In 1974, relying on one of Hereford, Texas' (pop. 17,000) natural resources, the president of the chamber of commerce dreamed up the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, a museum and art gallery immortalizing Western womanhood.
Every year since then, the town has put on a women's rodeo and "enshrinement ceremony" designed to attract visitors (and money) to the Hall of Fame, which, languishing in the shadow of the rich and powerful Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, is still housed "temporarily" in the basement of the Hereford Public Library.
"It's such a new concept," explained Hall of Fame chairwoman Margaret Formby, "People don't think we're for real ."
This year, because of the boom in cowboy films such as "Urban Cowboy" and "Honeysuckle Rose," followed by fashion trends on Seventh Avenue, Hereford has lost its rodeo. The CRA (Cowgirls' Rodeo Association) National Championship Finals, scheduled for Hereford last August, instead was held this weekend at the Long Beach Civic Arena. The crew of TV's "Those Amazing Animals" was there to film George the Performing Pig.
"Rodeo is a very hot product right now," explained Rick Hechtman, the Los Angeles furniture store owner who promoted the event.
Hechtman, whose main sponsors are Miller beer and the Marriott Inn in L.A.'s swinger city, Marina del Ray, says he merely applied what he had learned in the furniture business to women's rodeo, along with "in excess of $100,000" of his own money. If successful, he plans to make the Long Beach event permanent, as well as add four more women's rodeos next year, largely on the East Coast.
How has he created so much interest in a hitherto obscure sport?
"I emphasized the element of danger to the girls," he explained. "Everyone I talked to was fascinated. These beautiful 5-foot-2-inch blond girls who ride 2,200-pound Brahman bulls bareback . . . they're the finest athletes in the world. They really take a beating."
Women's rodeo, at its height between 1914 and 1934, "came back big" with other women's sports around 1974. To most women's rodeo aficionados, however, "the old girls" are what it's all about.
Alice Greenough Orr, who by her own account won "every competition there is" in saddle-bronc riding between 1927 and 1940, including the coveted Madison Square Garden award in 1940, is a living illustration of the vintage female rodeo star. In her heyday, she "introduced" the cowgirl to South America, visited England and Australia as rodeo queen, ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, worked as a stunt woman in Hollywood -- her least favorite episode. At 78, she still drives teams of horses with her sister, Margie, whenever a film company comes through their hometown in Arizona.
But the "old girls" were largely missing from the picture in Long Beach. Out of 28 Hall of Fame "honorees" invited, only three attended.
"Rodeo is like all show business," said Vera McGinnis, who also worked in Hollywood. "It's all fun of it."
Rodeo is 27-year-old Sue Pirtle's life. Five years ago, she managed to ride until eight months pregnant, which inspired the recent TV film "Rodeo Queen," starring Katharine Ross. A tall, raw-bones woman with big, square, capable hands, her job is to get more women's rodeo going, which, she says, involves "a lot of p.r."
Cowgirls whoop with laughter when they hear themselves described as female daredevils bursting with "machismo," "addicted to pain."
"I am addicted to the rest of it, the excitement, the competition," said Jan Edmondson, a battered but jaunty 37-year-old who rodeos with all seven of her children for eight months of the year and works as a carpenter and truck driver the other four. "I could live without the pain."
Edmondson, her 20-year-old daughter Tonya (who is retiring from rodeo temporarily to marry a rancher) and fellow-competitors Faith Taylor, Vicki Williamson and Sue Pirtle agree that it's the thrill of excelling at something really difficult that gets in the blood.
"It's a contradiction," said Taylor. "I love animals, particularly little tiney baby calves. I have to block my mind when I'm down on the ground tying them up."
But machismo has nothing to do with it.
"Girls who talk tough and try to throw it around usually don't last on the circuit very long," said Tonya.
The definition of cowgirl feminism, otherwise known as "chicken fried," is to do the best you can within your limits. Because of the scarcity of women's rodeo events, that becomes very difficult.
"You get out of shape, laying around in between rodeos," said Pirtle. "The men can go to one every week if they want."
There's also a considerable discrepancy in money: A man, in a good year, can win up to $100,000 on the circuits (although he will spend $75,000 of that in maintenance, estimated Jan) Vicki Williamson, in a good year earned $2,500 and spent $4,000.
The purse at Long Beach is $28,000 this year.
"Women can't do this for a living," said Pirtle. "At least, not yet."
Whatever dissensions may exist in the CRA on the traditinality of women's rodeo, they are being put under wraps to make it . . . big. So, although wearing false eyelashes all at once," they grin and bear it just like another broken rib.
"I want 15-year-old girls to have something to look forward to when they're may age," said Pirtle. "No one was doing what I'm doing now when I was a kid. I didn't have any heroes. We're very concerned about maintaining a Western image. But this is the hardest part. Either we make it now, or never."
"People are going to remember me for my performance," said Tonya, "or I don't want to be remembered at all."
But, although Tonya "rode for leather" with the rest of the "girls," it wasn't so easy to rivet the attention of the crowd from "Home Fair 80." It beckoned across the echoing expanse of the monolithic convention center with "ranch-style" gazebo-bar-hot-tubs and other features of "Western" life. An interested crowd gathered around as a woman wearing a bra under her soaking tee-shirt simmered in the waters.
Inside the arena, champion Roxy McIntosh whizzed through the high-skill (and traditionally female) event of barrel racing, with a broken leg, but left the sparse crowd blase.
"Steer-undecorating," judged by veteran cowboy Howard Horton as the most dangerous of the seven women's rodeo events (the other five are goat tying, bareback riding, calf roping, team roping and bull riding), consists of untying a ribbon from between the horns of a bull from horseback at full gallop.
"There are two great dangers," said Horton. "One is that your horse can get caught under the bull's hooves. The other is that the rider can fall right across the horns of the bull."
Several bad spills elicited only murmurs of sympathy.
"It's not as exciting as when you see it on TV," said an observer. "There's no slow motion."
But everyone, including the cameras of "Those Amazing Animals," which until then had focused firmly on George, rushed to the railings as angelic 13-year-old Dawnita Edmondson, weighing 105 pounds, was set quivering on the back of a 2,000-pound bull, enegized by a "hotshot" from a cattle prod.
"Ride the women!" shouted a beer-bellied male in a cowboy hat who was there with his girlfriend.
Dawnita stayed on for four out of the necesssary six seconds and then was picked off the ground, badly frightened but unhurt, by her mother.
"She scared me," said Jan. "It's the first time she nerved up on me."
Others were not so lucky. Sue Pirtle, already suffering from mulitple injuries, passes out after being thrown from a bucking bronc. Davida Grayson was hit hard by a bull's hoof.
"No sex life for a week," she gritted gamely as she knelt on the ground in pain.
Everyone suffered multiple contusions, to the ego and /or to the anatomy. But, as the cameras wrapped and the barrels rolled out of the ring, Tonya got set to go dancing, taped ribs and all.
"It keeps you limber," she said.