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"Be Shure to Fix the Fence": The Arizona Cowbelles' Public Persona, 1950-1960

From: Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies
Volume 25, Number 2, 2004
pp. 151-175 | 10.1353/fro.2004.0046

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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25.2 (2004) 151-175

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"Be Shure to Fix the Fence"

The Arizona Cowbelles' Public Persona, 1950-1960

In 1955, Arizonans would have seen an ample-bosomed, blonde caricature named Lil' Dudette everywhere. She would have welcomed them at the Arizona State Fair, spoken to them from the pages of magazines and newspapers, hailed them from clothing labels, and greeted them at the meat counters in their local grocery stores. During the same year Lil' Dudette became the mascot for the Arizona ranchwomen's organization, the Arizona Cowbelles. The Cowbelles used Lil' Dudette to promote the product that enabled their day-to-day economic viability—namely, beef cattle—and her slogan, "Lil' Dudette—Eats Beef—You Bet—and so must you," sent a seemingly simple message (see fig. 1).1 Yet Lil' Dudette, with her blonde hair, cowboy-like accoutrements, and sexy short shorts, was anything but simple. Like the Cowbelles themselves, Lil' Dudette capitalized on the symbolic power of rural, white womanhood while simultaneously promoting a particularly sexualized and gendered image of beef.

In the 1950s, Arizona range cattle ranchers experienced more change than stability as Arizona underwent demographic and economic shifts that mirrored America's broader postwar experience.2 Phenomenal increases in most economic arenas led to a rise in the standard of living and unprecedented affluence for many, but in the 1950s, Arizona cattle ranchers did not always experience this new affluence.3 During the decade, Arizona range ranch folk often looked on with increased feelings of helplessness as they witnessed massive growth in both the manufacturing and service industries.4 Although cattle ranching represented the leading industry in the 3percent increase in overall agricultural output of the decade, the industry's power relative to other statewide industries diminished as Arizona ranchers experienced low cattle prices and terrible drought conditions through the first two-thirds of the decade.5 Generally speaking, Arizona ranch folk viewed this context negatively, because they feared for both their economic viability and their cultural "way of life."6 [End Page 151]

Into this unstable decade stepped the Arizona Cowbelles. The Cowbelles organized sixteen years before the creation of Lil' Dudette, in Douglas, Arizona, to "cement the good will and friendship among the wives and mothers of cattle men in Cochise County."7 The women initially sponsored social activities for the local group including picnics and dances, but in 1949, the group began instituting a statewide organizational structure that focused on promoting the industry's beef products.8 Although the ranchwomen in Douglas had forged the original Cowbelle organization to establish good will and friendship among cattlemen and cattlewomen, the Cowbelles soon meant much more to the ranchwomen of Arizona. The group provided woman-centered community as well as offering a venue for the formation of a specific identity grounded in their economic livelihood and special interests as rural women in an increasingly urban world. The organization was founded to promote dances and picnics in the late 1930s, but by the early 1950s, as Cowbelle Joyce Mercer explained, the Cowbelles intended "to speak up for women on the ranches."9 Indeed, the organization came to represent a venue through which Arizona cattlewomen could communicate with one another about their collective identity and through which they could promote their economic product (beef), their distinctive ways of life, and their increasingly obsolete gendered identity as rural women.10

They accomplished this promotion in three ways. First, they used a cultural language of place, which was grounded in their private experiences with their nonhuman ranch environs, to create community across space and time. Second, they engaged their understanding of the importance of their labor to the cattle industry to create a collective identity based on gender. And third, they created promotional campaigns for beef to ensure their continued economic and cultural viability. The cultural language and labor identities of the Cowbelles culminated in the promotion of beef and all three elements created a multilayered gendered identity for the Cowbelle...