Women farmers in early twentieth century American fiction: Gates, Cather, Glasgow, Ferber, and Hurston

Douglas William Werden, Fordham University


By comparing Eleanor Gate's The Plow-Woman (1906), Willa Cather's O Pioneers! (1913), Edna Ferber's So Big (1924), Ellen Glasgow's Barren Ground (1925), and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) to urban novels of the period, I argue that while urban American novels emphasize internal, personal freedom of choice, the rural fictions emphasize both women's internal and external freedom, especially from economic dependence and social pressure which ultimately give the women more freedom. The farm becomes a site of resistance where women reject traditional patriarchal mores for marriage, childbirth, gender labor roles, land ownership, farm management, class divisions, and ethnicity. The Plow-Woman is a novel that utilizes the popular sentimental frontier genre and its stock characters, but which inserts a protagonist who appropriates the quintessential symbol of patriarchal agriculture, the plow. The “true” pioneers of Cather's O Pioneers! are Marie Shabat, who although abused refuses to allow her spirit to be crushed, and Alexandra Bergson, who uses her intellect to become the best farmer in the region. They are pioneering representations of autonomous women. Selina DeJong in Edna Ferber's So Big shows the flaws in patriarchal dicta that a woman needs to marry and raise children for satisfaction in life. Instead Selina is an ecofeminist farmer who nurtures her land, cares about her entire world, and offers a non-patriarchal paradigm of farming by focusing, not on quantity but on quality and beauty. Dorinda Oakley of Ellen Glasgow's Barren Ground uses the farm to triumph over Southern gender roles that would consign the female to the realm of pampered, protected gentility or to marriage. Janie in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is a farmer in the Southern tradition, in that she owns agriculture land and derives great financial and psychological security from it but does no necessarily farm it herself. Using the security of her farm, she searches for the fulfillment of her sexual and relational desires, but cannot find it even with Tea Cake because of her inherently oppressive patriarchal society.

Subject Area

American literature|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Werden, Douglas William, "Women farmers in early twentieth century American fiction: Gates, Cather, Glasgow, Ferber, and Hurston" (2001). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9999836.