Ranching, in recent memory has been considered man’s work. Across virtually every medium, common conception of the West has taken a masculine form in near uniformity. From the Marlboro Man to the Cisco Kid, in literature, film, and commerce the American rancher has been distilled into a single word: Cowboy.
But make no mistake, the West is just as equally a woman’s domain too. Women have always played a significant role in the western way of life, and each male rancher has a story about a influential wife, mother, or grandmother. In turn, the frontier these pioneers helped to shape has produced countless strong, independent female leaders whose names are etched in history.
Yet, for all their contributions, women ranchers and pioneers often get brushed aside as little more than a footnote in the annals of the West. It’s hard to put a finger on when, exactly, the singular male personification of the rancher took hold. The paradigm was fed in no small part by men’s prominence in popular culture throughout the second half of the 20th Century, when America’s romance with the Western lifestyle blossomed.
It owes, too, to the United States’ industrialization after World War II, which automated many operations on modern farms. Deployment of new technologies and equipment alleviated demand for workers, and mass production, coupled with increased global trade, began to drive down the profitability of small operations. As a result, many family-owned businesses began to rely on outside income, which frequently fell to women to procure.
The conception today is that “female ranchers and farmers are stepping up” however, they’ve been there all along. In the past, and still, many women work - typically unpaid - long hours as ranch hands in addition to being stay-at-home mothers. The reality is that the landscape of proprietorship is shifting. Over the past 30 years, the number of female-owned farms has tripled, and women now constitute the industry’s fastest-growing demographic. More than 14 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million farms declare a female proprietor, according to the latest census data. That number is expected to rise as women step forward and men—who historically inherited family agricultural operations—trend towards less gritty jobs.
Responsible for nearly $13 billion in economic impact and over 301 million acres of agricultural production, women ranchers and farmers are leading sustainability, conservation and humane animal husbandry movements. Women farmers are noticing and catering to growing consumer preferences towards local, organic, and farm-to table products. Nearly a million strong and growing in the United States alone, this cadre of women is restaking their connection to the land, and leaving a powerful example for future generations in the process.
Across the world, women continue to play a central role in agricultural production, particularly in developing countries. Women perform nearly half (43 percent) of farming work in developing countries, according to USAID. However, in many regions, they lack access to capital, technology and basic human rights.
Here in the States, ranching and farming is still a male-dominated occupation. But, increasingly, women are putting their stamp on the industry. In 2017, female agriculturalists out-earned their male counterparts by roughly 16 percent, one of only ten fields in which women earn more than men on average. Women make up 30 percent of farm operators in the U.S., and they are taking on leadership roles and starting their own businesses in greater numbers than men.
To be sure, women ranchers and farmers are still a minority. But they are quickly reshaping the landscape and redefining stereotypes in the act. As more women take up that bold legacy to put their brand on modern agriculture, there is reason to believe the next chapter of the American West will be one embodied by a new character—the Cowgirl.
Written by Deirdre Griffith