Beyond Vassar

How the West Was Won, Vassar Style

By Veronika Ruff ’01

Yee haw…ride ’em cowgirls. Cowgirls? Yes, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame recently opened deep in the heart of Texas to honor the women who won the West. Two of Vassar’s own — Louise Larocque Serpa ’46 and Helen Kleberg Groves ’49 — are pioneers on the impressive list of “women who helped settle the frontier and who continue to live their lives with the grit and determination of the American cowgirl.” Their stories and photos are mounted on the same walls with Annie Oakley, Sacajawea, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, among others.

In 1965, Serpa made history by becoming the first woman accredited by the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association to shoot photographs inside the arena. Rodeo (Aperture, 1994), a collection of Serpa’s photographs, is an impressive summation of the former New York City debutante’s 30-plus-year career — a career that started when Serpa (a music major at Vassar) sold photos of children competing in junior rodeos to their parents for 75 cents each. To read more about Serpa, check out a 1995 VQ article at

Groves, great-granddaughter of equine legends Captain Richard and Henrietta King, was born into a rich ranching tradition. Rather than bucking that tradition, she wrangled it, becoming the “First Lady of Cutting.”

Helen Groves
Helen Groves
Cutting is the act of using a specially bred and trained horse to separate specific calves, steers, or cows from a herd on a cattle ranch. She was inducted into the National Cutting Horse Association’s Hall of Fame in 1996 and is well known in the industry for her Silverbrook Ranches, a successful Santa Gerudies and quarter horse operation.

The cowgirl museum first opened in a library basement in 1975, but the expanding collection was soon too big for its breeches, spurring a move into a 33,000-square-foot, $21-million venue in downtown Fort Worth on June 7, 2002. Opening weekend events included a cowgirl spirit parade, special exhibits, a gala celebration, and entertainment by mariachis and western swing bands. The museum is now known nationally for its rare photo collection, extensive research library, and, of course, its inspiring list of cowgirl honorees who clearly did more than sit home on the range. For more information on the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, call 817.336.4475 or visit