The most enduring image of women as participants in Oklahoma history remains that of the sunbonnet heroine after 1889, homesteading the wilderness alongside her husband, rearing her children, and creating the cultural institutions that prepared the way for statehood. The Pioneer Woman statue, erected in Ponca City, Oklahoma, and dedicated in 1930, stands as a vigilant reminder of that pioneer heritage. Although important, this experience represented only one aspect of Oklahoma women's contributions to a far more complex historical record. From a perspective of more than two hundred years, the story of the women of Oklahoma includes a diversity of experience matched only by that of the United States as a whole. Oklahoma historian Angie Debo believed that all of the phenomena in nation building and all of the American character traits existed in bold relief in the rapid transformation of this frontier region into the state of Oklahoma. From the beginning, women's lives reflected the multiple intersections of public and private activity, artistic and intellectual expression, racial interaction, class negotiation, and gender role transformation that continue to shape the cultural identity of the state.
Evidence of pre-Columbian women settlers in this geographic region existed in the Spiro Mounds mortuary sites along the Arkansas River valley in eastern Oklahoma. Material remains indicated an advanced culture with specialized craftsmanship. Inventories included objects most closely associated with women's activities, such as decorated pottery vessels, woven utensils, geometrically decorated textiles, baskets, and animal-hide covers. Later, French and Spanish explorers and traders documented contact and sometimes intermarriage with the agricultural Wichita people and the mobile Caddo, Osage, and southern Plains Indians, exchanging guns and metal goods for furs, buffalo hides, salt, and slaves. Increasing dependence on trade goods altered the lives of women as well as men. Women's agricultural pursuits held less status than the lucrative fur exchange, and village life became more vulnerable as men were absent for longer periods of time. Women, children, and the old people were subject to raiding by rival Indian groups as well as violent competition for control by French and Spanish authorities.
Transfer of the Louisiana Purchase domain into the oversight of the United States in 1803 increased the commercial traffic and settlement into the area, especially in the Three Forks region of the Arkansas River and along the Red River. Hunters, trappers, and merchant families such as that of Pierre Chouteau established themselves on Oklahoma lands, sometimes intermarrying with Indian women, and developing diversified homesteads and trade connections with Mississippi River markets. Oklahoma might have developed along the lines of numerous other American frontier states had it not been for the precarious position of large numbers of American Indians known as the Five Tribes, who then lived in the southeastern section of the United States, and for the intervention of the federal government.
Members of the Five Tribes, Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole, were among the first to encounter the Europeans who arrived to settle North America in 1607. These were complex and advanced societies organized around matrilineal clans living in sedentary agricultural villages. Gender roles were clearly differentiated. Men were hunters and warriors, and they cleared land. Women cultivated fields and raised children. Women held very high status in these communities, however. Because kinship loyalty extended through the female line and women owned virtually all of the family's possessions, including the home, the fields, and the crops, they exercised considerable power. The council of leading men often chose its chief and made significant decisions affecting tribal life with the advice of senior women. "Beloved Woman" was the title reserved for a Cherokee senior woman of exceptional ability and wisdom.
Women of the Five Tribes often served as internal agents of acculturation as they adapted material products such as the spinning wheels and looms of the Euroamericans into their own cultures. Sequoyah's introduction of a syllabary of the Cherokee language led to male and female literacy throughout the tribe and to creation of the first Indian newspaper in America, the Cherokee Phoenix, published in both English and Cherokee in 1828. Protestant missionaries opened schools and churches on Indian lands and especially encouraged the marriage of acculturated young Indian women with non-Indian men. These unions rapidly produced a substantial mixed-blood elite who operated prosperous businesses, stock farms, and cotton plantations using African slave labor. Families preferring to follow more traditional cultural patterns retreated into the mountain areas of the South.
The early nineteenth century brought increased pressure on the Five Tribes from a burgeoning white population who demanded access to the productive Indian farmlands of the American South. Congress created a poorly defined Indian colonization zone in the Louisiana Purchase lands designated as "Indian Territory." Factions of the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek negotiated land cession treaties with the United States government, exchanging some of their lands in the eastern states for lands west of the Mississippi River. Those who chose to leave found themselves either the target of reprisals from members of their own tribes who denounced the cessions, or the target of attacks by Osage Indians and white settlers who resented their intrusion. Tribal sovereignty and a century of treaties guaranteeing the integrity of their lands were swept aside by violent white squatters and aggressive state governments.
In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act and granted Pres. Andrew Jackson the authority to use force to remove the Five Tribes from their homelands. Mixed-blood and full-blood women alike watched their husbands shackled, their homes invaded, and their possessions pilfered, but nothing prepared them for the suffering and death of the forced march that became known as the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory. Hunger, cold, exhaustion, and epidemic disease depleted their strength, killing the elders and children first. Many survived the journey only to die from exposure the first year. While the death toll has never been fully calculated, most estimates reveal a population loss of approximately one-third for the Five Tribes until their numbers stabilized in the 1850s.
A number of female missionaries and teachers traveled with the Five Tribes over the Trail of Tears, and many more came to Indian Territory to minister to them during this difficult transition. Approximately 190 women worked in Indian Territory before the Civil War. Some, like Sophie Nye Byington, Harriet Bunce Wright, and Ann Eliza Worcester Robertson, were partners with their husbands in building mission stations. Others, sent out by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), were single women committed to bringing comfort, education, and Christianity to these people. Many traveled from northeastern states long, comfortless distances by riverboat, stagecoach, horseback, and wagon to reach Indian Territory. Most were young, usually in their twenties, and had received some education and training. A few, like Ellen Whitmire and Sarah Worcester, had studied at Mount Holyoke Seminary, a prestigious Massachusetts women's college.
All of these women endured the harshest of circumstances in the mission field. Survival demanded hard labor in the fields, homes, and schools, work performed amidst snakes, insects, and unpredictable weather. Primitive housing and isolation made life even more difficult. Many fell ill from dysentery, fevers, scurvy, malaria, and pneumonia. Daily duties included instruction in basic elementary school subjects, moral and religious training, education in household tasks for their female students, and coordination of Bible, Sunday school, and temperance societies. The ABCFM paid a salary to single women teachers in 1849 of only $100 per year, as compared to $166 for single men. Married women carried on these tasks without pay and completed their own domestic chores as well, raising their children and nursing the sick. Sophie Byington, Harriet Wright, and Ann Eliza Robertson were instrumental in converting biblical texts into Indian languages. Byington and Wright copied their husbands' Choctaw-translation manuscripts by candlelight at the end of the day. Ann Eliza Robertson, herself a woman of exceptional intelligence and ability with languages, translated the New Testament into the Muskogee language, the language of the Creek and Seminole. Many teachers stayed in the mission field only a few years before death, marriage, their husband's careers, or tribal feuding ended their tenure in Indian Territory. Nevertheless, their intimate connections to the women of the Five Tribes and their families created an immeasurable legacy of cooperation and respect.
By the 1850s Indian women and their families in Indian Territory had resumed peaceful, productive lives based on small businesses, farms, and some large cotton plantations. The issue of slavery thwarted their serenity, however, just as it did that of their American counterparts. The slaveholding elite of the Five Tribes had brought their slaves with them to Indian Territory, and slave numbers now reached approximately ten thousand. Indian women sometimes held significant numbers of slaves in their own names. Slaveholding practices varied widely, making kinship more complex and emotionally volatile. The Creek and Seminole frequently intermarried with African Americans and allowed a wide latitude of freedoms. The Cherokee were more reluctant to intermarry and eventually passed laws prohibiting this practice and restricting slave activities, but slaves and owners still pursued relatively benign relationships on the small farms. The Choctaw and Chickasaw more closely followed the southern pattern of large-plantation slaveholding. Slave women shared the close, intimate spaces of homemaking and child rearing with their mistresses and sometimes shared the kinship of blood relations. Their lives reflected the patterns of the Indian cultures in dress, food, language, and beliefs.
When the Civil War began, tribal factionalism emerged anew over sectional loyalties. Some Indian men declared their allegiance to the Union, and other groups signed agreements with the Confederate government. As both sides took up arms to fight, Indian women and African American women and their households were left vulnerable to the violence from all contenders. Many slave families were separated by sale or removal to Confederate states. Military battles in Indian Territory, raiding and foraging for food, livestock, or any item of value, and destruction of property devastated the area. Refugee women and children fled north into Kansas, clustered around Fort Gibson, or like Sarah Watie, wife of Confederate Brig. Gen. Stand Watie, retreated south into Texas with their families, seeking food, shelter, and protection. The death toll was startling. A Creek census taken in 1867 revealed a population loss of approximately one-fourth, and Union Cherokees reported one-third of the women widowed and one-fourth of the children orphaned. Impoverished at the end of the war, the citizens of Indian Territory confronted a punitive federal government policy that ultimately led to the loss of their tribal sovereignty.
Peace treaties for all of the Five Tribes included loss of land, admission of a railroad right of way, and incorporation of former slaves as full citizens of their respective tribes. These stipulations immediately altered the makeup of Indian Territory and, thereby, the circumstances of women's lives. Now large numbers of non-Indians entered these lands: railroad crews, merchants, cattlemen, dislocated white farm families, former slaves fleeing the repression of the South, European immigrants recruited as miners, and white and all-black military commands such as the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry regiments, which were sent to patrol the territory. These newcomers created a multicultural tapestry of language, food, customs, material culture, religions, and marriage partners that enriched life and renewed prosperity. Indian women rebuilt their lives in this context of shared space. Female academies such as New Hope, Bloomfield, and Cherokee National Female Seminary educated elite young women of the Five Tribes to assume leadership positions in this new order. Black women and men struggled to maintain security and dignity as they fought for their rights and fair share of resources as citizens of their tribes, in the midst of competing forces and growing racism.
In addition, the United States government, after defeating and incarcerating Plains Indian men, located large numbers of Indian women and their children on reservations in the western section of Indian Territory. The early reservation years were marked by scandal, as the white agents of acculturation failed in their responsibilities to the Plains tribes. Whiskey peddlers invaded the area, corrupt contractors issued inferior supplies, and school administrators proved incompetent. Educators followed especially punitive methods to separate Indian children from their families and transform them into white citizens. Reluctant to abandon their own tribal particularity and cultural patterns, Plains peoples suffered many hardships. Woman missionaries and teachers who operated outside an institutional setting often had more success in creating less threatening and more mutually respectful relationships and strategies of progress. Women could enter the tipis and respond to the basic routines of life that men could not. Isabel Crawford, educated at the Female Baptist Missionary Training School in Chicago, made women's activities the center of social exchange for thirteen years. Through an innovative quilt-making scheme she introduced the Kiowa to Protestant religion, acceptable white standards of hygiene and homemaking skills, and fundraising to complete a church of their own construction. By 1891 recognizing the effectiveness of using white women to teach Indian women in order to change the Indian cultures, Congress began to appropriate funds to hire field matrons for the reservations. Preference for these positions was most often given to the wives of missionaries or school superintendents. Indian Territory field matrons taught basic homemaking skills and gave instruction in the use of government-issued sewing machines and farm equipment.
Throughout the 1880s the pressure mounted for the opening of Indian Territory lands to white settlement. This pressure was aided by growing philosophical support for the position that the Indians were best served by abolishing tribal governments and allotting homesteads to independent Indian families. White Oklahoma colonization movements such as those led by David Payne and William Couch, as well as black organizations such as the Freedmen's Oklahoma Association, made numerous expeditions into Indian Territory. Congress bowed to these influences by passing the General Allotment Act of 1887 and by providing for the opening of approximately two million acres of land known as the Oklahoma District or Unassigned Lands in 1889. Women came with their families and alone to the land runs and lotteries that eventually opened all of Oklahoma. A single woman over twenty-one years of age was eligible for a homestead and a town lot. Placing daughters and widows into the competitions was a way of expanding a family's land holdings. Thus, a single woman could obtain a home in which to raise her children or a young girl could obtain a significant dowry. Women land seekers ranged in age from twenty-one to the late seventies, with most in their twenties. Fourteen single, black women staked claims in the original 1889 opening, and many more came later to help build the numerous All-Black towns of Oklahoma.
They were all gamblers of a sort. Flamboyant journalist Nanitta (or Naunita) Daisey staked a claim in the first run and later led groups of women in subsequent land runs; Mattie Beal, a Kansas telephone operator, won a Lawton town site and many offers of marriage; Kate May, widowed mother of nine, struggled to homestead in the Cherokee Strip. Some women like Belle Starr violated accepted standards of female conduct and faced legal and social consequences. From the North and the South, most came to find a better life and to participate in the adventure of state building. Perhaps no woman better illustrated the pioneer struggle to create homes, churches, schools, and businesses than Elva Shartel Ferguson, wife of Thompson B. Ferguson, territorial governor. Novelist Edna Ferber chose Ferguson's life as the model for her heroine Sabra in the book Cimarron, which premiered as a motion picture in 1930.
The state of Oklahoma came into existence through the political unification of Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory in 1907. On November 16, on the steps of the Carnegie Library in Guthrie, Oklahoma, a mock formal wedding between C. G. Jones of Oklahoma City and Anna Trainor (Mrs. Leo) Bennett of Muskogee took place to solemnize the event. Women of both territories participated in the political wrangling necessary to the writing of a progressive state constitution. Perhaps no Oklahoma woman became better known in reform circles than Catherine Ann (Kate) Barnard. Frances Threadgill, president of the Oklahoma Federation of Women's Clubs, petitioned the Constitutional Convention for compulsory education, child-labor reform, protection for the handicapped and the environment, and improved conditions for workers, but it was dynamic Kate Barnard who carried the message to Oklahoma voters and to the convention floor. In the first election, she won more votes for her office, commissioner of charities and corrections, than any other candidate.
Barnard's and other female reformers' successes were all the more remarkable because Oklahoma denied woman suffrage until 1918. The Oklahoma Woman's Suffrage Association had petitioned the territorial legislature for voting rights, with the backing of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the growing Oklahoma Socialist Party, only to be refused. Kate Biggers, suffrage association president, led another drive at the Constitutional Convention, but the final vote salvaged only the right of women to vote in school elections. Subsequent referendums failed until after World War I; then, the Federation of Women's Clubs and the Oklahoma Suffrage Association linked the publicity about women's war work in the Red Cross and Liberty bond sales to the demand for the vote. An amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution granting woman suffrage carried by more than twenty-five thousand votes in 1918. Reflecting a conservative female political climate, both Alice M. Robertson, elected in 1920 to one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Sallie Stephens (Mrs. T. H.) Sturgeon, a member of the state health department's sanitary inspection board, had opposed suffrage as participants in the Oklahoma Anti-Suffrage League.
A conservative inclination continued in the 1982 rejection of the Equal Rights Amendment, but Oklahoma women have engaged serious and diverse issues affecting state development and Oklahoma families. From party organization to political office, state legislators such as Cleta Deatherage, Carolyn Thompson, and Laura Boyd maintained a constant voice on education, health, and family issues. Oklahoma Supreme Court Chief Justice Alma Wilson presided over some of the most difficult challenges. American Indian women such as Alice Brown Davis, LaDonna Harris, and Wilma Mankiller have lobbied for or directed the interests of their tribal groups. Perhaps no issue created more controversy than racial segregation. African American women filled leadership positions and employed strategies in Oklahoma to prevent the violence that occurred in other areas of the country. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher represented the legal challenge that integrated opportunities for professional education in Oklahoma. In 1958 Clara Luper led a committed group of black children who, through sit-ins, opened public accommodations in the state. Hannah Atkins served in the Oklahoma Legislature and held office as secretary of state. Vicki Miles-LaGrange became a state senator and U.S. District Court judge, and law professor Anita Hill brought national attention to the issues surrounding sexual harassment during the U.S. Supreme Court nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas in 1991.
Regardless of the backward image of Oklahoma citizens presented by John Steinbeck's Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath, women have excelled in professional careers in the arts and sciences, many becoming internationally famous. Angie Debo, Muriel Wright, and Carolyn Foreman were Oklahoma's premier women historians. Four young Oklahoma women have been crowned Miss America. Oklahoma's five American Indian ballerinas received international acclaim. Perle Mesta organized social events for American presidents and European royalty, and the music of Grammy Award–winner Reba McEntire is played all over the world. Augusta Metcalf's personalized scenes of prairie life represented some of the untutored Oklahoma talent in the world of art. Jeane Kirkpatrick's tenure as foreign policy advisor to Ronald Reagan and ambassador to the United Nations, and astronaut Shannon Lucid's 1996 lengthy stay on the Space Station Mir simply reflected the extended linkages of Oklahoma women with the larger world.
More than two hundred years of history document the role of women on the lands that became the state of Oklahoma. They represented many races, cultures, classes, beliefs, and values. Their history was central to the story of the American past. Their experiences included both success and failure, a multitude of private sacrifices and quiet heroism, as well pride in public accomplishment and honor. Oklahoma women were both leaders and followers, carrying the diversity of their backgrounds with them as they sowed the seeds of the future.
See also: BUSINESS AND PROFESSIONAL WOMEN'S CLUBS, CIVIL WAR ERA, EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT, GOVERNOR'S COMMISSION ON THE STATUS OF WOMEN, HOME DEMONSTRATION CLUBS, LAND RUNS–WOMEN IN, MISS AMERICA, WOMAN'S CHRISTIAN TEMPERANCE UNION, WOMEN AND WORK, WOMEN AND THE WORLD WARS, WOMEN'S CLUB MOVEMENT
Susan L. Allen, "Progressive Spirit: The Oklahoma and Indian Territory Federation of Women's Clubs," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 66 (Spring 1988).
Opal Hartsell Brown, Indomitable Oklahoma Women (Oklahoma City: Western Heritage Books, 1994).
Glenda Carlile, Petticoats, Politics, and Pirouettes: Oklahoma Women From 1900–1950 (Oklahoma City: Southern Hills Publishing Co., 1995).
Angie Debo, Oklahoma, Footloose and Fancy-Free (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949).
Angie Debo, Prairie City: The Story of An American Community (Tulsa, Okla.: Council Oak Books, 1985).
Grant Foreman, The Five Civilized Tribes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1934).
Grant Foreman, Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1934).
Linda W. Reese, Women of Oklahoma, 1890–1920 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997).
Cindy S. Rosenthal, When Women Lead: Integrative Leadership in State Legislatures (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Suzanne H. Schrems, Across the Political Spectrum: Oklahoma Women in Politics in the Early Twentieth Century, 1900–1930 (Lincoln, Nebr.: Writers Club Press, 2001).
Melvena Thurman, ed., Women in Oklahoma: A Century of Change (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1982).
Mary Jane Warde, "'Now the Wolf Has Come': The Civilian Civil War in Indian Territory," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 71 (Spring 1993).
James R. Wright, Jr., "The Assiduous Wedge: Woman Suffrage and the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 51 (Winter 1973–74).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Linda W. Reese, "Women," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=WO003.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.
Links of Interest
- Melvena Thurman, ed., Women in Oklahoma: A Century of Change (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1982)., The Gateway to Oklahoma History