Cowgirls and the Discourses of Patriarchy and Feminism in Country/Western Music

 

Editor’s note: In the months leading up to the 2017 “Big Berks” conference (the triennial Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities, which will be hosted by Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, USA, on June 1-4, 2017) , we will be highlighting research on rural women that will be presented at that conference.  This week, we share another abstract from a session focused on rural women, “The Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture,” that will include several members of the Rural Women’s Studies Association.

 

Cowgirls and the Discourses of Patriarchy and Feminism in Country/Western Music

Renee M. Laegreid, University of Wyoming

 

“Cowgirls” emerged on the music scene as singers/songwriters and as the subject of songs by both male and female artists in the mid-1930s. The popularity of western music helped create an image of western women who, despite stepping outside traditional feminine boundaries, retained traditional attitudes toward sexual purity and domesticity. The emergence of Honky Tonk music in the 1950s blurred the distinction between cowgirls and working class women; Western music became increasingly identified as Country, and lyrics featuring cowgirls shifted away from the innocent pleasures of riding across the range to drinking in bars, cheating on spouses, and flaunting sexuality. While some female Country Music artists wrote songs protesting patriarchal attitudes toward women, in the heavily male-dominated music industry, since the 1970s songs about cowgirls have become increasingly fixated on their demimonde world of cowboy bars, beer, and sexual license. The emergence of Western Music Association in 1988 provided a forum for singer/songwriters to counter this stereotypical cowgirl image with songs that speak to the diversity of western women.

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This lightning session presentation combines music history and theory with gender studies, examining the popularization of country western music in the 1920s, the historical development of this musical genre related to women—more specifically, cowgirls—as the subject of songs, and individual composers whose songs interrogated the evolving discourse over women’s changing roles in society. This presentation addresses a significant gap in western women’s and gender scholarship by connecting the cultural significance of cowgirls with an analysis of country music history.

 

Other presentations as part of the “Rural Imaginary in Popular Culture” session will include:

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