Rodeo happens fast — like 1.89 seconds fast, in the case of 20-year-old Kansan Beau Peterson, who roped a calf in that span to get to the finals of the inaugural Women’s Rodeo World Championship last week. All the contests happen in a matter of seconds, with winners and losers determined by seemingly imperceptible margins; for as much skill as it takes to rope or barrel race that quickly, a great deal of luck is involved.
But women haven’t historically been all that lucky in the world of rodeo, and it’s not for lack of effort. Right across the way from the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, where the WRWC’s qualifying rounds were held, is the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall Of Fame.
There, the long history of women in rodeo is carefully chronicled — from trick riders around the turn of the century to Annie Oakley to the legendary ropers and riders of contemporary rodeo. (Also, somewhat inexplicably, Reba.) In the museum you can find plenty of artifacts that seem to signify milestones, like events from the 1940s billed as the “first” all-women rodeos, along with proof of various payouts and athlete records. It’s a history echoed in most sports that we still think of as male-dominated: Women have participated since the beginning, and yet are perpetually seen — and marketed — as novelties. At least the women of rodeo have a whole museum as evidence of their contributions.
The Women’s Rodeo World Championship was clearly designed, at least in part, to earn a place in that museum. The contest, produced by rodeo’s primary governing bodies PBR and WCRA, promised $750,000 in total prize money — the most ever for an all-women’s rodeo — and for the rodeo’s championship rounds to take place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Also touted was the fact that all three disciplines — team roping, breakaway roping and barrel racing — would be awarded the same prize money.
The equality is significant because barrel racing is by far the most established professional rodeo sport for women; breakaway roping, which is also mostly considered a girl’s and women’s contest, has only been introduced to major professional rodeos within the past decade, and women’s team roping is even less common at the sport’s highest levels.
So in some ways, it is a milestone — but it’s also part of a trend of rapid growth both in women’s rodeo and the sport as a whole. After her run, Peterson was asked if $60,000, the first place prize, was the most money she’d ever competed for, a leading question clearly designed to drive home the WRWC’s record-breaking cred; she was sheepishly compelled to say no, because The American Rodeo, also at AT&T Stadium, offers a $100,000 prize to breakaway ropers. Also, that entire contest was at the same stadium where the Dallas Cowboys play, while the WRWC was basically presented as intermission entertainment during the PBR Finals.
Yet the billing was, “largest ever payout to women, in AT&T Stadium!” There’s no question that for women in rodeo, the WRWC was an exciting opportunity — but it wasn’t a bold move for equality as much as it was a logical next step in the growth of a sport (a sport that, it might be noted, is still heavily gendered when it comes to who competes in which contests). This marketing trope is familiar to anyone who watches women’s sports, where “firsts” and “trailblazers” and “pioneers” are a dime a dozen — where organizations with deep systemic issues tout anything that might look like progress, because somehow simply bringing women into the fold is enough to give you the moral high ground (the same logic that leads to looking at Amy Coney Barrett’s supreme court confirmation as a good thing, simply because she’s a woman).
It’s the same self-congratulatory schtick that should be confined to museums, proof that a time when including women was still newsworthy is long past. Hopefully someday, women’s work on the field, on the court, in the rodeo arena — watching barrel racing with an Avril Lavigne soundtrack, as took place at the WRWC last week, is nothing short of epic — will be allowed to simply speak for itself, not for the slow, designed “progress” of those who stand to profit from it.