During the 50th Celebration of the WPRA Kenneth Springer captured this image with eight ladies representing 25 barrel racing world titles: From left to right: Charmayne James (11), Jimmie Munroe (1), Joyce (Burk/Loomis) Kernek (1), Sherry Combs Johnson (1), Jane Mayo (3), Billie McBride (4), Wanda Bush (2), LaTonne Sewalt (2)
By Ann Bleiker
The Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) is the oldest women’s sports organization in the country. The Association started in 1948 with a group of Texas ranch women who wanted to add a little color and femininity to the rough-and-tumble sport of rodeo. A major move at the time, 38 women met in a hotel in San Angelo, Texas, on February 28, 1948, to change the way they were being treated in the male-dominated world of rodeo. These women banded together to create the very first professional sports association created solely for women by women – the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA).
The women knew they had an uphill climb to make a go of the association but it was one they all wanted to try. The group’s primary purpose was to give women legitimate, honest opportunities to compete in all-girl rodeos as well as to establish an alliance with the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA- later became the PRCA) to host women’s events in conjunction with RCA-sanctioned rodeos. They drafted and approved rules and regulations, and they enacted a point system to crown world champions. Their rules took effect in May 1948, and GRA board members went to work, persuading rodeo committees and producers to hold women’s contests according to GRA rules.
GRA Founding Members in 1948
Margaret Owens Montgomery - President
Dude Barton - Vice President
Mrs. Katherine Pearson - Secretary-Treasurer
Sug Owens Bloxom - Publicity Agent
Jackie Worthington - Bareback Riding Director
Marlene Harlan - Bull Riding Director
Betty Barron Dusek - Calf Roping Director
Vivian White - Saddle Bronc Director
Blanche Altizer Smith - Team Tying/Cow Milking Director
Fern Sawyer - Cutting Horse Director
Helen Barron Green - Flag Race/Barrel Race/Line Reining Director
Dixie Reger - Contract Representative
Bebe Green, Mary Green, Ann Young, Mrs. Ted Powers, Mrs. Curtis Barron, Izora Young, June Probst, Virginia Probst, Nancy Bragg, Nancy Binford, Thena Mae Farr, Mrs. Allen, Sissy Allen, Mitzi Lucas Riley, Tad Lucas, Ora Altizer Quigg, Sally Taylor, Sally Hardin, Manuelita Mitchell, Fay Ann Horton, Doris Reed, Mary Ellen Sellers, Josephine Willis, Jesse Myers, Iris Dorsett, Frances Gist and Frances Wegg
Committees were given the option of choosing which event they would hold (bronc riding, cutting or barrel racing), and most picked barrel racing. In its inaugural year, the GRA had 74 members and they held 60 events with a total payout of $29,000. Two years later they had more than 100 members. Today, it is a computerized association with more than 3,000 members and over 1,300 events with a total payout of over $5.2 million.
In 1982, the GRA changed its name to the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) which continues to stand for the same ideals it stood for back in 1948 when it was first conceived as a tool to help like-minded women achieve their common goals.
Back in the early days of the National Finals Rodeo, where world titles are determined, the barrel racing was not held in conjunction with rest of the events but had its own championships at a different location. In 1959, the first year that the NFR existed, the barrel racing championships were held in Clayton, N.M., with the team roping and steer roping, while the other events were in Dallas. In 1960, the barrel racing and team roping events were held in Scottsdale, Ariz., and then in Santa Maria, Calif., in 1961. In 1962, the GRA decided to stand their ground and hold their finals in Ft. Worth without any RCA events at all. It would remain there until 1967 when Florence Youree met with Stanley Draper of Oklahoma City and asked him to include barrel racing with the NFR. During that meeting Stanley called Clem McSpadden and they decided to include the women and Draper agreed to put up $1,000 prize money the first year. In 1968, Stanley Draper proposed that the barrel racing be held at the NFR as long as the NFR was in Oklahoma City with a minimum purse of $2,500. Ann Lewis would be crowned the GRA World Champion at young age of 10, marking the youngest world champion in the Association's history.
Although barrel racing was now included as an event at the NFR, they were still not paid the same as all the men’s events. That all finally changed in 1998, when for the first time ever the barrel racing event paid out the same amount as ALL the men’s events at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. This was also the year that the Association celebrated 50 years. In 1999, Sherry Cervi took home her second world title and won more money in a single event than any other contestant competing at the finals-male or female. With $245,369 in earnings for the year, Cervi topped the second place high money winner, Fred Whitfield who was crowned the 1999 All-Around and Calf Roping World Champion, by more than $27,000. In 2013, Sherry Cervi placed in all 10 go-rounds, including three victories, and left Las Vegas with $155,899 earned inside the Thomas & Mack Center, setting a WPRA record for most money won at the NFR at the time and collected her fourth WPRA world title with $303,317 in final year earnings. The Arizona cowgirl became just the fifth cowgirl in WPRA Wrangler NFR history to place in each go-round. In 2016, Mary Burger would take home the world title becoming the oldest male or female at the age of 68 years and 4 months to compete at the Wrangler NFR and win a world title. In 2017, Tiany Schuster set a new regular season WPRA earnings record with $250,378, the most that any individual has entered the Wrangler NFR in a single event. Hailey Kinsel set a new Wrangler NFR earnings record in 2017 winning $189,385 in 10 days in Las Vegas.
From the very beginning, women have stuck their necks out for equality with varying degrees of success. In the early days of rodeo, some cowtowns recognized the ability women possessed and ditched the beauty pageants typically held for cowgirls. Instead, they held contests such as bronc riding, cutting or barrel racing. But, those events were few and far between. From the early days of competing for a cigarette case to competing for thousands of dollars of added money and incentive programs provided by the sponsorships secured by the WPRA over the last several decades the face of women in rodeo has certainly changed. Today’s contestants are breaking records, influencing history and paving a bright future for the future cowgirls.
The Association has come a long way in 70 years. The benefits the contestants receive today would not have been imaginable had it not been for a courageous band of women who roughed it out in the early days of rodeo. In addition, that courage would have been fruitless if it weren’t for the leaders who have stepped forward to accept the WPRA’s baton year after year. Their refusal to take “no” for an answer serves to inspire future generations to recognize and then work to harness the potential of women in rodeo, today, tomorrow and in the future. WPRA – Crowning World Champions since 1948.
Throughout the rest of 2018, we will be highlighting some of the influential individuals in the Association, influential horse bloodlines that have changed the sport and advancement in technology, etc., that have helped to professionalize the sport.