The Critical Role of Women Ranchers in American History

The Critical Role of Women Ranchers in American History

November 30, 2023

Women have contributed significantly throughout the history of the United States of America and it’s been my pleasure to work with women the last few decades. Through Financial Coaching, Retirement Planning, and Investment Management, my clients know their future is brighter. 

Every year, around 28 billion pounds of beef are produced from ranches across the United States. These range from “assembly line” production of massive corporations to “mom and pop” ranches in the Midwest. Everything from the burger you eat at McDonald’s to the steak tips in your afternoon salad comes from these ranches. 

Like most other industries, women have long remained the backbone of the ranching world. While their contributions may have gone unnoticed by history, American ranching owes a great deal of debt to the pivotal role women ranchers play that have sculpted not only the landscape of our country’s agriculture and food supply chain, but also the financial and social status of women in today’s world. 

It is important to look closer at these unique roles because they outline the significant impact of women that cannot be denied under the light of historical vision. 

Historical Background of Women Ranchers 

Ranching was brought to the US by early Spanish missionaries. After these missions were abandoned in the 18th century, men and women began to flock (no pun intended) to the open plains and take on the task because of the high value of beef, pork, and other meats. 

Women ranchers remain crucial in shaping this industry. Pioneers like Molly Goodnight developed a new sense of a woman’s role. She was married to one of the most famous ranchers on the High Plains – Charles Goodnight. She took it upon herself to rescue baby bison left behind by hunters (including Native Americans) and established the Goodnight buffalo herd that built a family dynasty. 

Or there is Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson Williams. Better known as the “Cattle Queen of Texas,” Lizzie built a career as a professional teacher, gaining an education when most other women were not allowed to pursue such ideas. She worked as a prominent bookkeeper for cattlemen and investors and registered cattle under her secret ‘CY’ brand. Even when she eventually married, she had a prenuptial contract that ensured she kept all financial matters in her name, solidifying her ability to own and operate a business and gain profits. 

These are only two examples of incredible women who held up a certain resilience to Western life. While they performed their “duties” inside the home, they also managed extensive estates, successfully navigating the complexities of ranch life and setting a unique precedent for years to come. 

Women Ranchers and their Roles and Responsibilities 

The roles of women ranchers were as diverse as the landscapes they managed. Beyond the traditional expectations of domestic duties, they took on responsibilities that were often unrecognized but crucial. They were adept at multitasking, balancing bookkeeping with the physical demands of ranch work. 

The financial management and estate planning side of things is where women really excelled. In many cases, it was the wife or female leader on the ranch who understood the nuances of feed markets, livestock trading, and where to send cattle for a seasonal rest. That strategic planning became essential to the overall well-being of a ranch and provided male counterparts with foresight in matters of estate and taxes. 

Challenges Faced 

The journey of women ranchers was paved with visible and unseen challenges. To start, there was extreme social skepticism, legal obstacles, and financial constraints. It wasn’t until the New York Married Woman’s Property Act of 1848 that other states started taking notice females could own property. Being able to actually run a ranch had to include ownership. 

Women confronted these stigmas head-on, often showcasing a prowess for ranching as much as navigating financial and legal intricacies. That struggle laid the groundwork for many modern laws that rest on today. There is an argument that without these brave women, we would see a very different social norm today. Their strength is a constant reminder we can and should do more to ensure women have just as much opportunity as anyone else. 

Impact on the Financial Health of Women 

The financial side of things is what captures the imagination when it comes to women ranchers. Every single day, ranch hands have to care for livestock, feed calves, maintain the land, upkeep any buildings, and ensure fencing and feed are always in high supply. 

All aspects of these duties require financing. Women would be the driving force in building financial gains in a ranching situation. That flips the switch on other industries where the man of the household is in charge of the money. You can say that women ranchers flipped the script on traditional wealth and gender dynamics long before it was mainstream. This was just a practical decision. 

As women become more acclimatized to financial matters, they would explore new savvy matters like where to best invest profits, how to conserve savings, and what tax implications can be massaged to ensure the future economic security of the property. 

Influence on Real Estate and Ownership 

The ownership question is a fun one to explore. In many cases, a ranch would be inherited or sold to a family where the last “man” standing was the woman. You have to think about it from the standpoint of the times. 

Unlike women in the Eastern United States wearing today’s fashion in a city, women of the frontier would learn to ride horses, herd cattle, and shoot. An example would be Eulalia Boone, who was a schoolteacher by day and a ranch owner by night and weekend. She refused to hire extra hands to handle her small family ranch because they lacked respect for her station as the landowner. 

That spirit has increased today, where around 14% of the agriculture and ranching business is owned or operated by women. This is because the freedom and independence of “living from the land” by selling cattle ensures no one is allowed to mess with your station in life. Put another way, it’s kind of hard to argue with a woman who has spent all day staring down an angry steer. 

Advancement of Women's Rights and Abilities 

The incredible legacy of women ranchers is not just in finance. These were and are strong women who did not put up with any guff from anyone. If they were not given headway to accomplish a task that protected their land, cattle, or family, then God be with you if you got in the way. 

In modern terms, that directly translates to a better life full of rights and abilities. Because these strong women demonstrated their ability to manage both a home and a business, it became much more “agreeable” for men to see them as equals. 

Their perseverance and success laid a foundation for the modern woman, who now confidently strides into various fields of endeavor. The contributions of these pioneering women have been a catalyst for change, inspiring generations of women to reach for their dreams, irrespective of societal expectations. 


The narrative we may have from old John Wayne movies could not be further from the truth. Yes, there were undoubtedly passive women ranchers, but even they had to deal with the constant struggle of making it the Great American West of old. 

The contributions of these ranchers are quintessential to the fabric of the American story. Their determination to reshape the physical, financial, and ownership landscape influences how we understand women in today’s world. 

That is why I’m proud to lead the team at Meyers Financial. We work with women through any transition stage to find the investment management, planning, and financial education needed so that all are given the same respect and independence necessary for a high quality of life. Contact our team today, and let’s discuss how you can continue the incredible legacies set by the women ranchers of our history. 

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Lillian Meyers CFP®, CDFA®, EA is a Financial Planner for Women helping clients live their best life through the use of financial planning, investment management, and other sophisticated financial options.