Rosies of the Range: How Helping Save a Nation Became the Genesis of Women in Rodeo

Ranch women of the World War II era pioneered women’s professional rodeo.
The legend Mabel Strickland competed in saddle bronc riding, steer roping and relay racing, competing against both cowboys and cowgirls and setting several world records.

Before many of the pioneer members of the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA) were the sweethearts of the rodeo, they were simply unknown heroines on the home front during World War II. The modern-day era of women in rodeo derives from a long history of ladies laboring on ranches when good help was in high demand.

Ranchers of the United States were left with the daunting task of providing meat, leather and wool for the world. Yet, livestock supplies were depleted by the Dust Bowl drought of the Great Depression, and many able-bodied cowboys joined the military before draft deferments were in place.

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While it was a novel concept for women to leave home for war industry jobs—the shipyards and airplane factories—it wasn’t unusual to see ranch women take up the reins and do “men’s work.”

Folklorist and Trans-Pecos Texas historian Virginia Madison, a firsthand observer, recorded in her book, The Big Bend Country of Texas: “When World War II came on, and the cowboys and sons of cattlemen began to hang up their chaps and spurs and put saddle soap on their saddles to protect them until they ‘came home,’ ranch women filled the vacancies. There was the greatest demand for beef the world had ever known, and there was less labor and concentrated cattle feed with which to raise cattle to supply demand. A great deal is heard about the wonderful work being done on the farm and in the factories by women during wartime, but little was said about the women on the range.”

Away from urban centers and the public eye, few journalists or newsreel crews ventured forth into the brush country of South Texas or the remote rolling plains of the Texas Panhandle to see “Rosie’s” work on the range. As many had before them, ranch women willingly did what they had to do in times of great need—or the work simply did not get done. They did their part in feeding and clothing the country’s armed services, and most important, they did their best to keep their ranches going so their men had something to come home to.

Many of these women, some of whom were just schoolgirls at the time, are familiar names to many, for their vision and talent helped create the fledgling organization that was the GRA. They set forth the example for future generations to ultimately transform it into the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. Today, their granddaughters and great-granddaughters are winning $60,000-checks at the Women’s Rodeo World Championships.

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Women kept farms and ranches going during war years and took their talents to town for wild west shows and rodeos. American Cowboy file photo

Earning Their Spurs

Many of the talented hands who founded the GRA and joined in following years were simply “ranch girls,” who honed their skills during World War II when the military and profitable war industry jobs lured the cowboys away. Such decorated champions as Jackie Worthington and Wanda Harper Bush did their part for the war effort by helping their families on the ranch.

Ranching in the 1940s meant long hours on horseback. Although many ranchers had started using trucks more frequently, gas rationing meant the four-legged vehicle would see more use once again. In fact, rural area women waiting for letters from loved ones overseas frequently rode horseback to town to check the mail to save on gasoline.

The war years blessed ranch country with record amounts of rainfall after nearly 10 years of drought during the Great Depression. It was in part the wet weather that helped the likes of Blanche Altizer Smith, Nancy Binford, Thena Mae Farr and Margaret Owens Montgomery become better ropers. Thanks to the heavy rains, screwworms flourished and with them the birth of some of the greatest calf ropers, both male and female.

Screwworms were the flesh-eating maggots of the Cochliomyia hominivorax fly and ranchers had to treat any animal with an open wound to prevent infestation. Newborns were especially susceptible to screwworms. Treatment involved capturing the animal and doctoring susceptible areas with pine tar oil and benzol.

Recalled one rancher of that generation: “You never knew what all would be wiggling on the end of your rope with screwworms.”

If they weren’t out doctoring “wormies,” ranch women continued their household chores, which were complicated by rationing. Limited salt and sugar made canning and preserving difficult tasks. Luckily, ranchers had a ready supply of meat unlike many of their urban counterparts.

Even though the war revved up the national economy, inflation was as much a problem then as it is today. Economic measures to prevent inflation made it tough for all livestock producers to make a living. They had to work hard to produce more with less, only to be told they could barely make a profit.

It was under these circumstances that the founders and future members of the GRA earned their spurs.

Jackie Worthington putting ranch work on display during a cutting contest at the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo grounds in Colorado Springs, Colorado. American Cowboy file photo

Truth Be Told

Although they were born female, girls in hard-pressed areas became ranch hands as soon as they were old enough to ride on their own. Bush, who ranched on the Harper family homestead near Mason, Texas, until her death on December 29, 2015, at age 84, said women doing ranch work during the war was “nothing out of the ordinary.”

As most ranch families did during the war, the Harper family diversified their operations to make the most of the wartime economy. In addition to raising sheep, goats and cattle, the Harpers also had a small crop of peanuts and raised a few hogs.

“We did a little of everything,” said Bush, who was a teenager during most of the war. “It was hard to get help, but neighbor helped neighbor back then.”

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One of the original women in rodeo, Wanda Harper-Bush, was the epitome of an all-around cowgirl. Bush is pictured here laying a run down in the cutting pen in 1965. File photo

The family was busy at work when a neighbor brought them news of the war’s end.

“We were putting up hay that day, and I was driving a team of horses and Daddy and a neighbor were pitching hay,” she said. “When they heard the news, they just threw their hats in the air and went to hollering! It was something! We were so glad it was over!”

For GRA charter member and rodeo producer Nancy Binford and her mother, Kathryn, holding their 10,000-acre Bar M Bar Ranch together in the absence of men and extra hands was nothing new. Kathryn spent most of her life working alongside her husband, Gene, on the Wildorado, Texas, spread until his death in October 1934. Nancy was her mother’s right-hand woman and came by her great horsemanship and roping skill honestly.

Another future GRA member and talented roper Dora Rhoads Waldrop opted to hire out as hand while her husband Edgar served overseas. She said, “I could either get a couple of evening gowns and do a lot of dancing or get a horse. I chose the horse!”

Women’s Rodeo During The War

While the war diverted many “usual activities,” it was important that life go on as normally as possible for the mental and physical welfare of the nation. Ranch girls may not have danced their way through the war as many other young women did, but they did their part to bolster the morale of the troops and many civilians in a time of great worry and sacrifice.

They entertained the masses with their horsemanship and ranch skills. For instance, Jackie Worthington, who earned 23 world titles in the GRA, continued to rodeo and competed against men until gasoline became scarce and she was forced to return home and help her sisters, Mary and Ada, on the family ranch in Jacksboro, Texas.

During the summer and fall of 1942, several professional rodeo cowgirls and local ranch girls produced and participated in all-women’s rodeos to entertain the troops.

Fay Kirkwood, a well-known horsewoman and socialite from Fort Worth, Texas, produced the first all-women’s rodeo during the war at the Fannin County Fairgrounds in Bonham, Texas, held June 26-29. The success of the rodeo was lauded in the Bonham Daily Favorite, the local newspaper.

Kirkwood produced another rodeo in Wichita Falls, Texas, July 28-August 2, after meeting with a military commander at nearby Sheppard Air Force Base. Her rodeo suffered when the commander banned all servicemen from attending.

Prior to the event, the commander had invited Kirkwood to dinner and made unwelcomed advances. When Kirkwood refused his attentions, he retaliated by making her rodeo off limits. The Wichita Falls event was Kirkwood’s last production.

She stated, “That broke me! I decided if that was what I had to deal with, it wasn’t worth it!”

Vaughn Krieg, a veteran rodeo performer from Oklahoma, also produced an all-women’s rodeo in Texas over Labor Day weekend at the Lamar County Fairgrounds in Paris. Since Krieg too, planned to support her operation by entertaining the troops, she developed patriotic themes and called her company the Flying V All Cow-Girl Rodeo Company, with the “V” symbolizing victory.

Unfortunately, as tire and gasoline rationing restrictions fell into place, all-women’s rodeo went on hiatus until after the war.

Cowgirl’s Liberation

Folklorist and historian Joyce Gibson Roach wrote in The Cowgirls that women’s liberation didn’t begin with the right to vote; it began when a woman first threw her leg across the back of a horse. Sidesaddle didn’t count.

For rodeo, World War II liberated and empowered the cowgirl.

In their rural sphere, the Rosies of the Range—the ranch women and girls—continued their masculine pursuits of ranch work and management following the war. Most ranchers and stockmen accepted women’s wartime ranching roles as common because they had always helped in times of need. Problems didn’t arise until they went to urban centers in search of education or opportunity.

While Rosie the Riveter was being forced to give up her job and return to the home by the conservative tide that swept America following the end of World War II in 1945, the ranch girls were literally bucking the system.

Not only did they refuse to return to a world based on masculine standards, but they also created new opportunities for themselves by forming the first women’s professional sporting organization in the United States—the GRA.

The 1940s saw its own baby boom in terms of the formation of new rodeo associations such as the National High School Rodeo Association and National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association.

Nancy Binford and Thena Mae Farr were determined that women weren’t about to be left out. After all, they’d just gone through a war, proving that they could do the job on the ranch just as well as any man. Why should they be denied the opportunity to showcase their talents and have a little fun?

The Birth of the GRA

In 1947, Binford and Farr saw to the development of the Tri-State All Girl Rodeo in Amarillo, Texas. Waldrop, riding the horse that carried her wartime cowboy work, tied for the win in the calf roping. The newspapers deemed the rodeo, held September 23-26, a success with the largest crowd in fair history.

From the contestants and event judges to the clowns and arena directors, women were the sole operators of the rodeos. Sparked by the success of the venture, the GRA was formed February 28, 1948, in San Angelo, Texas.

Binford and Farr continued to produce their women’s rodeos until 1951 when both returned to competition. Binford served as the GRA’s president in 1950. She retired from competition in 1955 and devoted her energies to farming, ranching and raising horses on the family ranch in Wildorado.

Current WPRA President Jimmie Gibbs Munroe has worked for decades to promote women in rodeo. Photo Courtesy Jimmie Munroe

Farr followed Binford into the presidency of the GRA in 1951, and she retired from competition in 1954. She returned to the family ranch near Seymour, Texas, where she was honored for her ranching and civic achievements.

Super ranch-working skills cultivated during the war also earned Margaret Owens Montgomery a place in women’s rodeo history. From roundups and brandings on her family’s ranch in Ozona, Texas, Montgomery was an extremely talented roper, having competed and won against men. When the charter members of the GRA formed their association, they elected Montgomery their first president. She was also the association’s first all-around champion.

Sadly, Montgomery died young. In 1955, she lost her life in an automobile accident. She was only 33. At the time of her death, she was ranching near Rankin, Texas.

Bush was also a charter member. She became the association’s most decorated and enduring competitor. She won 33 world championships, including three all-around titles. Bush served on the GRA’s board of directors for more than 20 years. She also trained championship horses alongside her husband Stanley Bush, a hall of fame cutting horse trainer.

Through the years, Bush taught many top barrel racers who went on to win titles in the GRA, and later WPRA, including World Champions Jane Mayo and Jimmie Gibbs-Munroe. Leslie Kinsel, mother of three-time world champion Hailey Kinsel, also learned from Bush.

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Bush was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1978 and five other hall of fame inductions would follow. In 1998, she received the WPRA’s Pioneer Woman of the Year award for her contributions to women’s rodeo.

Something Greater

The women and ranch girls of World War II broke new ground as they pursued degrees in agriculture and animal husbandry. They created new venues for themselves by forming the GRA that showed the talents that helped feed the world during the war. These pioneers broke new ground in leadership roles for women and carved a deep niche in the cowgirl legacy.