Cowgirl U: Preserving spirit of women in Old West

Cowgirls living the rodeo lifestyle 05:24

In almost every epic tale of the Wild West, men have been center stage, women almost invisible. The reality, however, was vastly different, reports CBS News' Michelle Miller.

"All of the photographs I've ever seen have been of men. Well that's only 50 percent of it. Where'd they think the men came from? You know, it wasn't the immaculate conception!" rancher and photographer Barbara Van Cleve said.

Women were a strong force on the ranch and the range, from Annie Oakley to Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and they still are today.

Van Cleve has been photographing the cowgirl way of life since she was 11 years old, and she shoots on top of a horse.

"I'm so short that it helps to get a little elevation," she said.

She recently joined a group of women on a good old fashioned cattle drive at the Paws Up Resort outside Missoula, Montana.

It was all part of Cowgirl U, a weekend-long annual event for women hosted by the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, a museum dedicated to celebrating the spirit of women of the west.

"We've had women who are interested in history, but primarily our biggest draw is those folks who want to know about the honorees. This is the best teaching you will get, is right here," Diana Vela of the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame said.

Guests come to meet honorees like five-time world champion bronc rider Jan Youren.

Youren rode bulls and horses from age 12 until she retired at 63, along the way collecting an impressive record of injuries.

When asked how many broken bones she has, Youren responded, "Uh, would you rather ask how many I don't have? That'd be a lot better. I have one rib that's never been broke, and I've never broke either leg. Other than that, I think you can pretty well cover it."

She even won a championship with a broken back.

"Yep, I did, in '87. But I was too dumb, I didn't know it was broke. I thought I was just being a wimp," Youren said.

Lindy Burch knows her way around a shotgun, but made her name in the male-dominated sport of cutting, where a rider uses a horse to separate a cow from the herd. It's a critical skill for any rancher bringing cattle to market.

"When I started cutting, I wanted to be the best," Burch said. "And if you wanted to be the best, you compete with the best, and the best all happened to be men, because there wasn't any women in it."

She said she wasn't striving to break through the glass ceiling.

"Women's [liberation] wasn't a big deal then anyway. Probably was, I didn't really recognize it because I always thought you liberated yourself," Burch said.

In 1980, Burch became the first woman in the 100-year history of the sport to win the national cutting championship.

A critical tool for women in the Old West was a gun: it was a way to protect herself, her herd and, most important, her family.

"I think being a cowgirl is you keep trying and you don't give up, no matter what you're doing," Burch said.

"It's hard to make a living ranching," Van Cleve said. "The hours are long, the work is hard, but it's the greatest place in the world to raise a family!"

The real members of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame include over 200 extraordinary women honored since 1975. The next group will be inducted in October, and this year, it includes a doctor of veterinary medicine, a trick-riding sister act that did stunt work for the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, and one of the only female screenwriters of westerns. She's known as the "cowgirl of the typewriter."