Monday, February 25, 2008

Western Settlers & Pioneer Women

(Text and photos by Cindy Prescott) I stumbled into studying Pioneer statues as I was finishing a dissertation that compared the gender and family roles the first two generations of white settlers in western Oregon's Willamette Valley (1845-1900). I got interested in Oregon pioneer organizations and pioneer monuments as reflections of idealized images of early settlers. I was particularly interested in how women's actual roles on the early frontier got collapsed into an idealized "Pioneer Mother" type. I soon discovered that the statues in the Willamette Valley looked a lot like other "pioneer mother" statues erected across the country at the same time (ca. 1927-1940) -- most famously the NSDAR "Madonna of the Trail" series (which I'd first encountered in Springfield, OH, on a historic preservation project years before).

The Pioneer Mother monuments in Oregon seemed to fit 2 basic types. In the first, young mothers tried to protect their children from the hazards of overland trail/frontier life, as in Avard Fairbanks' "Old Oregon Trail" (note the wagon forming a Madonna-like halo as the mother protects her son), and Leo Friedlander's "The Covered Wagon". In Friedlander's, the son is imitating his father, trying to "thrust our frontiers to the setting sun"; the mother tries to hold him back from the dangers of trail life. These women in some ways echo the NDSAR's "Madonna of the Trail" and Ponca City, OK, "Pioneer Mother," but they are less bold, and certainly don't carry rifles.

The second type I discovered were seated grandmothers in more domestic poses. These focused on a later time period, after the initial frontier era, and emphasized women's proper place within the domestic sphere.

You can read more of my analysis of these images in chapter 6 of my book, Gender and Generation on the Far Western Frontier (Univ. of Arizona Press, 2007).

I'm now working on a national survey of existing pioneer woman monuments nationwide. I'm particularly intrigued by a shift toward more maternal and domestic imagery in later statues, such as the one on the North Dakota Statehouse lawn, in which the mother is contained within the family circle, and looks over her shoulder to her husband for guidance and protection, rather than looking boldly forward.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Chapter 4 - The Devil Wore Prada - Pioneer Women Wore Boots

When building a house it is essential that there be a solid, firm foundation if the house its self is going to survive long.

The same is pretty much true with Pioneer Women, at least with their statues.

They all seems to fit firmly into and almost grow out of a fine pair of boots. Laces seem to far outnumber the slip-it-on type, perhaps because there is an element of style in them.

We'll look at roofs later.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Chapter 3 - Pioneer Women sculpture attributes #2

Let's face it. Women in the late 19th and early 20th Century sculpture were frequently a bunch of hussies.

Even angels, easily identified by their wings, on occasion sported the bodies of naked women. Donning a breast plate seemed to actually accentuate the woman's "charms" rather than covering them up.

That these works were largely created by male artists certainly (one of the many words and/or phrases that is used to mean that you are about to read my opinion) surely accounts for much of this. In an era when a "well turned ankle" was considered a bit saucy and a "shapely calf" could drive men wild, when even table legs could not be discussed in polite or mixed company because of the obvious connotation, the art world was one of the few places where the scantily clad, (or less) figure, almost always of women, was considered to be acceptable.

However all that changed when the figure involved was that of the art patron's mother or grand mother. Suddenly modesty in look, dress and demure became the order of the day and provides us with our first attribute. Dress.

It started at the top with usually a bonnet, occasionally a scarf or shawl, but almost always something. Under these outfits the nipple, a standard feature in many previous female figures, completely disappears, despite the fact that the outfits are on occasion quite form fitting.

Dresses are long, flowing and usually extend all the way to the next attribute, a good pair of solid, sensible boots.

There is more research to be done on all of these, but by including a LARGE BOOK, both the important issues of Christianity and literacy were addressed.

A significant attribute, frequently employed was the rifle, suggesting that the Pioneer Women took an active role in the defense of the homestead. More will be said about this down the line in a blog called "Rifles -the male tool, or just a tool?".

This is in no way a complete list of the attributes that identify Pioneer Woman. However it is a start.

Children (mostly sons, at least as the oldest child, when gender can be determined)
long dresses
modesty in look, dress and demure

(to be cont.)