- The American Pioneer Woman Circa 1930: Cultural Debates and the Role of Public Art
Last February a dozen women set out to tour the U.S. . . . . They were a curious company. Dressed in the style of the early 19th century, they remained totally impervious to the appraising stares of approximately 750,000 persons.—Time Magazine, January 2, 19281
In 1927, an unusual contest seized the attention of the American public. Oklahoma oil magnate E. W. Marland, inspired to commemorate the role of women on the American frontier, set aside more than $300,000 for the eventual erection of a monument in his hometown of Ponca City and invited prominent sculptors to submit appropriate designs. Over the next several months, twelve miniature bronze casts based on those designs were exhibited in major cities throughout the U.S., drawing tens of thousands of visitors who were invited to share their opinions via formal ballot. Although Marland retained the right to make the final decision, art critics, cultural commentators, and ordinary citizens nonetheless engaged in robust debate about the suitability of each of the models and, by extension, the symbolic parameters for an iconic female of the frontier. When the completed full-sized monument was unveiled in 1930 before a crowd estimated at 40,000—on a specially declared state holiday featuring Indian pow-wows, fiddling contests, and parades of Conestoga wagons—the cultural [End Page 85] significance of the moment was reinforced through public addresses by none other than President Herbert Hoover and Secretary of War (and Oklahoma native) Patrick J. Hurley. Both spoke by way of radio, and the technical preparations required to air their speeches were claimed “to place Oklahoma near the fore front [sic] of national broadcasting.”2
The visibility of the affair brought immediate prominence to winning sculptor Bryant Baker; his design had emerged early on as the public favorite, and Marland responded by awarding Baker the commission.3 Baker’s seventeen-foot bronze cast depicts a young, attractive woman in a simple dress and sunbonnet, striding forward with energy and purpose; she leads a young boy by the hand and holds a book, presumably a Bible, in the crook of her opposite arm, her gaze extending to a far-off horizon [Figure 1]. The completed monument, including a thirteen-foot granite base, stands thirty feet high and remains in its original location: a parcel of land, donated by Marland, located on the site of the last major land rush in the nation, conducted in 1889 on formerly Cherokee territory. Today the Pioneer Woman Statue presides over a busy intersection in Ponca City and overlooks the Pioneer Woman Museum, founded in the 1950s. In his later years, Baker was thankful that the statue afforded him “so fine an opportunity to leave my mark in this world,” while Marland, who went on to serve as Governor of Oklahoma but eventually lost his fortune, achieved through it considerable notoriety, if not the immortality that many believed he sought.4
As we shall see, the statue campaign foregrounded cultural preoccupations and anxieties related to women, race, art, and populism; as with most commemorative projects, it revealed more about the culture of its time than about the culture it was intended to recall. What makes the Pioneer Woman Statue project especially significant, however, is that it actively engaged the ideological perspectives of not merely its patron (Marland) and its creator (Baker), but also a broad swath of the American populace. While competitive public art projects were not unheard of in 1927, and monument drives of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were typically fueled by philanthropic enthusiasm (and funds) rather than official mandates,5 Marland’s undertaking was singular because it allowed debates over representation that typically remained veiled and/or relatively circumscribed to become broadly conspicuous. Dozens of newspaper accounts followed the progress of the exhibition, and disputes concerning the validity of the different designs broke out in every city in which the miniature casts were shown. (These included New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Fort Worth.) Marland’s scheme to allow ordinary people a...