Exhibits, re-enactments celebrate the roles that women have played in Oklahoma history

Oklahoma stories of an early-day pilot, a renowned photographer, noted entertainer, newswoman-turned-politician and singer/actor are told throughout the state with exhibits and an upcoming re-enactment.
BY MAX NICHOLS Published: May 27, 2012
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Pioneer women have long been celebrated for their tremendous efforts in caring for families and homes, raising children, supporting husbands and encouraging the development of farms, communities and cities in Oklahoma.

“These remarkable accomplishments, however, are just part of the story,” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. “Women have played starring roles on the stage of Oklahoma history since the middle of the 19th century.

“History literally has been made by spectacular women such as May Lillie in Wild West shows, Elva Shartel Ferguson in news, Geraldyn ‘Jerrie' Cobb in flying and space travel, Jennie Ross Cobb in photography and Mary Kay Place in singing and acting.”

May Lillie

May Lillie was among the first women to literally star on the Oklahoma stage. As the wife of Gordon Lillie, who became famous as Pawnee Bill, May became the Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West in Pawnee Bill's Wild West shows. Her performances will be celebrated in re-enactments of the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show on June 9, 16 and 23 at the Pawnee Bill Ranch, one-half mile west of Pawnee on U.S. 64.

Born as May Manning in 1869 to a Quaker family in Philadelphia, May met Gordon Lillie when he was touring with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. His wedding gift to May was a pony and a .22-caliber target rifle.

May and Gordon eventually settled in Pawnee on Blue Hawk Peak. She died on Sept. 17, 1936, after Gordon lost control of their vehicle.

Elva Shartel Ferguson

Elva Shartel Ferguson was born in 1869 in Novelty, Mo., and raised in Sedan, Kan., where she married Thompson B. Ferguson in 1885. They made three land runs and finally settled in Watonga, where they established the Watonga Republican newspaper. Elva wrote editorials, sold subscriptions and managed the paper when her husband became active in politics.

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Thompson Ferguson as governor of Oklahoma Territory. Elva became first lady, entered politics and served as chair of the Oklahoma delegation to the 1924 National Republican Convention.

Geraldyn ‘Jerrie' Cobb

Jerrie Cobb was born in 1931 in Norman to Lt. Col. William H. and Helena Butler Stone Cobb. She grew up in aviation, learning to fly her father's airplane at 12 and earning a private pilot's license while a student at Classen High School in Oklahoma City. During the 1950s, she set world altitude and speed records in an Aero Commander plane built by Oklahoma's Aero Design and Engineering Co., said Dickson.

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