The term “cowgirls” has special meaning in Laramie, where it refers to the UW women’s athletic teams. Appropriately enough, the earliest cowgirls of renown were female athletes too, the trick riders and shooters of the Wild West shows.
The first use of the word “cowgirl,” however, referred to girls who did what was considered to be men’s work on western ranches. In 1885, the Cheyenne Democratic Leader newspaper referred to a “beautiful cowgirl” from Nebraska who was a wonder to behold doing work on the range. Of course she was beautiful, that was part of the myth.
That was the first reference I found for use of the word in a Wyoming newspaper. But the next year the Lusk Herald remarked about a certain Montana girl who actually sat “hair-pin fashion” on a cow pony to cut out cattle. Evidently it wouldn’t do to say she sat astride the horse like a man.
These girls could have been labeled as “tomboys.” However, Elizabeth King, writing in The Atlantic magazine in 2017, points out that today “tomboy” can be a sexist, racist and gender-bending term and it is “fair to wonder whether adults should refer to nontraditional girls as ‘tomboys’.” There is no such confusion with the word cowgirls. They are girls.
A problem: skirts
According to Wyoming writer Teresa Jordan, in her 1962 book “Cowgirls, Women of the West,” the first western women were portrayed as a “prairie Madonna, with long calico skirts and a babe in each arm.” This mythical ranch woman might have tended a garden along with all the household and child-rearing chores, but the men did the real ranch work. Zane Gray and other writers of western fiction sometimes perpetuated this myth, as did myriads of western movies. Frontier women could be schoolteachers or ranch wives, but cowgirls were a highly unusual plot twist.