Wildcat Women: Narratives of Women Breaking Ground in Alaska’s Oil and Gas Industry
By Carla Williams; Snowy Owl Books/University of Alaska Press; 272 pages; $21.95
Not many books will have one section opened with a quote from Ayn Rand, and the next with the thoughts of Gloria Steinem. But then, not many books focus on the role of women in the oil industry, a place where at least some of the ideas of those two disparate but iconic social philosophers converge. And to the best of my knowledge, “Wildcat Women,” which explores the pioneering work of women in Alaska’s Arctic oil fields, is the first book to ever broach the topic from a northern angle. So perhaps pairing these lines from the ultra-libertarian and the über-liberal makes sense.
Carla Williams, herself a veteran of Alaska’s oil fields, is the author/editor of this recent book. Drawn first to the North in the mid-'70s, and then to the exorbitantly high-paying jobs that were offered during construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline, she spent much of her professional life in the industry and knows it well. But rather than writing her own memoir or providing a documented history of how women made their mark in a traditionally male dominated workplace, she shares the stories of over a dozen women who walked the same path. The result is a book that lends readers a sense of what it was like to be there during the most tumultuous cultural and economic shift in the state’s history, from the perspective of those who were making their own history, even if they weren’t particularly aware of it at the time.
Williams begins the book with a brief outline of building the pipeline. This subject has been explored at length in numerous other books and articles, and thus doesn’t warrant extensive coverage here. What she does do is place Alaska’s oil rush in the context of the women’s rights push in the 1960s and ’70s, when women flooded into the marketplace and often took jobs in fields that had thus far been the exclusive province of men. The key action that allowed this from the government’s end was Executive Order 11246, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, which required affirmative action hiring practices among federal contractors. This, along with somewhat sputtering but nonetheless earnest efforts by some unions to recruit women members, would have a significant impact a decade later on construction of the pipeline and opening the Prudhoe Bay oil fields to drilling.
Since the interviews, which Williams conducted for nearly two decades, are arranged more or less chronologically by when the women arrived on the job, readers can in a sense witness the progression of increasing opportunities. The first women to show up tended to get shuffled into office and clerical jobs, although some found their way into managerial positions usually occupied by men. Later arrivals got their hands dirty.
Irene Bartee had grown up in a logging family and worked in a police department prior to moving to Alaska. She went to work on the business end of construction. By the time the pipeline rolled around, she was an experienced expediter and job bidder as well as a pilot, skills that served her well on the North Slope.
Kate Cotten, whose story is particularly lively, stumbled into her job. She was living in Valdez and working in fisheries — and hence no stranger to hard labor — when she was picked up hitchhiking by one of the men who hired workers for the Slope. Although a few weeks would pass, she ultimately found herself at the other end of Alaska and living in the construction camp, where her assigned roommate had decided that moonlighting as a prostitute would provide extra income. “I spent many nights sleeping on the bathroom floor,” Cotten told Williams.
Stories of women missing their husbands and children, or of forgoing family life altogether, recur in these interviews. The ways in which women successfully broke into previously all-male crews are recounted by some. The loss of privacy and the difficulties in finding other female friends were additional challenges. And the glass ceiling was ever present, but some cracked their way through.
The most memorable stories in the book come from Donna Ford, who worked as a security guard. She was required to keep large groups of men in line, and this demanded a deft hand at knowing when to intervene and when to turn a blind eye. Booze, drugs and prostitution were theoretically banned, but in practice widespread. In a time when employees were paid in cash, poker games with mountainous pots were played, but Ford didn’t recall any serious problems despite the high stakes. More troublesome were union members. In the rush to get the pipeline built, companies risked a mass walkout if they fired one union worker for breaking the rules. So security guards had to let them get away with no end of mischief.
Still, by and large, the women interviewed here don’t recall problems with the male workforce as being anywhere near as severe as might be expected. Often at first the presence of women in the workplace was frowned on, but several interviewees say that once they had proven themselves indispensable, they became welcome. In her afterword, Arctic environmental historian Julia Feuer-Cotter theorizes that the severe arctic conditions and dangers of the job required close teamwork. Gender took a backseat to ability, and any employee, male or female, who could be relied on to pull their weight and act quickly in an emergency was treated by others like family. It’s a thought echoed by several of the women interviewed, who look back on their years in the oil industry as the best time of their lives.
In the final interview, Williams meets with Samantha George, presently employed as an electrician. Discrimination and harassment haven’t been big problems for her, but she admits encountering other female employees is uncommon. As we learn from the stories in this book, women before her broke ground and made George’s career possible, but the North Slope largely remains a man’s world.