Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Mr. Peebles' Heart
In both Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers! and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story "Mr. Peebles’ Heart" present the reader with strong, successful female characters. Alexandra Bergson, the heroine of O Pioneers!, becomes the manager and proprietor of a prosperous farm on the Nebraska frontier while Joan R. Bascom of "Mr. Peebles’ Heart" is a successful doctor. Cather and Gilman create competent, independent female characters that do not conform to the perceived societal standards for women in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Both women must struggle against society’s perception of what they should be and how they should behave, however, Alexandra’s struggle leaves her emotionally distant while Joan’s struggle does not hinder her emotional attachments.
Throughout the nineteenth century, gender roles were increasingly characterized by a division of activity into separate spheres for men and women. Men moved freely between home and the outside world, however, women were largely restricted to the home and remained financially dependent upon a man. While this situation offered women more power within the home, that power was very limited in scope. As the twentieth century neared, more and more women began to challenge the societal expectations placed upon them. Many Americans began to fear that the family was disintegrating due to "a declining birth rate, a rising divorce rate, and efforts of a growing number of women to break out of their separate sphere of domesticity by obtaining a higher education, joining women’s organizations, and taking jobs outside the home" (Kellogg and Mintz 1937). As this progressive movement gained momentum, women often found themselves in direct opposition to the prevailing societal notion that women should remain solely in the domestic sphere (Kellogg and Mintz 1925-1945; Pleck 1945-1961).
Unlike many womenn of the period, in Cather’s novel O Pioneers!, Alexandra Bergson does not rely on a man for her success though her brothers seem to feel her achievements are aberrations due more to luck than skill. Alexandra takes charge of the family farm at the age of twenty and proceeds to transform a struggling homestead into a thriving business. She speaks of her solitary achievements later in life when confronted with her brothers’ patriarchal opinion that the farm is truly theirs. When the brothers married, the farmland was divided equally among them. Now that Alexandra’s farm has proven to be the best, the boys are afraid they will lose any claim they might have over it. In her defense, Alexandra says, "I’ve made more on my farms since I’ve been alone than when we all worked together. [. . .] I’ve built it up myself and it has nothing to do with you" (65). Alexandra’s prosperous business endeavors are entirely due to her own ingenuity, however, she must deal with the fact that her brothers cannot accept a woman’s...