Photographing Montana’s real cowgirls teaches you one thing. They work every bit as hard as the men and you better not mess with them.
The image many people have of American cowgirls is much different than reality. Thanks in part to Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and western photographers who have tended to over sexualize cowgirls in photos, many people think the typical cowgirl wears Daisy Dukes and a western shirt tied in a knot up front to prominently display their midriff. Many also think they all wear ornate cowboy hats with a piece of straw in the corner of their mouth.
Most of the stereotypes couldn’t be further from the truth, however. For example, when cowgirls are working on their horse, they tend not to wear cowboy hats. Why? Because it’s much harder keeping a cowboy hat on when you have long strands of hair. Instead, their head ware tends to be a ball cap, where they can conveniently tuck their hair through the loop in back and anchor the cap to their head. As for the rest of their clothes? Like cowboys, their wear whatever is comfortable, keeps them warm (or cool), and protects their knees, shins, and feet from getting banged up while working around 800 lbs. animals.
As much as American lore has elevated the roll of the American cowboy, too often people forget there is almost always a cowgirl by that cowboy’s side working just as hard on the ranch to build a family, get work done, and help make ends meet.
Gail Malsam is a real working cowgirl. She ranches with her husband Tim and house full of kids north of Chinook, Montana. She was first placed on a saddle as a baby in her mom’s arms when her mom (also a cowgirl) had work to do on the ranch. She then began to ride solo at the tender age of 2.
We all work together to get the job done, but cowgirls sometimes have to use leverage whereas men can use brute strength.
Gail said there are times when it can be very demanding being a cowgirl, mom, and wife at the same time. But like most cowgirls, she isn’t complaining. Instead, she relishes the challenge.
“Some people make the mistake of comparing it to being a stay-at-home mom, but that’s not at all accurate,” Malsam said. “I’m not just a mother and a wife; I’m also active on the ranch. Like my husband I must help find ways to get chores done on the ranch…and then care of the kids and keep everyone fed.”
Bobbie Mitchell, a cowgirl in her own right, is also a mother and a wife like Gail. She feels cowboys and cowgirls are gifted differently. “Woman are given the gift of childbirth and men are gifted with physical strength,” she said. “We all work together to get the job done, but cowgirls sometimes have to use leverage whereas men can use brute strength.”
The road to becoming a cowgirl, though, really isn’t any different than becoming a cowboy, she said.
Both young cowboys and cowgirls must prove their mettle and their worth inside the corral and around the ranch. Cowgirls perhaps more so.
“It is definitely harder to be accepted in the corral as a youngster,” Bobbie said. “There is a proving ground one must walk before being welcomed into the crew.”
In the end, both Gail and Bobbie said they loved their way of life. Though many hundreds of miles away from the creature comforts and bright city lights most other Americans take for granted, these cowgirls (like most) love the time they spend living and working with their family as cowgirls. It’s a lot of hard work, to be sure, but as Gail says, “I love the opportunity to live the way I do!”