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From law breakers to law makers, suffragists to unionists, bronc riders to ball players, Bold Women of Montana celebrates Women’s History Month in our state! Learn more about 23 bold women of Montana. Listen every weekday in March at 8:42 a.m. and 2:04 p.m., and find the latest episodes here.

Bold Women: Fannie Sperry Steele, bronc busting 'Champion of the World'

Fannie Sperry-Steele atop a rearing horse as the Champion Lady Bucking Horse Rider, Winnipeg Stampede, 1913.
Edward F. Marcell
Fannie Sperry-Steele, Champion Lady Bucking Horse Rider, Winnipeg Stampede, 1913.

For women, rodeo today pales against what it used to be. Barrel racing didn’t come along until the 1950s. Instead, women competed in all the same events as men, against other women or directly with men. Western girls grew up on horses. On ranches, they had to work, and one chore was breaking wild ponies to the saddle—in other words, bronc-riding.

On a homestead north of Helena, Fannie Sperry was born on March 27, 1887. Her mom, a German immigrant, taught the five kids to ride. Fast forward to 1903. Fannie was 16 when, for a lark, she hopped on a bronc in a local competition. After she won, spectators passed a hat. So Fannie got money for something she never thought about.

Her reputation as a rider spread. She was hired to race thoroughbreds on all-girl teams, she worked in Wild West shows, and she competed in rodeos, winning firsts and setting records especially in bronc riding.

In 1912, a Canadian promoter invited Fannie, now 25, to compete in the first Calgary Stampede. There, she won the title “Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World” plus a thousand dollars.

She rode broncs in New York & Chicago before President Teddy Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill Cody. Famously, Fannie rode without an advantage most women accepted, tying their stirrups down to make staying on easier.

Fannie married Bill Steele, another performer. Bill also sold horses, telling buyers, “That horse is gentle. My wife rides him.”

After retiring from rodeo, Fannie Sperry Steele became Montana’s first licensed female outfitter. She died in 1983.

Beth Judy is the author of Bold Women in Montana History and a limited audio series based on the book. She previously hosted and produced The Plant Detective, a locally produced and nationally syndicated program.
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