Home |  PublicationsEncyclopedia |  Women and Work

The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Historically, women have always worked, whether it was paid or unpaid labor. In the work force the public initially accepted women as teachers. Therefore, pioneering Oklahoma women worked as educators in Indian and Oklahoma territories. Representative of these women were missionary Ann Eliza (Worcester) Robertson, who taught at Park Hill and at Tullahassee, and Ann Wilson, who served as principal teacher of the Cherokee Female Seminary. Around the turn of the twentieth century Isabel Crawford worked with the Kiowa in southwestern Oklahoma Territory. Before public schools opened, women operated subscription schools, earning approximately one dollar per child per month.

Oklahoma women have also held leadership roles in education. Before statehood women accounted for 26 percent and 20 percent of the county superintendents of public instruction in Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory, respectively. By the twentieth century Emily Smith was dean of Altus Junior College, and Kate Zaneis was president of Southeastern Oklahoma State Teachers College. An African American, Judith Ann Horton, served on the board of regents for the State Training School for Negro Boys at Taft. When Sandy Garrett took office in 1991, she became the first woman to be elected as state superintendent of public instruction. By the twenty-first century Joe Anna Hibler, Janet Cunningham, JoAnn Haysbert, and Cynthia Ross served as presidents of Oklahoma universities.

In addition to teaching, early-day Oklahoma women were accepted as photographers, authors, and journalists. Ada Garside, Annette Ross Hume, and Emma Coleman represent three of approximately one hundred women performing photography work in the Twin Territories. Journalist Ora Eddleman Reed served as editor of the Twin Territories: The Indian Magazine. In 1902 twenty-one-year-old Maude Thomas bought the Beaver Herald after having worked as a typesetter. She was the first woman member of the Oklahoma Press Association. Edith Johnson worked as society editor for the Daily Oklahoman from 1908 to 1958, and from 1892 onward Elva Ferguson helped her husband publish the Watonga Republican. Clubwoman Lola Pearson started her journalistic career in the 1920s as associate editor for the Oklahoma Farmer-Stockman magazine. Nonfiction writers garnered recognition in the early twentieth century and have included Angie Debo, Carolyn Thomas Foreman, Margaret Morse Nice, and Edith Force Kassing. Fiction authors included Jennie Oliver, Vingie Roe, Blanche Hunt, Aletha Conner, Alice Covert, and Oklahoma's first poet laureate, Violet McDougal.

As women became more visible in the public sphere and as more educational opportunities opened for them, women found a greater variety of work options. A December 11, 1904, Daily Oklahoman article, "The Woman Who Toils," stated that a woman could assume many occupations previously barred to her. She could become a pilot, an architect, or a roofer. Women were entering the professional fields of law, medicine, and dentistry. Representative of these new women were Theresa Tyler, who had a dental practice in Watonga, and Margaret McVean, the first lawyer sworn in on statehood day. Ella Mooney received her pharmacist license in 1901. After gaining a medical degree in 1892, Isabel Cobb practiced medicine in rural Indian Territory, and Winonah Sanger began her medical practice in Oklahoma City in 1904. In 1920 Sallie Sturgeon was appointed as inspector for the Oklahoma State Health Department, and Clara Waters became warden of the Oklahoma State Reformatory in 1927.

An incident of nontraditional work occurred in February 1918 when an Oklahoma City garage hired Eva Pullen and Nora Palmer on a trial basis as the first women garage workers. Required to work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at least six days a week, they donned one-piece, khaki bloomer uniforms to perform the duties of a handyman in an "automobile hospital." Expected to clean cars, fill gasoline tanks, sweep floors, and mop up grease, they received the same pay as men. If these women proved to be good employees and if trade gravitated to the garage with women employees, other garages were expected to follow suit.

In the early twentieth century, with women at the forefront during World War I and working on woman's suffrage, they increasingly entered politics. In the 1920s and 1930s women found a niche in local politics. From 1922 to 1927 Mamie Foster served as Wyandotte's mayor. During this period Rose Rakes, carrying a .45-caliber pistol, was that city's marshal. In 1927 Nora Shaw was elected mayor of Poteau, and Phenie Lou Ownby, mother of four, became mayor of Broken Arrow in 1931. Byron (Alfalfa County) had an all-female city government in 1938. In more recent times Lelia Foley-Davis served as mayor of Taft, and Patience Latting and Susan Savage were mayors of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, respectively.

In 1907 Oklahoma male voters elected Catherine "Kate" Barnard as the first commissioner of charities and corrections. The first women to serve in the Oklahoma Legislature were Amelia McColgin and Lamar Looney. As women advanced in politics, a February 1923 Daily Oklahoman article headlined, "Will a Woman Ever Be Governor of Oklahoma?" The paper predicted that in the near future a woman would grace the governor's office. That prophecy took almost a century to fulfill.

In November 1946 Gov. Robert S. Kerr appointed Katherine Manton to fill the remaining term of Oklahoma Secretary of State Frank C. Carter. She has the distinction of being the first woman appointed in that position. Since that time five Oklahoma women have served as secretary of state: Jeannette Edmondson, Hannah Atkins, Glo Henley, Kay Dudley, and Susan Savage. In 1968 Atkins became the first African American woman elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives. In September 1978 Gladys Warren lost to Spencer Bernard in a runoff for Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. In 1995 Mary Fallin was the first woman and the first Republican to be elected lieutenant governor. In 2007 Democrat Jari Askins succeeded Fallin. Oklahomans elected their first woman governor in 2010, and Mary C. Fallin took office on January 10, 2011.

Jeannette Rankin of Montana has the distinction of being the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1917. Oklahoma soon followed with Alice M. Robertson serving in Congress from 1921 to 1922. Elected in 2006, Mary Fallin became the second Oklahoma woman U.S. representative.

As the Great Depression gripped the nation in the early 1930s, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs helped eliminate unemployment. Oklahoma women found work in sewing rooms, canning plants, and mattress factories, and some worked in the Federal One fine art programs. William Cunningham, director of the Oklahoma Federal Writers' Project, hired Zoe Tilghman and Lucille Blachly. In 1940 Angie Debo was hired as director of the Oklahoma Writers' Project. Artist Nannine "Nan" Sheets directed the WPA Experimental Art Gallery, and University of Oklahoma art professor Edith Mahier was the only Oklahoma woman who painted murals in the state's post offices.

Although married women were discouraged from taking jobs during the Great Depression, they were actually encouraged to seek employment to meet the wartime manpower shortage. During World War II more than six million women worked outside the home. They garnered defense industry jobs and served in the military as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and as WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots) and in the Women's Army Corps (WAC). In 1942 Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University) provided training to WAVES. At the war's onset twenty-five Tulsa women trained at the Spartan School of Aeronautics in order to fill wartime vacancies as ferry pilots, flight instructors, and copilots.

Women who were employed around the nation in manufacturing plants received the moniker "Rosie the Riveter." In Oklahoma they comprised more than half of the work force at the Midwest City Douglas Aircraft Company Plant. Representative of those women was Wilma Farimo, whose job at the Midwest City plant was to put de-icers on the wings of C-47s. She and the other women earned forty dollars per week.

Oklahomans Marjorie Stevenson, Rosemary Hogan, Lela L. Barnett, and Mae Olson served in the military. Stevenson, a WASP, worked at Cochran Army Air Base in Macon, Georgia. Her sister was recruited by aviator Jacqueline Cochran to join British women pilots. While serving as a U.S. Army nurse in the Philippines, Col. Rosemary Hogan was a Japanese prisoner of war. Barnett, born in 1908 in northwestern Oklahoma, enrolled in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (later the WAC) in May 1943. Although she had not finished high school, she had completed a beautician course and a stenographer course in the early 1930s. When she filled out a WAAC application form, she stated that she had been employed as a hairdresser, earning twenty-five dollars per week. Twenty-six-year-old Tulsan Mae Olson, serving as a U.S. Army Air Corps nurse, was the first American woman to step from a hospital evacuation plane on Guadalcanal on March 2, 1943.

After the war the federal government and the media suggested that women return to the home so that former soldiers (men) could have the jobs. But as the 1950s unfolded and the American dream of owning a home and a car in the suburbs skyrocketed, married women entered the job market after their children started school. During the 1960s the feminist movement brought national attention to woman's plight as homemaker (still considered to be her proper role), to women who tried to balance home responsibilities and a career, and to their fight to gain entrance into higher education in fields such as engineering, held to be a man's occupation. In December 1961 Pres. John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10980, which established the President's Commission on the Status of Women, the first federal initiative to study women's rights and roles. While the commission at the national level collected information, the federal Equal Pay Act (1963) was passed. Although the legislation was intended to give equal pay for equal work, women continued to receive lower wages. Women continued to meet discriminatory practices when entering male-dominated jobs. During the 1960s aviation pioneer Geraldyn Cobb and aerospace engineer Donna Shirley were among Oklahoma women who met discrimination. However, by the late 1970s Shannon Lucid was accepted by the NASA to enter the astronaut-training program.

Historically, women have earned less than men. Initially, women lacked technical skills and higher education because they were denied an education due to gender issues and social mores. Consequently, women were willing to work for less in order to obtain a job, and employers were more than willing to hire them in order to save on salaries. In Oklahoma in 1911 men as retail clerks garnered between $15 and $25 dollars a week, and boys earned from $4 to $10, but women and girls averaged between $10 and $11. The Daily Oklahoman article contended that those wages were 20 percent higher than those paid in the East. Eager to gain business experience, some Oklahoma City women offered to work without pay in the retail stores. In February 1918 five of seven bookbinding companies in Oklahoma City agreed to increase wages when an agreement was struck between union members and company representatives. The new, two-year contract provided for $1 a week increase for men for the next two years. Women garnered a $1.50 a week increase the first year and a $1 a week raise in the second year. At that time men earned $24 a week, compared to $12 to $15 a week for women. By 1999 the median wage of Oklahoma women was $22,473, compared to $30,488 for men. The wage difference continued into the twenty-first century. In 2002 Oklahoma women received weekly wages that were 78.4 percent of men's.

At the national level, around the turn of the twenty-first century women filled the majority of secretarial, nursing, and teaching jobs, occupations that have been historically considered women's work. In 1999 women accounted for 98.8 percent of secretaries, with a median weekly earnings of $443, compared to 96.7 percent of secretaries/administrative assistants earning $597 per week in 2007. The number of women registered nurses (RNs) rose slightly from 91 percent in 1999 to 91.7 percent in 2007. That year the national median weekly wage for women RNs was $976, compared to men RNs compensation of $1,098, an 11 percent wage difference. In 1999, 83.2 percent of all elementary teachers were women. By 2007, 80.9 percent of elementary and middle school teachers were women. In 2002, 76.86 percent of Oklahoma teachers were women (32,908 women compared to 9,903 men). That year only 57 Oklahoma women held school superintendent jobs out of 555 available positions.

In 1990, 53.4 percent of the Oklahoma female population was in the work force, compared to 65.2 percent of the men's population. Nationally, 57.5 percent of women worked. Ten years later 51.9 percent of Oklahoma women were employed, versus 57.9 percent of Oklahoma men.

In 1997 women-owned businesses represented 24 percent of Oklahoma firms. That year Oklahoma women owned 67,481 businesses, with Oklahoma and Tulsa counties having the greatest number at 15,095 and 14,303, respectively. Those firms reported $8.9 million in revenues. Traditionally, women own retail trade and service businesses. This fact held true for Oklahoma in 1997. More than 50 percent of the state's 67,481 businesses offered services, and 18 percent provided retail trade. By 2002 Oklahoma women-owned businesses had increased by 11 percent, totaling 75,029 and generating $9.3 billion in revenues. In 1999 the National Foundation for Women Business Owners reported that the United States had 9.1 million women-owned businesses, with half of them in fifty metropolitan areas, of which Oklahoma City was one. Significantly, Oklahoma ranked among the top ten states to have the highest survival rate from 1997 to 2000. Six of those states were in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Illinois and Nebraska were in the Midwest, and California on the West Coast. Among the factors influencing the increased numbers are ambition and easier access to capital and investment monies.

In 2002 Oklahoma ranked in the top ten states to have the greatest number of American Indian and Alaska Native women-owned businesses, and those women comprised 18 percent of the women-owned businesses. Representative of them were Lori Nalley, who operated Tiger Natural Gas, Incorporated, Judith Smith of Smithco Engineering, Incorporated, and Cheryl R. Cohenour, owner of CRC and Associates, Incorporated/Cherokee American Drilling, all based in Tulsa, and CEO Audrey Pritle of Trans-Tel Central, Incorporated, located in Norman. That year Oklahoma ranked fourth in the nation, with the fastest growth in the category of Asian and Pacific Islander women-owned business. Between 1997 and 2002 that growth was 194 percent.

Linda D. Wilson


American Working Women: A Statistical Handbook (Dallas, Tex.: Contemporary Research Press, 1993).

Amy B. Caiazza and April Shaw, eds., The Status of Women in Oklahoma (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Women's Policy Research, 2004).

R. Darcy et al., Oklahoma Women's Almanac (Stillwater, Okla.: OPSA Press, 2005).

Leading the Way: A Look At Oklahoma's Pioneering Women Lawyers (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Bar Association, 2003).

Ethel McMillan, "Women Teachers in Oklahoma, 1820–1860," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 27 (Spring 1949).

Courtney Ann Vaughn-Roberson, "Sometimes Independent But Never Equal—Women Teachers, 1900–1950: The Oklahoma Example," Pacific Historical Review 53 (February 1984).

"Women and Work," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

Browse By Topic



The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Linda D. Wilson, “Women and Work,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=WO005.

Copyright and Terms of Use

No part of this site may be construed as in the public domain.

Copyright to all articles and other content in the online and print versions of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History is held by the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS). This includes individual articles (copyright to OHS by author assignment) and corporately (as a complete body of work), including web design, graphics, searching functions, and listing/browsing methods. Copyright to all of these materials is protected under United States and International law.

Users agree not to download, copy, modify, sell, lease, rent, reprint, or otherwise distribute these materials, or to link to these materials on another web site, without authorization of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Individual users must determine if their use of the Materials falls under United States copyright law's "Fair Use" guidelines and does not infringe on the proprietary rights of the Oklahoma Historical Society as the legal copyright holder of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and part or in whole.