Finding Women in Alberta’s Energy History

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This piece is the second in a series of blogs about the Canadian Energy Museum, a small museum situated in the town of Devon, Alberta that is facing imminent closure due to the loss of funding.  The goal of these blogs is to share some of the Canadian Energy Museum’s rich collection with the broader community of environmental historians and museum professionals before the museum closes, as well as to tell the story of the unfolding funding crisis amongst smaller regional museums in Canada through the perspective of this museum. We hope that NiCHE’s readers might be compelled by these pieces to either donate to the effort to save the CEM, or to play a more active role in advocating for the continued funding of small regional museums across the country.

“Arguably no aspect of energy’s history is less developed than gender, and no topic less explored than women’s relationship to the last great society-changing transition to fossil fuels.”1

When I sat down in the library of the Canadian Energy Museum (CEM) for the first time in 2022, I was surprised. With my access to the abundance of riches that is the Imperial Oil Collection at the University of Calgary’s Glenbow Western Research Centre, I walked into the CEM library not expecting to find anything of interest. I knew that the CEM was founded by former employees of Imperial Oil, and that much of the museum’s archives had come from their own personal collections. What could I possibly find that I didn’t already have access to?

A view of the CEM’s library and archives. Photo: Jean-René Leblanc. Used with permission of the CEM.

The collection had no searchable database. It did not even have a handwritten list of what was inside of its four walls. I had to go shelf by shelf, searching unknowingly for…something.

In my first piece about the CEM, I mentioned that the value of this regional museum’s collection lies in its focus on daily life. An amazing repository for social historians, it is filled with the books, photos, magazines, and objects that overflowed from the bookshelves, cabinets, and homes of 20th century oil families. And because much of this overflow was collected by women, the view into 20th century Canadian energy history is unlike the view we find in other museums and mainstream narratives. In this essay, I want to suggest that the CEM is an important collection from which to not only interrogate our conventional view of gender in the oil industry, but also to render visible some of the most omitted actors in Alberta’s industrial history: women. In what follows, I explore a few sources in the CEM collection that centre women’s experiences and reveal their critical role in enabling oil extraction. 

Recipes built for scarcity

Sometime in the early 1990s, Shirley Cripps (b.1935) became the President of the Leduc/Devon Historical Society after leaving an illustrious career in politics. She had served for over a decade as an MLA for Drayton Valley, Alberta and as an Associate Minister of Agriculture. But after her career in politics ended, she dedicated herself to sharing the history of central Alberta, specifically the history of Alberta’s oil industry. On my very first trip to the CEM, I came across a collection of recipes that Shirley had gathered from the wives and families that lived on the site of the Leduc-Woodbend Oil Field.2  The recipes, according to Cripps were compiled “and garnished with stories which give today’s cook a ‘taste of yesterday.’”3 The recipes collected are varied. They include typical fare one might expect from the mid-20th century prairies, like “sourdough bread and starter,” “carrot muffins,” “dough for perogies,” and “no fuss pot roast”. But interspersed throughout the expected recipes are some surprises. These surprise recipes, upon closer inspection, clearly index the lives that these women led. Many of them lived on rig sites in small skid shacks or trailers with no running water and communal kitchen facilities.4 Buses ran infrequently to Edmonton for food, so instead women created recipes for their daily needs, which often included creative substitutes for items they couldn’t find:

Condensed Milk Substitute
¼ cup shortening
2 cups sugar
4 cups powdered milk
1 cup boiling water
Combine and beat well. 1 and 1/3 cups equals 1 can of sweet condensed milk.5

The recipes collected by Cripps also included large volume recipes that the wives of rig hands would cook together to feed the whole crew and their families. For example, for a hash supper to feed 100 people, you would need:

                                    40 lbs. corned beef                                             5 qts. salad dressing
32 qts. potatoes                                                   4 lbs. butter
20 doz. rolls                                                         2 lbs. coffee
20 qts chopped cabbage                                4 qts. cream6    

Flipping through the recipes, it becomes clear quickly that these women were responsible for feeding entire work crews, fetching water from sloughs or cisterns up to a half a mile away, doing laundry for entire work crews, and entertaining children. There is even a recipe for homemade play-dough that warns “DO NOT EAT!.” The CEM’s collection provides an important look at the role that the continual exploitation of women’s labour played in supporting oil extraction. Corporations would not have been able to function without their critical supportive role. The expansion of fossil fuels in the 20th century energy transition would have been impossible without the invisible unpaid labour of women.

More than a pretty (white) face?

While many of the documents in the CEM library and archives unabashedly foreground the labour and ingenuity of women so often left out of petroleum industry’s grand narratives, many of them also provide a critical glimpse into the patriarchal gender dynamics that characterized mid-20th century Alberta and its burgeoning oil industry. In the CEM library, there is an almost complete collection of The Roughneck magazine. Founded in 1952 by Lethbridge journalist Lloyd Gilmour in response to the Leduc oil boom, The Roughneck aimed to “focus on the people on the rigs…not the big wigs.”7 The Roughneck usually featured a woman’s photo on the cover, and included pages of jokes, letters from ordinary workers about their frustrations on the job, and reports from workers’ social events, like the ever-popular curling bonspiels. It even sponsored the annual Miss Roughneck beauty pageant, an event much beloved by some of the magazine editors, but reviled by some of its readers (which included women).8

The July 1954 cover or The Roughneck magazine, featuring Miss Roughneck 1954. Used with permission of the CEM.

After spending some time with The Roughneck, I was struck by its importance as a source for understanding not only the reproduction of gender norms, but women’s simultaneous deference and resistance to this hegemonic discourse. In the July 1954 issue, a group of self-described oil wives wrote a letter to the editor: “Dear Sir: we, the undersigned, would like to protest the lack of interest shown the “backbone” of the oil industry – namely the wives of the oil men…we would like our share of the limelight too – so how’s about staging a MRS. Roughneck Contest?” In a telling reply, the editor responded directly below the letter and wrote: “The more we see of you ‘backbones of the oil industry’, the more we think you girls have a brilliant idea.”9 In this short exchange, it becomes immediately clear that oil wives do feel strongly about their exclusion from discussions of oil industry work – they see themselves as a necessary irreplaceable “backbone.” Yet, the mode of expressing this displeasure comes through a predictable demand for the creation of (what now appears as) another space for objectification – a Mrs. Roughneck competition. The dismissive response of the editor fails to even note the labour of women in this industry.

Magazines like The Roughneck are one of the critical sources where we can visibly view the reproduction of gender norms, and the centrality of binary visions of the world to the establishment and continued operation of the oil industry. This is apparent not only in the columns and dialogic spaces of the magazine, but its advertisements. Fossil fuel marketing of the mid 20th century was deeply reliant on women’s portrayals that emphasized stereotypical beauty ideals and the critical standard of whiteness.

An advertisement for the Alberta Southern Coal Company in the February 1955 issue of The Roughneck magazine. Used with permission of the CEM.

Advertisements almost universally featured women in compromising positions, inevitably needing to be rescued by a male figure who symbolized the expertise inherent in industry actors and corporations.

An advertisement for Nufield Operations in the February 1955 issue of The Roughneck magazine. Used with permission of the CEM.

In this piece, I’ve presented women’s recipes and mid-century periodicals as foils to one another: both are necessary to illuminate the complicated and critical role of women in energy history. If we are to better understand the critical role that gender plays in organizing and structuring energy transitions, we must look deeply at archival sources reflective of the daily conversations oil industry participants were having amongst themselves. If we are to take seriously not only the role of settler women in sustaining the oil industry, we must rely on the contradictory and complementary sources available in unique regional museums and archives, like the Canadian Energy Museum.


1. RW Sandwell and Abigail Harrison Moore, eds. A New Light: Histories of Women and Energy, (Montreal, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021), 2.

2. Leduc/Devon Oil Field Historical Society. Oil Fare. Compiled by Shirley Cripps. Date unknown.

3. Leduc/Devon Oil Field Historical Society. Oil Fare. Compiled by Shirley Cripps. Date unknown, 1.

4. O’Brien, Pat. “Home is where the rig is.” Imperial Oil Review, June 1960, 6-9.

5. Leduc/Devon Oil Field Historical Society. Oil Fare. Compiled by Shirley Cripps. Date unknown, E-8.

6. Leduc/Devon Oil Field Historical Society. Oil Fare. Compiled by Shirley Cripps. Date unknown, C-8.

7. “Roughneck founder dies,” Daily Commercial News and Construction Record, October 20, 1999, A3.

8. “Letters.” The Roughneck, July 1954, 6.

9. “Letters.” The Roughneck, July 1954, 6.

Feature image: Bobbie Cochrane in her trailer home on a rig site. From “Home is Where the Rig Is,” Imperial Oil Review, June 1960. Used with permission of the CEM.
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Sabrina Perić (she/her) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Calgary. Her current research focuses on understanding the role that individuals and communities play in determining energy transition possibilities. As the co-director of the CFI-funded Energy Stories Lab at UCalgary, she favours a community-based and collaborative approach to energy research that brings together both anthropological as well as visual participatory methods.

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