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Cowgirl Museum Highlights US Women with Pioneering Attitude - 2002-06-18

When you think of the Western United States during the 1800s, you probably think of cowboys. There's a new museum in Texas that would like you to also think of cowgirls. The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame recently opened its new building in Ft. Worth, Texas. Not all cowgirls have lived on ranches or rode horses.

In 1935, the Girls of the Golden West had a hit with this recording. It offers proof that years ago, the American West was already a well-established image of the United States. Susan Fine is the marketing director of the Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Ft. Worth, Texas. "What you think of for America is the cowboy and the cowgirl. They are romantic, they are role models, icons, they are legends," she said.

The Cowgirl Museum has been around since its founding in the small Texas town of Hereford in 1975. It has just opened a brand new facility in Fort Worth, known as "cowtown" for its long-standing role in the cattle transportation and processing industries.

The museum looks at the role played by women in the old and present-day West. Ms. Fine said its hall of fame includes famous cowgirl names like Annie Oakley and Dale Evans, but also less-likely women such as Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

"We call a cowgirl a spirit. It is not necessarily someone who rides a horse or lives on a ranch. It is literally a pioneering attitude that a woman might have. It is an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things," Ms. Fine said.

A video called "The Spirit of the Cowgirl" introduces visitors to women like Clara Brown, a freed slave who at age 59, walked from the southern United States to Colorado, where she set up a business doing laundry and cooking for local miners. The museum points out that while Ms. Brown never lived on a ranch, she is still very much a cowgirl.

Of course, the museum does include plenty of women who did ride horses. Ms. Fine points out one photograph taken from an old Western movie.

"That over there is a stuntwoman. Her name is Alice Van Springsteen. You can see she literally, for a movie, took a horse and jumped that huge gorge there. I always take that picture with me when I go to schools and tell the children, 'It is not computer-generated. Women really did these things,'" Ms. Fine said.

A display called "Greatest Rides" shows some of the most memorable moments of women like ten-time champion Charmayne James competing in rodeo events. "The particular one you see here is her horse, Scamper. His bit broke. You can see it dangling from his mouth. This horse is literally winning this race on his own," she said.

Women's rodeo continues to grow in popularity, but Ms. Fine tells us that, years ago, there was no need for a separate women's rodeo. "Back in the early part of the 20th century, men competed against women in rodeo events. Whether it was bull-riding or Roman riding or trick riding. A lot of the times, the women beat the men," she said.

Rodeos stopped mixed competition when a woman was killed in an event in the late 1920's, even though men had died while competing as well. Ms. Fine said settling the 19th century American West was tough work for families, and women carried more than their share of the load.

"It was in the West that men and women were equal. You had to work side-by-side and you had to do everything. They [women] got the vote in the mid-to-late 1800's (Wyoming Territory, 1869). They were considered equal and I think it is interesting that we are just coming to realize how important the West was for women," Ms. Fine said.

Visitors like Cindy from Aledo, Texas, have said the Cowgirl Museum tells important stories from American history. "I think it is wonderful. It is about time the cowgirls and ladies of the West have gotten the recognition they deserve for all of the time and effort they put in over the years," she said.

And museum officials hope their stories and exhibits will encourage young girls to pursue their dreams, no matter how difficult the goal seems to achieve. Susan Fine said the museum's theme comes from a 100-year-old Hall of Fame inductee who still teaches girls how to ride horses in Texas. Speaking of the importance of taking care of one's self, she advises girls to, "always saddle your own horse."