Bonnie Wheatley, a 34-year old barrel racer from Calhan, never had to think much about being a woman in rodeo. She's too young to remember the birth of female rodeo nearly 60 years ago, when the Women's Professional Rodeo Association, then called the Girls Rodeo Association, allowed women to leave beauty pageants and rodeo queen contests to ride professionally.
When Wheatley places in a rodeo, she gets thousands of dollars in prize money, instead of the silver cigarette case or makeup compact awarded to women years ago. Today, she says, things are equal between the cowboys and the cowgirls.
Well ... more or less.
In August, the Colorado Springs-based WPRA received word that the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association would cut it off from the National Finals Rodeo, one of the sport's biggest events. The PRCA, which also is based here in town, is creating its own women's subsidiary. The move could swallow the membership, the money and the autonomous spirit of the nearly 2,000 barrel racers in the WPRA.
"I am shocked that this could come down to a women's issue," says WPRA president Jymmy Kay Davis. "To this day, we have men who say, "You girls are invited guests, and if you don't like it, you can leave.'"
The fragile partnership between the two organizations had allowed female barrel racers to compete in conjunction with PRCA rodeos. The PRCA, which sanctions more than 700 rodeos each year, sold sponsorships for the women. But the WPRA whose fierce independence has been a hallmark since its founding in 1948 controlled its own barrel-racing contests, in which riders loop around three metal barrels in a clover design.
The new PRCA subsidiary, called the Professional Women's Barrel Racing Association, will likely take over the national final event.
As Davis tells it, the relationship between the two groups soured when the PRCA began demanding more money from WPRA members. Cowboys and cowgirls had always paid nominal fees to enter rodeo events. In the past year, women had been charged three times the men's $5 rate, forking over $15 to enter a barrel race.
In May, she says, after a series of failed financial negotiations, the PRCA proposed another rate hike for the women, which would have driven entry fees to $25 in 2007. The fee would escalate by a dollar each year thereafter for 10 years. Meanwhile, the men's price would remain the same.
"You can't just pluck a number and force that upon women because you think you can," says Davis.
Troy Ellerman, a commissioner for the PRCA, says the women's group should pay higher dues to cover the $1.2 million in cash prizes that WPRA women take home from his organization every year. Their membership dues leave an annual shortfall of $380,000, he says.
"If they are characterizing this as a male-female debate, it is not," he says. "This is nothing more than a disagreement of what they should pay or not pay."
Davis, on the other hand, calls the business dealings a "display of chauvinism and the "good ol' boy' attitude." Last week, she began circulating online petitions that call for sponsors to protect the WPRA.
Wheatley, for her part, will remain faithful to the women's organization.
"I feel like the WPRA has done so much to build the sport, to found it, to preserve its history and to keep it going when we were not wanted," she says. "I owe them some loyalty."