What image does the phrase “pioneer woman,” evoke for you?
That was the question posed in 1926 by E. W. Marland, a wealthy oil guy in Oklahoma, when he hired seventeen prominent sculptors to create three-foot statues depicting a quintessential Pioneer Woman settling the American West. From those, a winning design would be chosen and a large-scale statue commissioned.
The only two women artists on Marland’s list declined the invitation, and three of the male artists did as well. Marland suggested to the twelve sculptors who did participate that each woman wear a sunbonnet, and that the statue include a child.
Once the artists completed their work, Marland arranged for a twelve-city tour of the models. Citizens viewed the choices and voted for their favorite.
Here are the twelve. Bearing in mind that all were created by white men in the 1920s… which would you have voted for?
Adventurous, by F. Lynn Jenkins
Faithful, by Arthur Lee
Heroic, by Mario Korbel
Self Reliant, by Alexander Stirling Calder
Self Reliant detail
Determined, by Maurice Sterne
Confident, by Bryant Baker
Confident – detail
Trusting, by Jo Davidson
Challenging, by Herman A. MacNeil
Challenging – detail
Affectionate, by James E. Fraser
Protective, by John Gregory
Protective – detail
Sturdy, by Mahonri Young
Fearless, by Wheeler Williams
Marland made clear that he had the right to choose the ultimate winner, and his favorite was evidently Trusting. (It’s not clear to me if the names/attributes were given to the sculptors from the beginning, or applied after the models were complete.) However, the voting public chose Confident by a wide margin. Marland graciously bowed to popular sentiment.
In 1930, Baker’s 27-foot bronze statue was unveiled in Ponca City, Oklahoma. It was dedicated to all pioneer women of the United States: “In appreciation of the heroic character of the women who braved the dangers and endured the hardships incident to daily life of the pioneer and homesteader in this country.”
Forty thousand people came to the tribute to Oklahoma’s pioneers, which included a speech by Will Rogers.
Today the statue still stands to remind all passersby of the role Euro-Yankee women played in Western history.
I think the voting public chose well.
The statue can be seen at the Pioneer Woman Museum in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Copies of the original models, shown in the photos above, are on display at the nearby Marland Mansion and Estate.