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McKee will discuss how women pushed gender boundaries in early American West

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Kitty Canutt was the all-around champion cowgirl in 1916. Hers and the stories of other pioneering old West women will be discussed at this month's Edgefield History Night event on March 28.
If you think the early American West was shaped exclusively by hyper-masculine, bull-riding cowboys then, well, you'd be wrong.

After curating an exhibit called "Ride 'em, Cowboy" for the Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles, Lynne McKee was fed up, and delved deeper into the women involved in early ranching and rodeos out West.

"I'd been drowning in testosterone," said McKee, who now manages the Benton County Fairgrounds. "I felt like, 'Where are the women?'"

McKee had seen depictions of women in the early American West, but noticed they had been "relegated to the saloon girl with a heart of gold and the schoolmarm." She knew there had to be more, and found them.

At an upcoming McMenamins Edgefield History Night event, McKee will discuss the results of her research into the lives of ranch women, who had carved a place on the fringes of old West society.

Put on in conjunction with the Troutdale Historical Society, the presentation "Cowgirls and Ranch Women: Pioneers Pushing Gender Boundaries" begins at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 28. Doors open at 5 p.m. for this free event, held in Edgefield's Blackberry Hall, 2126 S.W. Halsey St., Troutdale.

American popular culture has acknowledged some of the female greats in early rodeo circuits, like Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Perhaps the most famous was Annie Oakley, the celebrated sharpshooter who rose to prominence for her marksman skills in the 1880s and who was later depicted in the popular musical, "Annie, Get Your Gun."

McKee will discuss Oakley and also the life of Kitty Canutt, a professional bronc rider, and Lucille Moholl, arguably the first to be referred to as a "cowgirl."

Women on the professional rodeo circuit had learned their herding, riding and shooting skills in order to survive the daily toils of living the early Western lifestyle.

"They helped open the West," McKee said. "You already hear about the men, but really the women were right alongside them, and they were doing it in a dress and button up shirt...There's not quite as much acknowledgement of how tough their lives were and how strong they were."

During the late Victorian era at the turn of the century, women were relegated to domestic roles that lent themselves to stereotypical views on femininity.

"Women were put on a shelf — they were supposed to just serve tea, take care of kids and they'd do art," McKee explained. "They weren't even to show ankles."

But the Western expansion, and hardships associated with starting anew and maintaining ranchland, opened up new roles for women — and, in turn, expanded possibilities for future generations.

"They were really breaking new ground for women and seeing women in a different way," McKee said. "The grit that they had going in was what led to women's suffrage. You can thank early rodeo ladies for pants."

McKee says the talk will also include personal anecdotes about running the Benton County Rodeo, and give a glimpse into the modern female rodeo culture. She'll also show off some historical photographs of the cowgirls.

More information about the talk can be found online at mcmenamins.com/history or at 503-669-8610.

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