock events have been officially phased out of the WPRA, the PRCA allows women to compete with the men, though few do.