Throughout the history of the western plains, men and the frontier have been mythically and rhetorically aligned. Conquest, settler beliefs held, demanded brute force and rugged individualism. Rachel Herbert’s Ranching Women in Southern Alberta refutes these still-popular myths and writes women back into Alberta’s ranching history “in the earliest frontier period and [through] their continually expanding roles on family ranches, which became prolific after the turn of the century.” A well-qualified insider who runs a family beef cattle operation, Herbert bases her rich and sophisticated analysis of women’s contributions not only on comprehensive scholarship but also on intimate knowledge as a daughter of four generations of accomplished ranch women in Alberta’s foothills.
Herbert begins her history in 1880, a start date corresponding with the introduction of the first cattle herds. Despite the early regional domination of large-scale open-range ranches—e.g., Walrond or Cochrane—small family ranches became “the successful model that persisted” in southern Alberta. Defined as “any agricultural operation that was primarily invested in livestock, be it cattle, horses or, more rarely in Alberta, sheep,” livestock was the primary commodity distinguishing the ranch from grain-based farms or homesteads. Census data show that “between 1881 and 1901… small ranches increased from 176 to 458, most of which had fewer than three hundred head of cattle.” Yet despite this growth, as Herbert notes, the “myth of open-range ranching outlived the method.”
Though the breadth and diversity of women’s labour was long obscured, women and girls, Herbert argues, adapted to the isolation and loneliness, faced hardships of childbirth often without support, and enthusiastically confronted strenuous work demands. With horses, less restrictive garments (split skirts) and equipment innovation (stock rather than side saddles), women found increased freedom, security, safety and mobility. Most significantly, they were equalized with male ranch hands. A skilled horsewoman easily silenced assumptions about what physical or manual activities she could or couldn’t achieve.
Herbert analytically mines a rich and entertaining array of resources including diaries, memoirs, correspondence and material artifacts. One compelling illustrated account, the Rocking P. Gazette, authored by young ranchers Maxine and Dorothy Macleay, reveals how girls learned how to handle stock and earned a vested interest in the ranch. As sources, Herbert credits not only family and local histories “laden with stories of hardworking women,” but also the vast scholarship of those historians over the past 40 years who similarly exposed the gender exclusions in narratives about North America’s West.
Herbert’s engaging account critiques conventional gendered binaries—bachelor cowboy, nomadic farmhand or sacrificing, thrifty wife—that frequent popular sources, while uncovering how women ensured the continuity of Alberta’s family ranches. Though demographics during certain decades recorded single unmarried men outnumbering women, these statistics do not “justify why the women who were there have largely been ignored.” Herbert irrefutably demonstrates the importance of women’s contributions, showing that women have long been essential players—entrepreneurs and authorities on grassland sustainability—in the cattle industry. With Ranching Women in Southern Alberta, Herbert delivers a radical redress of ranching history and grants girls hope for a more equitable future.
—Carol Williams is a professor of history and of women and gender studies at the University of Lethbridge.