We canonize the cowboy with his "weathered face" who's "so gentle with women, kids and critters." The very word cowgirls, however, "makes us think of big-eyed sweeties in tight jeans and high-heeled boots," who'll someday grow up and become something else. But "Cowgirls" author Teresa Jordan, a Wyoming native who rode before she could walk, was raised in a ranch community where women regularly worked on the range alongside their men. Or worked alone.

As a Yale student studying the American West, Jordan found that history ignored cowgirls. Instead, she read of wild desperadas like Calamity Jane, and of the Prairie Madonna, whose bronze likeness is enshrined on highway turnouts across the West. This madonna worked outdoors, when necessary, but returned indoors to "make great pies, babies and floursack curtains . . . and keep immaculate house under impossible conditions." Sometimes this life caused insanity. "It was a truly surprised and unhappy rancher who said: 'I can't figure out why my wife went crazy. Why she ain't been out of the kitchen in 20 years!' "

But the 28 women Jordan presents in her oral history weren't brought up to keep house. " 'House' is a dirty word to me. I don't want to clean it, and I don't want to stay in it," declares Nicki Taylor, whose own house is on the site of Butch Cassidy's Wyoming homestead. Staying inside makes her "barn-sour." Modern ranches, by necessity, have become quite large, and labor more expensive. Even little girls, who know what to do on a horse, have value out of proportion to their age. Their parents, and later their husbands, let them work because they know that the house doesn't pay for the ranch.

Not all these women were bred to be cowgirls. Ellen Cotton, raised in Massachusetts and the granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, visited Wyoming at 14 and made good on her vow to return. Having attended prep school in Virginia, Gwynne Fordyce "didn't know cowboys existed outside of the movies," until the first time she saw her future husband: "He was standing in the middle of a corral, with his hat and boots and Levi's, and he was cracking a bullwhip. Western men are different from Eastern men. The first thing that hits you is that they are more masculine than someone who dresses in a suit and sits in an office." Well, it's not as if we don't get paper cuts back here.

Jordan finds that every ranch community she visits has at least one woman who regularly "works out"; through secondary sources, she cites their long tradition. From 1862 to 1934, many widows saw the free land available under the Homestead Act as their best opportunity, and moved West. Others found themselves ranch widows with three choices: return East, go into town and teach or wash clothes, or take over the spread.

We learn of the blind widow who ran the ranch with her seeing-eye horse. A 12-year-old announces to her schoolteacher mother that she'd "rather dig ditches than go to school." She became one of the largest landholders in Colorado. One solo ranchwoman works so hard that she's only been out of Oregon once: "I haven't even seen all of Douglas County. Course, it's a big county."

One cowgirl remembers seeing her Grandma, in her sixties, dragged underneath a hay rake by a team of horses. But "I wasn't even concerned about it . . . she had that much control over a situation." Because cowgirl Carol Horn's father "had never fallen off a horse before," her mother knew that when he did he must be dead--and caught the runaway before she went to him. After gently removing his spurs and gloves, "she looked at me and said, 'I've got to take the reins now.' She said it with cool courage."

"Cool courage" isn't strong enough to describe Jordan's rodeo cowgirls. Jan Edmondson, for instance, "rides bulls, broncs, cows, steers and, as the saying goes, anything with hair." She has "slapped heads" with bulls, literally, and encourages her seven children to participate in rodeos. Tad Lucas broke her hand in nine places bull-riding for $7. She wasn't thrown--just gripped that hard. The women's rodeo association advises that when you've been thrown, "if you're not at least dead, get out of the arena. Die behind the chutes." As one rodeo cowgirl wrote: "You don't see hysterical dull-eyed women in the saddle."

We listen to old rodeo cowgirls talk of earning $12,000 a year during the Depression, when women's rodeo was at its height of popularity. As famous as movie stars, they performed in London and stayed with the Chryslers and Vanderbilts in New York.

Perhaps surprisingly, Edmondson, "the single toughest woman" Jordan has ever met, is "not mannish and seldom swears." While most cowgirls learn their skills from men--"I was my daddy's only boy," one said--they are neither renegades nor rebels. "It's as if each cowgirl carries with her the pervasive concept of feminine perfection . . . she acknowledges her departure from the model with a mixture of pride and apology." They may support equal pay for equal work, and some of their cowboys are excellent housekeepers. Generally, though, they like to see "the man hold the reins. But a woman has to be able to take them in a runaway."

Good cattle country, they say, is hell on horses and women. After hearing two women, aged 79 and 82, talk like John Wayne and apologize that "now it's kind of an effort to lift a 50-pound sack," or reading that Melody Harding looks like a model but chews tobacco, you wonder if this is fiction. Jordan, however, includes her own informative photographs. Harding's beauty is as apparent as the worn circle in her denim jacket from her can of Skoal. Looking at them, one agrees with William Kittredge's observation that "these women wind up looking 50 when they are 37 and 53 when they are 70. It's like they wear down to what counts and just last there, fine and staring the devil in the eye every morning."

Jordan's book celebrates the pluck and grit of these overlooked women. Reading about them is as easy as their work is hard.