History moment: Calgary Stampede remembers some of our greatest female contributors for International Women’s Day

To celebrate the centennial of Alberta women achieving the right to vote and International Women’s Day on March 8, let’s take a look at some of the pioneering women of western performances and rodeo who competed at the first Calgary Stampede.

The three Prairie provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) were the first in the country to grant women the right to vote in provincial elections (there were still limits on which women could vote, but that’s another story).  Many historians argue that the nature of women’s work in the West laid the foundation for more equal treatment and had a direct link to the early achievement of women’s suffrage here.

On the range, women helped in branding, breaking horses and animal tending in addition to keeping house, managing food supplies and child rearing. This kind of work went against the strict gender roles of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries that claimed a woman’s place was only in the home. Some women used their ranch skills to pursue independence. In 1912, Calgary hosted the world’s best rodeo stars and western performers. Among them were Lucille Mulhall, Flores LaDue and Bertha Blancett.

A page from the 1912 program highlighting some of the stars that came to compete at the Stampede, Flores LaDue and Bertha Blancett among them.

A page from the 1912 program highlighting some of the stars that came to compete at the Stampede, Flores LaDue and Bertha Blancett among them.

Lucille Mulhall grew up on a ranch near Mulhall, Oklahoma. She was an excellent rider and roper who travelled the United States performing in the Miller Bros 101 Wild West Show (where she met LaDue). She was among the first women rodeo contestants and a successful performer, but people had a hard time describing her. An Oklahoma City performance in front of then-Vice President Theodore Roosevelt changed that: he called her a “cowgirl” and the term finally stuck (it had been in use, but Roosevelt’s status helped the term gain prominence). Mulhall came to Calgary for the 1912 Stampede and, the following year, started her own “Wild West” travelling show. She was the first woman to manage such a show.

A 1912 postcard featuring her winning title of that year: Champion Lady Steer Roper of the World.

A 1912 postcard featuring her winning title of that year: Champion Lady Steer Roper of the World.

Flores LaDue grew up in a small Minnesota town, where she began riding horses and learning roping tricks at a very young age. In 1905, the 20-year-old left home to join Col. Fred T. Cummins Wild West Show and Indian Congress. She was a hit performer. At the first Stampede, she took home the title of world champion trick roper. Thanks in part to her success with the Texas Skip (where a performer spins a lasso vertically and hops through the loop), she won the title two more times, retiring undefeated. She was married to Guy Weadick and helped him organize the Stampede and, later, run their guest ranch that was outside of High River, Alberta.

Flores LaDue hangs from her horse as she shows off her fancy roping skills. Cowgirls had special pants that were made to look like a skirt when they stood, but were in fact pants that enabled them to ride astride. These were called “split skirts.”

Flores LaDue hangs from her horse as she shows off her fancy roping skills. Cowgirls had special pants that were made to look like a skirt when they stood, but were in fact pants that enabled them to ride astride. These were called “split skirts.”

Bertha Blancett was a true pioneer for women in western shows and rodeos. She was the first woman to compete in the bucking bronc competitions at Cheyenne’s Frontier Days. She toured with the Miller Bros. show with LaDue and Mulhall and was a stunt rider in early movies. In Calgary, she was the only one to enter all of the women’s events. She won the relay race and placed in others, taking home $1,100 in prize money here (for comparison, an average teacher’s salary in 1912 was a little more than $500).

Bertha Blancett standing on her horse next to her husband, Dell, who was also a rodeo star. Because she is standing, Blancett’s “split skirt” looks like a true skirt.

Bertha Blancett standing on her horse next to her husband, Dell, who was also a rodeo star. Because she is standing, Blancett’s “split skirt” looks like a true skirt.

These are just three snapshots of early women western performers and rodeo stars. They had a level of independence few women enjoyed during this era, and blazed a trail for women performers to come. Today, women compete in more than 15 events at the Calgary Stampede and young women, aged nine to 20, participate in the youth events 4-H on Parade and 4-H Rodeo.