Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 2003


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer 2003, pp. 161-73.


Copyright 2003 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


In 1913 Willa Cather created a female protagonist who is single, independent, entrepreneurial, managerial, strong willed, wealthy and in love with the land of south-central Nebraska. This character offered a new vision for women at the turn of the twentieth century. Cather's fictional construction of gender, as well as her own experience, embody the contradictions present in the roles society offered women. One can read O Pioneers! as a cultural seismometer, one that picks up tremors along various social fault lines and then expresses them within a particular framework held by many people of her economic and social position. This essay focuses on the social forces that intersect to shape Cather's fictional constructions of gender.

Although Cather set much of her early work on the Nebraska prairie where she grew up, as an adult she resided in Pittsburgh and New York, working as an editor, journalist, critic, teacher, and writer. Characteristic of the New Woman, she gained a university education, chose not to marry, entered a profession, and rose to a position of considerable importance as managing editor of McClure's, a leading magazine of the time. She regularly traveled back to Nebraska and to other rural places, yet she also often went to Europe for business and pleasure. Because Cather's allegiances were mixed, as they were for many in the developing middle class, the culture of urban sophistication as well as rural developments on the Divide shaped her presentation of pioneer life in O Pioneers!

Written at a time of rapid industrialization and urbanization, Cather's first Nebraska novel reflects the uneasiness its readers felt toward changing U.S. culture. Stories of the pioneer past were reassuring to them. However, Cather's pioneer was not typical Her protagonist is a woman, not a farm wife but a farm manager. Along with her rural attachment to the land, Alexandra shared with her author many qualities of the economically independent, professional New Woman emerging in the urban East. While threatening to her brothers and their wives, Alexandra gains the readers' sympathy. Yet the conflicts between competing definitions of gender roles and Alexandra's relationship to the land are not comfortably reconciled for Cather's reluctant New Woman pioneer, whose farming success is balanced by her personal losses.