The world still can’t stand seeing women’s ambition, women’s independence, women’s sexuality, or women’s pain. For Deadspin, journalist Jessica Camille Aguirre writes about an emerging contingent of professional female bronco-riders who are changing the structure of rodeo. Women aren’t new to the sport. They’ve been riding angry horses for over a century. What’s new is the way Daryl and Michelle McElroy, of the Texas Bronc Riders Association, have been creating tours and sanctioned events for women to compete in. “Ever since 1929, when a 32-year-old bronc rider named Bonnie McCarroll was thrown from her horse during a rodeo in Oregon and died in the hospital eight days later,” Aguirre writes, “women’s saddle bronc riding has been more or less wiped from the rodeo event roster.”
But McCarroll’s death prompted the rodeo where she rode, the Pendleton Round-Up, to cancel women’s bronc riding, and other rodeos followed. The Rodeo Association of America formed the same year, and since there were no women rodeo producers, there were also no women in the organization. The RAA did not include women in its published standings, or print photos of women in the finalist shots in its magazine. In 1931, rodeos started hosting sponsor girls, who led parades and were judged on their attractiveness instead of their athleticism. A decade later, Gene Autry started a rodeo company and from then on, none of his rodeos hosted any competitions for cowgirls at all. Deciding that they had better do something or watch themselves be relegated to beauty pageants, women started their own organization, which put together some all-girl rodeos and managed to get barrel racing back on the roster at the larger rodeos.
Since then, women have competed publicly in nearly every sport, including ones that openly involve physical peril. The first woman climbed Mount Everest in 1975; the first woman bullfighter to become a full Matador de Toros in Spain did so in 1996; women’s boxing was included in the 2012 Olympics. It has become passé to fête the achievements of women athletes as though they were interesting only by virtue of their having been accomplished by women, but there is still something liberating about watching women conspicuously demonstrate that they are free to make use of their own bodies however they please, danger or no. In a sense, though, reviving women’s rodeo bronc riding is less of a trailblazing move than it is a throwback to a model of gender roles that prevailed during a certain American moment and that has been dimmed by the passage of time. Eight years before McCarroll was fatally thrown from her horse at the Pendleton Round-Up, an author named Charles Wellington Furlong wrote about the cowboys and cowgirls who rode there, noting that, “few queens have vouchsafed to occupy thrones less secure than that supreme one offered by the parliament of the Round-Up each year—the world championship saddle of the cowgirls’ bucking contest.” By less secure he didn’t mean at risk of being cancelled. He meant that bucking horses buck.
After the video of Wimberly’s bad ride starting circulating and the same old tropes that shut down women’s saddle bronc riding the first time starting appearing again, Wimberly thought, what the hell, flaunt the hurt. Being up front about the injuries and danger, and nevertheless still pursuing glory, would show everyone what women were capable of and what the sport was about. “The way I see it, it doesn’t show the weakness of women, it shows our strength,” Wimberly told the RIDE TV camera crew. There was no reason to hide the hurdles women faced—if anything, they were tougher for it. “When you can get dragged across the arena on your head, get a bad concussion, get your feet nearly jerked from your leg, and get up from that, and stand up, wave to the crowd, walk off—okay, I might have limped a little—to me, that’s impressive.”