Dissertation Abstract


Cow Talk: Ecology, Culture, and Power in the Intermountain West Range Cattle Industry, 1945-1965
University of Arizona Dissertation Abstract

Completed:  December, 2005

Political Cartoon
Cartoon from the Montana Stockgrowers' Association's publication, The Montana Stockgrower, 1955



Pause for a moment and think about 20th-century cows.  It’s something we’re not used to doing.  When, in the early dawn of the 21st century, we do think about cows it is usually to recall the hamburger we’ve just eaten; or, if we’re of environmental leanings, or vegetarian/vegan persuasions, it is to bemoan the cruelty to animals that hamburgers represent and to shake our heads at the “rape” of the West which has occurred at the hands of the “selfish” range cattle industry.  In many instances, the thought of cows brings to mind rodeos, cowboys and country music.  Indeed, unless a person actually lives on a working cattle ranch, cattle have become disconnected blobs of ground meat on paper plates at summer barbeques, topics of country twang or objects of political concern.  This dissertation will encourage the reader to reconnect with the 20th century cow’s historical context.  

Both producers (cattle ranchers themselves) and consumers (of beef) are concerned with the economic elements of this context.  When the price of hamburger goes up, consumers become aware (however vaguely) of the economic characteristics of the cows they consume.  For ranchers, ledgers, sales receipts, market fluctuations and concerns about the bottom line might jump to mind as the primary historical context in which create to consider cows.  But look more closely and it becomes apparent that the cow’s historical context is richer than dollars and cents.

Most of the history that has been written on the cattle industry fails to take into consideration the social, cultural and environmental aspects of cows, but understanding these elements of cattle-raising is particularly important in the 21st-century western United States.  Following one and half centuries of special interest advocacy on the part of the cattle industry, two decades of Sagebrush Rebellion by ranchers across the intermountain West, as well as 50 years of  urbanization of range spaces, western cattle and the humans who work with them are not only politically salient but also culturally relevant.  Ranchers occupy positions of power in much of the popular culture’s imagination.  Their successful lobbying for low grazing fees and continued use of the public domain for their individual capitalist enterprises has inspired ire in the minds and hearts of environmental activists across the country.  I would argue that while we hear much for ranchers’ opponents, little has been studied about the ranchers themselves.  How do they understand their positions in the economic, environmental, and political world of the postwar Western United States? 

My research has unveiled that range cattle ranchers had complex understandings of their own identities and they grounded ideas about themselves and their roles in the intermountain West in cultural and social relations which were primarily rooted in their material and imaginative dependence on cows.  Steeped in what I have labeled cow culture, the cattle industry of the intermountain West has been able to lobby for its special interests specifically because it has been buoyed by a keen sense of self supported by its cultural, social and environmental identities. Much is written about “welfare ranching” but ranchers themselves would argue that the economics of the cattle industry in the intermountain West have been undeniably crucial to the cultural and economic development of the region and they counter claims of “special privileges” with a language of rights and obligation.  In particular, ranchers claim they are and historically have been the true guardians of the grasslands.  Wallace Stegner once wrote that “ranching is one of the few western occupations that has been renewable and has produced a continuing way of life.”  This dissertation investigates just what this “way of life” included. 

Beginning in the mid 20th century, range cattle ranchers began to fear for the vitality of their industry and gathered together in increasing numbers to defend their “way of life” politically and culturally.  This dissertation investigates not only ranching’s “way of life” but also how ranchers chose to come to its defense.  The central argument in my work is that the economic and political power of the modern range cattle industry has been grounded in cultural identity and social associations.  I examine the gender, labor and environmental culture of voluntary ranching associations (the individual state Stockgrowers’ associations) in five intermountain West states: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. 


Research Methodology and Sources

I chose to base my study in archival sources in five states.  These archives included the monthly publications of the Cowbelles, and the stockgrowers’ and dude ranchers’ associations; the papers of each of the associations (including the papers and scrapbooks of the Cowbelles in Wyoming, Montana and Arizona); the papers of individual ranchers; the record series of various government agencies (such as the United States Department of Agriculture and each state’s Livestock Sanitary Boards); oral histories of ranch men and women; and individual ranch recordsThese collections contain both public information (such as membership records, publications, convention records, financial records, and meeting minutes) and private information (such as diaries, ranch journals, personal communication, and communication between members).

Three questions guided my research in these collections:

1)  To begin to understand how a group of people envisioned themselves it is important to ask who belonged to the group and how they understood that membership.  To answer this set of questions, I utilize both material and ideological evidence.  I have used membership records, dues schedules and ranch directories to uncover the class, gendered, and racial make-up of the associations’ membership and then compared this information with what the groups were saying about their membership.   

2) My contention, that much of the political identity (and power) of ranchers is grounded in culture, necessitated that I uncover the kinds of collective cultural and social activities the group conducted.  My second set of questions, therefore, has been what kind of social and labor activities did ranchers engage in, how did they understand the importance of those activities, and how did those social and labor activities manifest themselves politically?  Here, the Cowbelles become especially important as they devoted hours of labor running their ranches, creating publications, making parade floats, planning picnics, and dances, and inventing new kinds of beef promotion activities.  Their diaries and meeting minutes have been essential in gathering evidence about the meanings that such events had not only for ranch women but for ranch men as well. These cultural and social activities are collective moments during which ranchers blended leisure activities with ranch labor, group communication, and political strategizing. 

3)  My third major research question has been predicated on the fact that the two things all rangecattle ranchers had in common were cows and the range.  What I have learned from my research is that ranchers rooted their cultural identities in a type of ecological labor that was specific to particular environmental experiences and ethics with regard to their cattle and their range.  This work experience was the primary foundation on which ranchers’ identity formation rested.


Scholarly Contribution

My work will make significant scholarly contributions in a number of areas. First and foremost, my work helps illuminate the intersections of political and cultural power.  Secondly, my dissertation reveals the importance of environment and labor to the cultural identities of 20th-century rural workers.  And thirdly, my project adds to our understanding of the mental world-view and lived reality of one group of post World War II rural women.

 Postwar ranching culture rested in something I have labeled “cow talk,” which I have defined as a symbolic and lived language that ranchers shared in order to create unity.  There are very few histories on 20th-century range cattle ranching that extend beyond World War II and none that examine the culture of the industry (as opposed to the political and economic activities).  I have found that ranchers conceptualized their special interest group activity (especially their legislative lobbying efforts) as acts in defense of their culture or their “way of life.”  This “way of life” was built on the lived experiences of ranching and ranchers used “cow talk” to give meaning to those experiences and to create a political ideology that would help them to defend their cultural place in the world.  Thus, my work will add to the relatively few studies on the 20th-century cattle industry but will also contribute to the fields of cultural studies and identity formation.  My work responds to the call by Stuart Hall and others to think about the ways in which identity is culturally constructed.  My work not only theorizes that suggestion, but also extends it to illustrate the ways in which culture and identity combine to create more formal political power. 

Ranching is more than just cow talk – it involves work in a particular environment.  And so my investigation of the intersections of labor and the environment is the second area in which I will make a scholarly contribution.  Environmental historians such as Donald Worster, Richard White and William Cronon have pointed to the complex relations between work and nature and geographers, such as Yi Fu Tuan, have encouraged scholars to begin to examine human beings’ relationships with the non-human world to shed light on historical identities.  My dissertation extends their insights by unveiling how ranchers’ work experiences inform environmental ethics and visa versa and how these interactions form identity. 

Last, but certainly not least, my project will add to our understanding of the mental world-view and lived reality of one group of 20th-century rural women.  Despite clarion calls from prominent women’s historians, such as Joan Jensen and Katherine Jellison, to study rural women across time and space, historians of the United States have largely ignored rural women in the postwar decades of the 20th century.  Perhaps this oversight is due to the increasing marginalization of rural peoples in the 20th-century “modern” era.  But the Cowbelle story adds a vital piece to the story of 20th-century women’s history because it reveals the ways in which one group of rural women reacted to a marginalizing experience.  The Cowbelles chose to embrace their gender in a time that many have depicted as stifling for women, in a place that most people associate with deep-seated conservatism, in an industry grounded in the mythologized male tradition of the cowboy.  Despite the hegemonic rendering of western, cattle ranching as a world of masculinity, the Cowbelles used their gendered, labor and environmental collective consciousness to redefine an entire industry’s public persona.  Just at the moment when range cattle ranchers sensed a decline in their social and economic power, ranch women stepped in to assert theirs.  They did so by promoting a “positive” image of cattle ranching through the use of language which promoted a feminine consumerism appropriate in the gendered world of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, but they also created space in ranching’s cultural narrative for their own producer identities (grounded in their contributions as ranch laborers and workers for the collective organizations).  Thus, my work sheds light on the ways in which rural women, in the mid-20th century, seized power in spite of their increasing marginalization and helped to build a new political identity for an entire industry based on a foundation of rural and gendered culture.   

Broadly, I expect my dissertation will help us understand the ways in which the work, environment, gender, and politics can combine to create cultural and political power in the postwar United States.  More specifically, I expect my work to show the ways in which these categories combined in five intermountain West states to support the strength and salience of a politically powerful special interest group throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century. 

List of Chapters:

Introduction -- Building the Fence: Constructing the Parameters of the Study

Chapter 1 -- Hunters and Highways: The Postwar Context of Ranchers' Lives, 1935-1965

Chapter 2 -- Branding the Past: Collective History as Cohesive Agent

Chapter 3 -- Cow Work: The Social World of Production on Range Cattle Ranches

Chapter 4 -- Corralling the Herd: The Ecological Economy of Range Cattle Ranchers

Chpater 5 -- Beef Fudge: The Market as Unifying Practice in Ranch Culture

Chapter 6 -- Cow Talk: Ranchers' Cultural Language

Epilogue -- Shutting the Gate: Concluding Thoughts