Little Spoken Truths of Three Generations at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Upon first arriving in Elko, Nevada, for the 34th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, I experienced something unsettling there that I also experienced in Reno just the week prior.
The Friday before the gathering, I attended a talk on Bertsolaritza, Basque improvised and sung poetry, and how women rose through the ranks of the once male-dominated art form. Upon conclusion of the presentation, Q&A proceeded. A man attending the talk re-explained the main points in different words for about three consecutive minutes. The encounter struck me in the moment, but I chose not to call attention to it.
Then on Tuesday, the first talk I attended at the poetry gathering was on a similar subject: female bertsolaris, the Basque poets, and their push to redefine themselves as speakers and not things to which men refer. To my surprise and muted dismay, the same longwinded guy from Friday was at the Tuesday talk. In the same way, though to another accomplished bertsolari, the guy re-explained the points to the group for three-plus minutes. Then he did it for a third time, and in that case, he did it to the Bertsolaritza national champion, Maialen Lujanbio Zugasti.
What was this guy thinking as he mansplained issues surrounding Bertsolaritza to the two-time national champion? If you are attending a talk and you catch yourself speaking for minutes at a time, something has gone wrong. If you spend those minutes telling the national champion what she needs to know about her craft, you’ve gone wrong.
This initial witnessing of gender dynamics shaped my perception of what was to come at the weeklong event, but my perception grew the opposite way as the week unraveled.
I learned that poetry and music were definitely major players at the gathering, but there were also cooking workshops, artists with merchandise to sell and crafts to teach, dances, and seminars on feminism and soil. The gathering was truly something to experience. The literary prowess moseying about at all times, the salivation inducing food around every corner, and insights about the world could be found at every venue.
“Excuse me, Ms. I enjoyed your performance. I’m writing a story on #MeToo through the lens of three generations in rural America. Would you be willing to sit down for an interview?” I asked of one performer appearing to be in her mid-thirties. “Well, I’ve never been harassed or anything like that, so I don’t think I’d have much to say on the subject,” she responded.
I received many responses just like hers from many different male and female performers. I wasn’t sure if harassment in the rural environment was actually rarer, or maybe that people just didn’t want to talk about it if it did exist. I thought, too, that maybe abuse was happening but people rationalized their way around it. Perhaps they demoted abuse to simple disrespect. It also seemed pretty reasonable to me that everyone from which I solicited interviews had opinions on the subject, but didn’t wish to say divisive things during a divisive time.
My goal was to interview one man and one woman each in the following generations: Millennial, Gen X, and the Baby Boomers. My initial thought was that since the dawn of #MeToo, it’s become more and more apparent to me that men are largely going unchecked in their abuse and mistreatment of women. I wanted to do something, anything, to better understand the problem and how to fix it. I thought it best to get as many diverse opinions as possible. Having spoken to many people in my home area of Reno, it seemed that abuse and disrespect against women was prevalent across all age groups, at least in my home city.
I wondered if women living outside my modest urban setting encountered the same types of mistreatment, and if so, how they felt about it. I wondered if cowboys, ranchers, farmers, poets, buckaroos, musicians, artists, and performers perceived themselves as part of the evolving narrative surrounding the emotional abuse, psychological abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape happening to women at the hands of men.
I wondered how age and gender influenced the opinions of rural Americans on things like gender relations at work, sexual consent, body language, gradations of abuse, accountability, and how we can change our society if we so desire.
At this point, I feel compelled to recognize my own bias in writing this article. Having lived in the Reno/Sparks area my whole life, my experience and understanding of places like Elko, Springfield, Missouri, Prescott, Arizona, and Omaha, Nebraska, are limited. Let me say, too, that I don’t think any one person, city, or town can fully represent descriptors like rural or urban. The cities I mentioned above are places some of my interviewees spent time in or spend time living in. It’s my goal to try to tap into their world views with only six days of interviews, performances, and readings. This article does not set out to examine the infinite nuances of what it’s like to live in a rural, agricultural, or Western-type environment. The goal is to obtain opinions on difficult to talk about and seldom asked gender related questions through the lens of people that self-identify as living or have lived in rural places.
Ranching: A Different Type of Body Language and Missed Cues
My first interviewee was Betty Lynne McCarthy, a ranch owner and operator out of Springfield. McCarthy self-identified as a child of the ’50s. Upon first introducing myself to McCarthy and explaining my story’s focus, she said she didn’t have any firsthand experience of abuse and that her perspective may not be what I was looking for. I explained that I was only seeking her truth about how men and women interact where she lives or has lived. She agreed to meet with me.
An anonymous woman called out comedian Aziz Ansari for failing to read her body language indicating that his sexual advances were unwelcome on a date they shared. What body cues should men look for on a woman to know that we need to stop pursuing sexual contact?
McCarthy did not wish to speak on nonverbal communication shared on a date, but she did share what body language she needs to look out for on the range.
She explained that failure to read a large animal’s indications of tension can result in serious injury. It’s critical to be responsive when an animal does not feel at ease.
I asked McCarthy to further explain how to tell when the distressed state of a large animal requires a shift in approach.
“Body language is when you’re pressuring a bull that weighs a ton, and he decides he doesn’t want to go any further. And you had better read that in him or you’re going to be upside down… Body language is when you pushed your horse too hard and you feel the tension, and know that you better be hand enough to handle that tension or else work your way around it. And that is a body language I’m familiar with. As far as people, you’ve probably picked the wrong person,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy explained that the difficulty and quantity of the work she does with her husband on their ranch requires maximum effort and concentration by all involved. Because McCarthy learned the ins and outs of ranching early on in her career, it was second nature to simply do what needed to be done. She observed, though, that this was not the case in every place that she’s worked. She specifically referenced that she worked at three different ranches, in different places, and in different climates. Each offered partly similar and partly different experiences.
One region in which she worked, New Mexico, presented her with viewpoints she did not experience elsewhere. McCarthy remembers some of the ranch wives expressing a disapproval of McCarthy doing a “man’s work.” To McCarthy, she was not doing man’s work. She was doing the exact work that needed to be done independent of her gender.
In thinking about New Mexico and why there was maybe more disrespectful behavior there, do you have any thoughts about what could have caused it to happen like that?
“Tradition. Yeah, because women down there just did not ride on the crews. One of the largest pastures we gathered was 45 square miles. That’s larger than a lot of counties in Missouri where I live now. So that’s an all-day, long, hard job, and stuff like that was pretty much just left to the men. The women just didn’t come up in that culture doing that kind of work and hard riding or the roping or anything else. They stayed at the house. In fact I had other ranch wives tell me that my job did not concern beyond the screen-door,” said McCarthy
What did you have to say to them when they approached you with comments like that?
“I think I just looked at them and laughed, because I wasn’t going to stop. I was good at it. Why would I stop? I was better than a lot of the men down there, and I’m not bragging when I say that. It was fact,” said McCarthy.
She then recalled a particular story involving multiple assessments of her performance while at a branding. She performed exceptionally well at that branding. One of the ranch wives asked her husband, the ranch owner, how McCarthy did. The owner said that McCarthy performed poorly. The wife, still curious, asked a ranch hand how McCarthy did. According to the ranch hand, he thought McCarthy did very well and was just grateful to have her there working hard.
McCarthy wished to express that not all the men in southeast New Mexico were prejudiced. Respect and disrespect by people in New Mexico was really a mixed bag. When her husband sustained a major injury, she led a two-man crew who followed her instructions well when transitioning the cattle from New Mexico to Missouri.
My second interviewee was Gail Steiger, foreman of Spider Ranch in Yavapai County near Prescott, Arizona. Though ranching is Steiger’s primary occupation, he’s been known to host performers at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering as well as perform himself on occasion. Steiger is currently 62 years old.
I asked Steiger to respond to the same body-language topic I asked McCarthy. Specifically, how men can better understand a woman’s body language to avoid missed cues that sexual contact needs to slow down or stop.
“Yeah, pay more attention … I would think if you are very sensitive at all yourself you would pick up on that. I find it hard to believe that he, [Ansari], didn’t or wasn’t aware of it … That he was only interested in pleasure for himself, and not at all concerned about what that meant for her. So I would definitely fault him on that score,” Steiger said.
What barriers need to be broken before men and women treat each other with respect at all times?
“I think all humans need to treat each other with respect at all times. You know, the idea that there are lower classes, or that immigrants or people who are not like us don’t deserve respect. The idea that people that come from some countries are worth less than people who come from other countries; those kinds of barriers need to be broken as well as barriers between genders. I’m actually encouraged by the whole #MeToo thing. I do think change is coming.
“I think in some cases the pendulum can swing too far. I was infuriated at NPR for just erasing all of “A Prairie Home Companion” on the strength of whatever complaint there was against Garrison Keillor. I think that’s an overreach. I really do. I think that’s kind of hysterical, and makes no sense. But I do feel like there is progress being made,” said Steiger.
Would you say then that rather than this sort of trend to destroy lives of people who are accused of mistreating others that we should maybe open the discourse to see why they behaved the way that they did and maybe how we can change moving forward?
“Yeah, I think that transparency is good. I think it’s really important for women to feel free to speak up if they do feel like they’ve been harassed or abused in some way. But, I’m not saying everybody should just be forgiven after bad behavior has been noted. You know, in some ways I think it’s good that there are consequences. I think it’s good that Harvey Weinstein had to step away from the projects he was involved in. I think it was good for Al Franken to do what he did. If we’re going to try to take the moral high-ground here. But, I think reason should apply to that, too … I think there should be some standard of proof there … There should be some care taken to listen carefully to both sides of the … I think the fact that women are [feeling] empowered to speak up, I think that has done a lot of good and will continue to do good,” said Steiger.
We then talked about the difficulties in discussing Weinstein’s allegedly criminal behavior in the same conversation as Franken’s allegedly inappropriate, while still legal, behavior.
What kind of repercussions do you think men should face when they put women in extremely uncomfortable and inappropriate positions without breaking the law explicitly?
“Hmm. That’s a good question. Actually, I think Al Franken, I feel like he was honorable to do what he did. And in some ways, he was an effective senator from all the news that I get and a strong voice in the Senate. It’s too bad that we’re throwing out that baby with the bathwater. There’s a difference between criminal behavior and objectionable behavior or boorish behavior. I think as we go on with this discourse we should be aware of that gradation,” concluded Steiger.
Steiger’s apprehension in putting Weinstein’s behavior and Franken’s behavior in the same category of misconduct seems common. A recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch poked fun at how we are all struggling to condemn abhorrent behavior against women while commenting that some of that behavior is worse than other types.
Do you wish to share any stories of misconduct or abuse that’s happened to a woman in your life?
Steiger recalled a story of domestic abuse that was handled swiftly in his community. It became apparent that things were not right with a couple in a neighboring ranch when the wife showed up with a black eye.
“Some of the other cowboys just beat the shit out of her husband as soon as word got around … So, you know, it’s clearly not acceptable in the cowboy culture … the matter seemed to be dealt with very swiftly in kind of a cowboy way – very directly. And later that marriage did not survive, but I don’t think it did happen again for the duration of that marriage either,” said Steiger.
In Steiger’s world, men and women use the golden rule in deciding what respect looks like between people. A man laying his hands on a woman is a clear violation of that rule. Injustice it seems, as handled by cowboys, is not left to live in limbo. Injustice, at least in the case of domestic abuse, is condemned with a strong hand.
My third interviewee was Amy Hale Auker-Steiger. She operates the Spider Ranch with her husband Gail Steiger and is a published poet and author in addition to being a full-time cowboy. Auker-Steiger is currently 47 years old.
How do you think gender relations differ between the urban setting and the rural setting?
“I’ve never lived in an urban setting, so I can only speak from one side of that, unfortunately, divide. In a rural area, very often, gender roles tend to fall into traditional lines which is not a good or bad thing as long as everybody is content with that and happy with that. Same way in an urban area I think. We’re seeing where it’s not necessarily the expectations of society but more and more we’re seeing where people are choosing their roles according to how they want their life to look. And I love that. And I think it happens a little bit more in an urban setting a little faster than it has in a rural setting. In a rural setting, I don’t know any stay-at-home dads. Which would be cool if we did. Ten years ago I didn’t know any women that were cowboying full-time without their husbands. Now I know four women holding down jobs on cow camps without a spouse to be the boss or the leader. I think that’s very cool,” said Auker-Steiger.
“Respect is simply between people. I’m tired of the men and women thing. I’m ready to just look at each other as people.” — Amy Hale Auker-Steiger
What do you think the catalyst or catalysts are for this sort of letting go of stereotypes?
“In my life it’s been reading, and exposure, and travel … I want to backtrack just a little bit. I grew up in rural Texas. And I don’t necessarily see big changes going on amongst some of the small town ideas. I think that young people leave there if they want to go change who they are and what they want to do. Because there’s a pull in some rural areas to stay with those stereotypes, to stay with those boundaries. And I think that gets fed with an almost false rhetoric, but I haven’t been there in a while,” said Auker-Steiger.
In reference to how men and women can treat one another with more respect generally, Auker-Steiger said that we can benefit from mitigating the extent to which we allow gender roles to rule our lives. She clarified by saying that our society has become fixated on determining how men should act and how women should act. We should instead, according to Auker-Steiger, focus more on what it means to respect humanity than we should on how to respect one gender or another. She summarized this sentiment well when she said, “Respect is simply between people. I’m tired of the men and women thing. I’m ready to just look at each other as people.”
As my interviews progressed, I intently thought about whether my questions were perpetuating our tendency to categorize and limit ourselves. My mindset began with the thought that one group in particular is hurting another. Time and exposure to various people at the gathering made me think that maybe continued rhetoric regarding gaps and divides might be deepening them. Putting a pin in this train of thought, I continued forward with Auker-Steiger’s interview.
I opened the door for all my interviewees to share any personal or secondhand stories of slight, abuse, harassment, or violence between men and women. Auker-Steiger made note of my question’s phrasing. She wished to note a distinction between personal slight and graver forms of disrespect citing a particular story.
“You know, slights and offense, that’s all perception sometimes. Because I actually believe this person did not mean to slight at all,” said Auker-Steiger.
Auker-Steiger spends time every morning honing her writing. She produces three pages of notes, poetry, prose, and whatever else gets drawn to the page. She does this before the full day of ranch work begins. This strict methodology enabled Auker-Steiger to write and publish four books. Each of which she went to great lengths to write and promote.
“Well, have you ever thought about getting serious about your writing?” said the acquaintance. Auker-Steiger’s internal monologue was fuming. Pushing out four books on top of full-time ranch work, in her mind, epitomized professional dedication.
Auker-Steiger did not tear the acquaintance a new one. She did not insert a gendered bias on top of the man’s inconsiderate question. She drew a line in between the man’s seemingly innocent intent and the callous nature of what he actually said. In Auker-Steiger’s mind, the man did not intend to be misogynistic or patronizing. “So when we talk about slight and offense. That’s a little difficult for me. Because I think I have a personal responsibility to decide what hurts me and what doesn’t hurt me,” said Auker-Steiger.
Auker-Steiger wished to remind the world that every foot in the mouth of a man does not represent an assault against women. A speaker’s intent and an active consideration of how to interpret that information can go a long way in better understanding one another.
Making Choices to See Things Differently
My fourth interviewee was Ruby B. Johnson. Johnson is a 27 year old mining engineer. She was born in Sierra Leone in West Africa. She moved to the United States, Maryland specifically, when she was 12. She went to college out of state and has been in Elko for about a year-and-a-half. Her role at this year’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, at least in part, was that of volunteer.
In your observation of people subscribing to traditional gender roles, do you find that they’re happy in those roles, or do you think they wish for the freedom to branch out?
“When I was growing up in Maryland or in the big city, what I see is that women are striving to just be as equal to men and wanting to work and that’s what they see fulfillment in. And so, if someone would have told me that a woman staying home was their choice I wouldn’t have believed that. I would have thought that she was being oppressed or something like that. But being here and mingling with all these women that stay home that is their choice … I think truly most of them it is a choice that they made and they value family and who raises their kids and investing in their kids and being a wife,” said Johnson.
Experience is the great equalizer. Johnson had one idea of what it was like for a woman to live out a traditional gender role, but it was only upon meeting some of these women living in Elko that her perception changed. I think many of us have the desire to fight for what we perceive to be oppressed peoples, but only through experience and discourse can we identify a person’s autonomy or lack thereof.
What barriers need to be broken before men and women can treat one another with mutual respect at all times?
“Be attentive. Not to make assumptions. Get to know people … I think we need to also [be] thinking about our cultural backgrounds,” said Johnson.
She recalled the culture shock she experienced after she moved to South Carolina from Maryland. There, terms like honey, sweetie, and sweetheart are used by men and women alike as informal terms of endearment.
She cited a particular example involving her brother and sister-in-law. Her sister-in-law grew up in Georgia and was childhood friends with a man that regularly called her things like honey and sweetie. Johnson’s brother took offense to this unfamiliar man referring to his wife in a seemingly misogynistic way. It was Johnson herself, now with experience living in a southern state, that came to the aid of her sister-in-law’s male friend. Johnson explained to her Sierra Leone-born and Maryland-raised brother that there are regional niceties in the South not observed elsewhere.
Johnson went on to say that pigeonholing a remark outside its geographic or regional context can lead to miscommunication. Intent cannot account for the whole picture, but it should be considered when analyzing how a person’s speech impacts his or her character.
My fifth interview was with Brian Farrow. Farrow, 25 years old, is a full-time musician. When not on the road, he finds gigs at home and also provides audio/video tech services. Farrow spent parts of his youth in rural places like Omaha and Boyds, Maryland. Farrow now lives in a suburb outside Washington, D.C.
What can men talk about with each other to improve our relationships with women?
“We can catch each other when we say derogatory things, but at the same time we have to be careful about censoring ourselves too much. Because, we lose the play in conversation,” Farrow responded.
Farrow expressed that we as a society miss out on what it is to be human by trying to completely eliminate mutual participation in banter. Men and women can and sometimes should take jabs at one another if the situation warrants it.
I asked Farrow to elaborate on how we might navigate that blurry line between playful banter and more cutting remarks. He said that the exact line is not so easy to define in the abstract, but that we can and should choose our words more carefully.
“We can be … more intelligent in general to escape misunderstandings and perpetuation of stereotypes,” said Farrow. Bottom line, always have the respect of your fellow human in mind, but don’t let fear of misconstrued disrespect prevent you from engaging in the oftentimes humorous discourse that makes life worth living.
In talking about legal forms of disrespect that take place between men and women, Farrow shared that some women will grab his butt after a set while coming in for a hug.
How do you call out that woman that grabs your butt? Do you think you should?
“The same thing happens to women. I’ve talked to women that it happens to, and we just kind of deal with it. Because, I think in that specific case, sometimes it can be a little flattering. I don’t think someone should be criminalized for it … It’s more of a social policing that we might need to start to talk about,” said Farrow.
It seemed to me that Farrow was suggesting that we should be free to define our personal boundaries and the boundaries of one person won’t always reflect those of another. In cases where we feel that our boundaries have been violated, we have an obligation to make those violations known. In other words, if you’re cool with a drunk woman grabbing your butt, so be it, but if you’re not cool with it, it’s your responsibility to speak up and identify the transgression.
Farrow concluded by saying, “I’m not really cool with it, but it’s one of those things where I wouldn’t care to make a fuss about it.”
Personal boundaries put in an individual context struck a chord with me. Addressing violations of those boundaries person to person and not shaming people for choosing one response over another struck me as especially progressive.
Upon asking Farrow if he’d like to share any stories about women in his life who experienced misconduct of any kind at the hands of a man, he shared a story about one of his exes and his mother discussing unwanted looks and unwanted pick-up lines.
According to Farrow, his mother’s philosophy was something along the lines of, “You can socially play with that [unwanted behavior]. There’s social power in that.”
He went on to describe his personal view, “The more you let catcalling and those, I’ll call them, benign affronts to your person, the more you let it affect you, the more it can disempower you.”
Rather than ceding to a feeling of objectification, it’s possible for a woman to feel empowered by engaging the man in dialogue or by actively dismissing the man’s behavior. The woman’s power in this unbalanced situation comes from choosing between passive and active action. “Empower yourself. You have to say something. Or don’t say something. There’s power in that, too,” Farrow concluded.
The recurring theme in my interview with Farrow was choice. We can choose to call out our friends if they say something derogatory about a woman. We can choose not to live in fear of edgy banter. We can choose to consider our words before we speak them. We don’t always get to choose who engages us verbally or physically, but actively choosing our response may lead to greater self-empowerment.
Looking for Signs of Yes
My final interviewee was Adrian Brannan. Brannan is a 26 year old singer, songwriter, and student. She was raised all over the world, and fondly remembers the extensive time she spent on ranches. She now lives in Utah.
After I recounted the recent allegations against Aziz Ansari, I discussed body language and consent with Brannon.
Do you have any thoughts on what type of body cues men should look for when approaching intimate moments with women?
“As a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault for about ten years, I have a very different view on what I think should be happening in situations like that. I don’t think that there should be men looking for signals of “no.” I think there should be men looking for signals of “yes.” And up until that point, there should be no question. I don’t think that you should have to look for that body language. There should be absolutely no question until that woman absolutely makes it abundantly clear. To me, it’s pretty cut-and-dry on those sorts of things,” said Brannon.
Brannon’s response provoked a sense of ignorance in me. In retrospect, it seems obvious that clear and abundant signals of “yes” should hold more weight than rationalizing signals of “maybe.” In other words, if the woman is not making her interest in romantic involvement abundantly clear, the man should err on the side of caution and discontinue sexual advances.
Do you have any advice for the youngest, the next generation ahead? Both young men and women, what can they do to treat each other well?
Her response had a practicality and elegance I had never heard before.
“It’s going to sound so silly. You know, the golden rule. Treating other people as you want to be treated yourself. It always sounds so cliché to me. Instead of imagining it in that way, imagine if it was your child. How would you treat your future child? If you had to sit down tomorrow and tell your unborn child what you did to somebody, would you be proud of it? Would you be proud of how you treated them? Would you be proud to tell your family? If everything you ever did and said to your partner or person that you were intimate with or just, that you ran across, would you be proud to let the world know every little detail about how you treated and loved or did not love them? And treat them exactly how you’d want to be heard,” said Brannon.
Do you want to tell your future daughter that you terrified a woman by continuously breaching the physical space that she put between you and her? Do you want to tell your future son that you spent years thinking “nice tits!” was the most intelligent and considerate way to begin conversation with a stranger?
It’s clear that three millennials, one member of Gen X, and two Baby Boomers cannot fully represent their respective genders and generations.
I should note, too, that I had hoped to interview two people of Gen X. The male interview I lined up ultimately decided that he did not wish to speak on #MeToo or gender relations. He expressed that commenting publicly on such issues would alienate him from people in his life. I was disappointed to miss out on his perspective. I also wondered if there was some correlation between male members of Gen X and an apprehension about being falsely pigeonholed into the “wrong side” of the debate.
I attempted to secure interviews with three other men from Generation X, but all of them ultimately chose not to speak with me. I’ll grant the very real possibility that all these men were unable to meet with me due to scheduling conflicts only. Possible, too, that misogyny and failure to speak out publicly against it are different things.
Ultimately, and especially with such a small sampling of people, I am only able to draw limited conclusions about what gender relations look like to men and women in different generations and in different genders. Geographical region, upbringing, and personal circumstances seem to produce familiar disrespect in some cases but not in others. Common threads among all the interviews were the value of perception, empowerment through choice, personal responsibility, and a desire for people to carefully consider what respect looks like and how to nourish it. The interviewees observed subscription to traditional gender roles in some cases, but generally, rural living does not seem to preclude women from doing what they want to do. Exposure to travel and living in diverse places seems to be an effective breaker of misconceptions and stereotypes.
Again, I’ll cede that it just wasn’t possible to capture the entire zeitgeist of rural life or the complete point of view of all the people I spoke with or tried to speak with. My desire to dig into the trenches of gender relations is not shared by everyone. I hope, though, that the path to better treatment of women by men starts with engaging in thoughtful discourse that has long been neglected.
It’s in reflecting upon what we should do and how we want to be remembered that can guide us toward paths of mutual respect. If we don’t scrutinize our own behavior and engage in candid discourse about topics that make us squirm, we as a people will stay in the sand instead of traveling toward the stars.
Correction: This story has been updated to indicate that Gail Steiger is foreman of Spider Ranch, not owner.
This story has been updated to indicate that Amy Hale Auker-Steiger’s discussion about the seriousness of her writing took place with an acquaintance and not a literary agent. The discussion was strictly social.