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FORT WORTH (CBS11) – For many people, when they think of images of the American West they think of cowboys, horses, and wide open spaces.

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But for decades, a Fort Worth-based museum has been working to alter that image to reflect the women who helped shape the West.

The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame is situated in the place “where the West begins.” But many people who remember the 2002 opening of the current museum building in Fort Worth may not realize that it actually started more than 25 years earlier…in the small Panhandle town of Hereford.

“The museum actually started as an idea to have an all-girl rodeo, where there would be cowgirls who’d show up and they’d get to compete against each other,” says Dr. Diana Vela, the Associate Executive Director of Exhibits and Education at the National Cowgirl Museum. “And there’s a Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame in Oklahoma…Well, why not one for women?”

The museum moved to Fort Worth after quickly outgrowing its West Texas location. It now has more than 4,000 artifacts, and information about more than 750 women.

“It’s not just women who do work horseback,” says Vela. “This is women who somehow shaped the American West.”

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That includes writers, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder…artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe…and even actresses who left their mark with famous portrayals of cowgirls.

And Vela says many visitors are surprised to learn that Sandra Day O’Connor– the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice — is, in fact, a cowgirl…and is in the museum’s Hall of Fame.
“She was raised on a ranch. In fact, if you talk to her today, she identifies herself as a cowgirl. It’s very much who she is,” says Vela. “She’s very comfortable talking about what it was like to have babysitters who were cowboys, growing up on a horse, and all the different animals she had. So a very strong part of the Justice’s identity is that of a cowgirl.”

Vela says the women who are often most overlooked are those who worked alongside the men known for taming the Wild West.

“So much of our history of the West is male mythic, ‘How the West was won’, and there certainly is some truth in that,” says Vela, “but we’re missing a large part of the story when we don’t talk about these women who were there, oftentimes doing the very same work that the men were.”

One of the exhibits not to be missed: The museum’s new Women in the Wild West gallery.
“The technology in there with our holograms, with the ability to take your photo next to Buffalo Bill, some artifacts that have never been seen before, it’s an absolute must-see, and again there’s no other place in the U.S. where you see can see the things that we have here,” says Vela.

The museum is located in the heart of Fort Worth’s Cultural District, and during the summer is open seven days per week.

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