Sunday, December 14, 2008

Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma: Stories from the WPA Narratives. Edited by Terri M. Baker and Connie Oliver Henshaw. Foreword by M. Susan Savage. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, October 2007. Cloth: ISBN 9780806138459, $29.95. 280 pages.

Review by Michel Demyen, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Through the stories of Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma, the editors bring to light an era long gone. The narratives in this book describe adaptability, courage, and an adventurous spirit. Arranged into seven chapters, the book outlines the building of Oklahoma through the lives of the women who settled there, bringing forth new life, cultures, languages, and skills. The pioneering women—African American, white, and Native American—lived, grew, and created relationships together in order to survive without boundaries, without discrimination.
Some particular historic events covered in the narratives include the tragic Trail of Tears, the forced displacement of Native Americans; the Civil War; and run-ins with famous outlaws such as the James gang and the Daltons. Belle Starr, too, appears in a narrative or two. The narratives also tell the story of the railroad pushing its way through the land, opening up opportunities for businesses and communities to flourish, and of the Chisholm Trail and the endless sea of cattle slowly making their way through the waist-high prairie grass. Through the narratives of the women we see tent towns spring up and disappear; we see names of towns change or become familiar landmarks such as Tulsa and Guthrie. The book describes a simpler yet challenging era, a time when survival and friendship were more important than material things.
Long before white women or African American, Native American women forged homes and lives in Oklahoma. Throughout the general history of the region, tribal customs, alliances, and conflicts were challenged by the influx of newcomers to the territory. These newcomers came from all parts of the United States to settle and build their own identity. From crossing rivers and battling prairie fires, to simply finding shelter in a dugout on a hill, these new families faced nearly insurmountable obstacles before making a home in their new land. Some claimed land during the Oklahoma land run, racing wildly across the countryside in search of that perfect spot to call home. Others married natives in order to secure property. They filed claims, learned that someone had claimed the same property, then searched again and filed another claim, finally finding their little piece of paradise. In a land of constant dangers including potential attacks, thieves, wild animals, and countless other conflicts and struggles, these women faced shared one common basic goal: to survive.
The book highlights the importance to the early pioneers of animals and livestock. People depended for survival on livestock to provide eggs, meat, milk, butter, and transportation. Without a horse or even oxen for transportation, life was very difficult. The dog was an essential part of pioneers’ lives because it provided protection and companionship, and was an extra hand when rounding up cattle.
Toward the end of the Civil War, many women of all nationalities were widowed, children orphaned. Faced with this adversity, women took up roles formerly limited to men, opening businesses, selling produce, and taking in boarders. Others opened up schools in their homes. They battled wild animals and gunslingers to protect what little they had. They had to learn how to carry and shoot a rifle due to the changing population of Oklahoma, which brought in a wide variety of individuals. The chapter on coping with lawlessness shows how pioneer women were constantly exposed to threats by criminals, gangs, soldiers, or Indian attacks. Towns became battlegrounds, with saloons and prostitution bringing in cowboys who had too much money to spend and took advantage of the lack of law enforcement.
Such stories, though, are only part of pioneer women’s lives; we also get a look at their strengths and fears. Their ability to maintain a positive attitude and to focus on family and hope is inspiring. Women today could still learn a few things from the experiences and words of wisdom of the women pioneers. Although the book attempts to depict how women pioneered the Territory of Oklahoma, there are more examples of white women’s being affluent than of either African American or Native American women. White women appear in the book as having more material things, or possessing a more refined manner and education. Whether the editors intended to suggest this, or it was due to lack of available information on African American and Native American women, is not clear. Although the chapters are well organized, and the content provides fabulous insight into the lives of the Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma, the narratives themselves are presented somewhat haphazardly and skip from one decade to another. On the same page there are, for example, narratives written about the Civil War of the 1860s next to narratives of women riding side-saddle in the 1890s. It would have been helpful to organize the narratives within chapters in a more chronological manner.
Pioneering women not only laid the foundation for future feminist movements and for working equally with men in cattle drives, hunting, and fending off outlaws; they were also the ultimate “modern women” of their time. They took pride in their strong family values and cared for their neighbors regardless of race or nationality. Women pioneers took joy in the simple pleasures of family gatherings, parties, and dances. Through all of this the women who pioneered Oklahoma created a life. They established schools and took care of their children and each other. They did not see their situation as difficult, bleak, or dangerous. To them it was simply their life. They did what they had to do. This wonderful book shows them doing it, in compelling, immediate detail.

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