The Women Who Would Not Tolerate Any Slander Against Alberta’s Oil Industry

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This is the sixth post in a series based on papers presented at workshop held in Banff, Alberta by Petra Dolata and David Painter called “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once: The Oil Crises of the 1970s and the Transformation of the Postwar World.”

Speaking to the Calgary Women in Energy group at the Petroleum Club in April 2023, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith told the assembled women, “the energy industry and its success wouldn’t be possible without the work you do.”1 There was a certain irony to Smith extolling women’s role in building western Canada’s petroleum industry when that industry was long considered one of North America’s most male-dominated and chauvinistic industrial sectors. Indeed, the Petroleum Club where Smith was speaking was a male-only domain until 1989.

What, then, explains the rise of many women to prominent positions in Alberta’s oil sector and female politicians, including Smith, becoming the industry’s most vocal political supporters? Scholars have emphasized how women fought (and still fight) against misogyny in the oil industry.2 The history of the Desk and Derrick Club of Calgary reveals how women played an important, but little-acknowledged, role in Alberta’s postwar oil boom. It also shows how working for the petroleum industry led many women to become strident advocates for western Canadian oil interests as they—and the industry—responded to the 1970s energy crises. By answering the call to defend Alberta’s oil industry against a critical public and politicians in Ottawa, Canadian petroleum became more than just a job for these women; it became an identity and a way of life.

Energy historians have called for more attention to women’s lived experiences with fossil fuels. Abigail Moore and Ruth Sandwell write, “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.”3 Although excellent recent work has been done to fill these gaps, much of it has focused on women as consumers of energy, mainly inside the home. Research into women as workers in the fossil fuel energy industries remains less common.4

Founded in Calgary in 1951—just four years after the Leduc oil strike—the Desk and Derrick Club of Calgary was an important hub for women in Canada’s oil and gas industry to network, socialize, and learn about the industry. Membership in the Desk and Derrick Club was “open to all women in the employ of oil companies and in companies closely allied to the petroleum industry, such as oil tool companies and oil service companies.”5 Mainly, though, the Desk and Derrick Club was an organization for female secretaries in petroleum offices.

a black and white photograph of six long tables with approximately 40 white women seated at each.
A photo from the Desk and Derrick Club of Calgary’s inaugural dinner in January 1951, as preserved in one of the club’s many immaculate scrapbooks. Source: 1954 Convention Scrapbook, Box 6, Desk and Derrick Club of Calgary Fonds, University of Calgary, Archives and Special Collections.

The club’s primary focus was educating women on the technical details of the oil and gas industry. Club members prided themselves on detailed technical knowledge and surprising male speakers with tricky questions. A club member noted how she “heard one of the men mutter under his breath—‘Jeepers, these gals sure know what it’s all about—where do they think up the questions.” But the woman (sarcastically) added, “But I really know that they were very pleased that they had so many intelligent and searching questions.”6 The Desk and Derrick Club used education to counter the myth that women could not understand technical matters in oil and gas.7

Women working for Calgary’s petroleum companies during the 1950s and 1960s faced constraints due to their gender, including being fired for getting married or pregnant, being paid less than male co-workers, and enduring on-the-job harassment.8 The records of the Desk and Derrick Club contain hints of the sexual advances and harassment that women faced in Calgary’s petroleum offices. A 1952 club newsletter featured a cartoon picturing two women sitting at desks, while three wolves in suits look in from an adjacent room. One of the secretaries says, “One thing about this office. . . there’s a lot of opportunities for advances!” A map on the wall makes it clear this is happening in Calgary.9

During the 1970s, the global energy crisis and second-wave feminism roiled Calgary’s Desk and Derrick Club. Longstanding tensions over limits that women faced in Calgary’s petroleum offices boiled over at the same moment that Alberta’s oil industry grew defensive about outside criticism and federal interference. As a result, many women in the Desk and Derrick Club began demanding more opportunities in the oil industry while also becoming vocal defenders of the industry.

When it became clear in the 1970s that the oil industry needed to head off negative publicity, the Desk and Derrick Club stood out as the perfect group to provide spokeswomen for petroleum. As the Calgary Herald’s oil columnist wrote, “if the executives of the industry turned these women loose on the public, petroleum’s image would pick up immediately. They absolutely will not tolerate any slander against ‘their industry.’”10 As the global oil crisis deepened in the mid-1970s, Desk and Derrick Clubs in the US and Canada became more strident in speaking out. In March 1975, Calgary’s club president argued: “now is the time for all members to speak out and for our industry. Some have already been using their voices on behalf of oil and its many problems. . . . NOW IS THE TIME TO SPEAK UP AND SPEAK OUT FOR THE OIL INDUSTRY.”11

Although the club was officially non-partisan, defending the petroleum industry trumped neutrality during the oil crisis. The May 1974 newsletter published a blistering critique against the federal government’s proposal to tax Canada’s oil industry. “Our industry is facing a real threat of catastrophe because of the actions of a greedy and vindictive national government in Ottawa.”12 Far from its origins in educating women about the glamorous new world of oil, the Desk and Derrick Club now operated as an important feminine phalanx in the oil industry’s efforts to fight off bad publicity (and potential taxation or regulation) during the energy crisis.

Contrary to popular perceptions, women were never rare in Alberta’s petroleum industry. By the early twenty-first century, some women had risen to positions of technical and business leadership in the industry. Dee Parkinson-Marcoux, for example, was an engineer who played an essential role in modernizing Alberta’s oil sands beginning in the early 1990s.13 In 2009, Lorraine Mitchelmore became the Canada country president of Shell. Demands for gender equality led the ADDC to open its membership to men in 1988. Danielle Smith’s 2023 speech to the Calgary Women in Energy Group illustrated an important legacy of the Desk and Derrick Club of Calgary: by the twenty-first century women were recognized as integral to the oil industry. They were also some of its most ardent political supporters.


1. Danielle Smith (@ABDanielleSmith), “Powered by the Women of Calgary” – So very true! Thank you to the Calgary Women in Energy @CWIE_ for everything you do to inspire and support women in Alberta’s energy industry. #abpoli #ableg,” Twitter/X, April 24, 2023, 1:40 pm.

2. For examples of scholarship on women in Alberta’s petroleum industry, see Gloria E. Miller, “Frontier Masculinity in the Oil Industry: The Experience of Women Engineers,” Gender, Work & Organization 11, no. 1 (2004): 47–73,; Kathleen Murphy et al., “‘I Just Gotta Have Tough Skin’: Women’s Experiences Working in the Oil and Gas Industry in Canada,” The Extractive Industries and Society 8, no. 2 (June 1, 2021): 1-11,; Kate Beaton, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands (Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2022); and Sabrina Perić, “Finding Women in Alberta’s Energy History,” NiCHE (blog), May 13, 2024.

3. Abigail Harrison Moore and R. W. Sandwell, “Introduction,” in In a New Light: Histories of Women and Energy, ed. Abigail Harrison Moore and R. W. Sandwell (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021), 4.

4. For examples of recent work centering women’s lived experiences in energy history, see Elizabeth Chatterjee, “The Poor Woman’s Energy: Low-Modernist Solar Technologies and International Development, 1878–1966,” Journal of Global History 18, no. 3 (April 4, 2023): 439–60,; and all the chapters in Moore and Sandwell, eds., In a New Light, especially Petra Dolata, “Complex Agency in the Great Acceleration: Women and Energy in the Ruhr Area after 1945-1955.” The Desk and Derrick Club has also been described in Sarah Stanford-McIntyre, “Desk and Derrick: The Women’s Petroleum Industry Club That Envisioned Oil’s Technocratic Future,” Labor 19, no. 4 (December 2022): 6–26,; and Elizabeth M. B. Bass, “‘That These Few Girls Stand Together’: Finding Women and Their Communities in the Oil and Gas Industry” (PhD diss, Oklahoma State University, 2020), 163-202.

5. “Eleanor Crockett Elected to Head Petroleum Women,” Calgary Herald, December 11, 1950, 6; Stanford-McIntyre, “Desk and Derrick,” 10.

6. Alma Neilson, “The Oil Forum,” Black Gold, May 1955, 2. Black Gold was the Desk and Derrick Club’s monthly newsletter.

7. Stanford-McIntyre, “Desk and Derrick,” 12.

8. Bass, “That These Few Women Stand Together,” 114-15.

9. “Office Manners,” cartoon, Black Gold, January 1952, 3.

10. Jim Armstrong, “Petroleum Industry Most Misunderstood,” Calgary Herald, July 20, 1967, 48.

11. Polly Holden, “Speakers Bureau,” Black Gold, March 1975, 10.

12. Les Rowland, “On the Brink of Catastrophe,” Black Gold, May 1974, no page numbers.          

13. Chris Turner, The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017), 179-81.

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Jeff Manuel is a professor of history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. In 2023, he was the Fulbright Canada Research Chair in Deindustrialization and Energy Transitions at the University of Calgary.

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