The Work of Their Hands: The Association of Oil Wives Clubs

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This piece is the fifth in a series of blogs about the Canadian Energy Museum, a small museum situated in the town of Devon, Alberta that has closed 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.

Hand-felted and sewn banner for the annual Oil Wives Clubs Convention. Photo: Jean-René Leblanc. Used with permission of the CEM.

A smile, a handclasp, a word of welcome are the links in our chain of friendship. This we believe.
Association of Oil Wives Clubs creed

Unfurled for my colleagues and I during a recent visit, the artifact pictured above, a hand-felted and sewn banner for the annual Oil Wives Clubs Convention, really embodied an important story that the Canadian Energy Museum’s (CEM’s) models of derricks and rigs, and the belt buckles could not convey. Looking at this banner, it is the delicate-seeming yet sturdy hands that close the circle of the golden chain, whose links are hand-embroidered with the names of Alberta communities, that stand out to me. Founded by Dean Hunter in 1951 in Redwater, Alberta, the Oil Wives Club was a haven for women whose husbands worked on the rigs and in the oil industry around the time of the Leduc crude oil discovery. Their lives were often solitary. Not only did they move from place to place, often in skid shacks, as Imperial Oil sent their husbands from site to site, but they often spent evenings alone, had sole responsibility for looking after their children, and likely lacked family support. “Why did an oil man always have to be an oil man and never a husband” asked Dean Hunter voicing the thoughts of many of these women. With the founding of the Oil Wives Club, these women forged community, created friendships, and established support systems. Three women, including Dean Hunter, attended the first coffee meeting in Redwater.

But the club idea spread quickly and local chapters began to emerge throughout Alberta. In 1956, the Association of Oil Wives Clubs was formalized. As noted in the publication Links of Friendship by the time the 39th annual convention took place at the Crossroad Hotel Inn in Calgary in 1995, there were 34 clubs, 31 of which sent delegates. Associated clubs exist in BC and Saskatchewan and comparable associations that served a similar function sprung up around the world such as the Anchorage Petroleum Women’s Association in 1958, the Petroleum Wives Club in Norway in 1970.

Speaking to the Red Deer Advocate in 2006, Shirley Panton, a longtime member of the Red Deer Oil Wives Club, identified the 1980s as its heyday. Since then membership has dwindled. According to the Oil Wives Club blog, at one of the more recent conventions, the 64th that took place in Leduc in 2022, the record shows that 24 of the 28 clubs sent delegates and that the total number of members in the association was 559.  But the Oil Wives Club is not the only community space for “oil wives”. Today private Facebook groups such as Alberta Oilfield Wives play similar rolls. However, increasingly women are working in the sector and many might prefer to find support and solidarity through associations such as Calgary Women in Energy and Young Women in Energy.

Looking at the symbolism of the banner, I am drawn to how the chain anchored in the women’s hands and the names embroidered by their hands encircles the familiar derrick. For me, this conveys how the often-invisible work at home sustains the work in the field. It signals the inextricability of community energy stories from broader national narratives of energy and energy transition. The literal and symbolic work of these women’s hands is integral to the Leduc #1 story as well as to the past and present of the energy and resource extraction sector in Canada. Yet outside communities that form around resource extraction, it is often the symbol of a derrick, a pumpjack, or a truck that comes to stand in for the energy story. Handmade banners have the possibility to break through the dominant narrative by offering an intimate and multivocal experience of energy in communities. The story of Leduc #1 isn’t only about a well. It is also about families. The story of oil in Alberta isn’t only about technologies and their impact, it is also about communities. Artifacts like this banner have the capacity to generate empathy. For many, what could feel remote, technical, or ideological could start to feel familiar and proximate.

The story of this banner doesn’t end in 1955; it all comes back to the hands. I could imagine the women making it with their hands. I could picture its place of honour being held aloft by women at the convention. I could imagine someone carrying it home after the convention. She must have deemed that it was important enough to keep and I can envision her caring for it, folding it carefully with her hands. And, though I don’t have access to the accession records or source files, she ultimately chose to hand it over it to the Canadian Energy Museum, or possibly the Leduc #1 Discovery Centre, depending on when it was donated. The collection manager received it and became the most recent link in the chain of custody, the banner’s most recent caregiver. People choose to donate things to museums, like the CEM and like Ingenium, for many reasons but often with something so intimate, the donation comes with the wish to both be remembered and to speak to the future. Museums are trusted repositories of memories and material culture. But they are also sites for transmission, discovery, and rediscovery of these memories. In a sense, museums can facilitate the creation of new links on the golden chain.

Feature image: A felted banner made for the 25th annual Association of Oil Wives Clubs Convention, 1981. Used with permission of the CEM.
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Rebecca Dolgoy

Rebecca Dolgoy (she/her/elle) is the Curator of Natural Resources and Industrial Technologies at Ingenium - Canada's Museums of Science and Innovation. She is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton and in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Calgary, where is a co-director of the Energy Stories Lab. Both her research and curatorial practice engage with human-environmental relations.

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