Ed. Note: This article is the first of two parts and was originally published at Chuck Heath, Jr. on January 31, 2013 and New Agenda on February 1, 2013. Armstrong is a dedicated Palinista. She attended the Our Sarah book signing in Highland Village near Dallas, TX; The Machine Shed and Indianola; visited Alaska in 2012, and Gov. Palin’s 2010 stump speech for Susana Martinez who was running for Governor of New Mexico. She is the publisher of I Stand with Sarah, A Tribute… on Facebook. Armstrong is the first woman to work in the field for a major oil company and plied her trade in western Texas. Part II has not been published anywhere and will be published next Sunday here on US for Palin.
I write this thinking of the young women of today…as you burn new trails, think of the young girls coming up behind you and know that they are watching, depending on you to help them with their dreams and hopes.
During the 2008 election I had to wonder how far we had come as women; yes we were lawyers, doctors, judges, engineers, and heads of major companies but the sexism was still there. I listened as Governor Palin was called the same names by both men and women that I had been called in the 70s and 80s. I knew there was a kinship between us…we were the first woman in a male dominated area, four decades apart.
As most of you that have read some of my posts know, I worked in the oilfield; I have told some of what I did and what happened to me as the “first woman”, but here is how in 1974 affirmative action entered my life or how I became the token woman.
A week or so ago I was looking for some papers I needed and ran across a magazine (I thought I had junked all the write ups), Guide to the New Texas Frontier, Autumn 1982, the article was called “Women in the Oilfield”.
As stated in the article, it started with a $50 dollar bet and a stubborn streak when a friend bet me that I would not apply for a roustabout opening at Gulf Oil; I applied because no one was going to tell me I wouldn’t or could not do something. I won the bet and no way could I know how my life would change. Because up to that point in my life “I didn’t know I was different, I just thought I was a human being” no more no less. I was a 30 year old wife and mother of two. I sure was in for a shock.
I am in my late 60s and when I look back at that time most of the women I knew were either nurses or school teachers. I did know one lawyer, my sister-in-law who had graduated from the UT Law School in the 50s (I think she said there were two women in the class). So I showed up for my first day, wow; I was put in a gang truck with the other two affirmative action tokens but I must say they were treated different because they were men.
There was not a lot of training, just get the water can filled up and get in the truck , we need to go balance some counter weights. I really put my foot in it a few times that first day or so. On a pump jack there is a rod that is called a polished rod. I asked what was that shiny pole and didn’t live that down for a long time. So many other things happened; I will talk about later in remembering the oilfield. The following are a few things that shocked me and at times made me feel less than human.
First let me explain the title of this post; after about two weeks in the field I was up on a pump jack fixing a hose and there were some men working on something about 100 yards away. They kept looking over and then it got the best of them so they came over, looked at me and said, “It is a woman.” I looked down and sang as loud as I could I am Woman Hear Me Roar. They walked away shaking their heads.
There were so many things, I can remember one day it was so bad I got three speeding tickets just trying to get home (I don’t know why he stopped me, I was just doing 110) because if I could get home I knew there was someone that liked me there. Things were worse in Mississippi (by this time I was a single mom) and they really did not want a woman. I can tell you ever dirty job they could find was given to me, from doping pipe to cleaning the men’s bathroom.
One guy thought I was really dumb. We had to dig a two-foot deep by 30 foot long ditch to replace a joint of pipe. Now I know I’m not real smart, but I did know that me digging while standing in it and shoveling the dirt out versus him standing in front of me with his shovel saying, “I will just stand up here and knock the dirt into the ditch for you,” meant I was working hard than him.
Yes Mississippi was bad (I did make a few good friends or at least men that treated me the way they would want their wife or daughter treated), but the stress of Mississippi became so bad that I had a light heart attack, came back to West Texas, and went to work for ARCO as a lease operator and later Enserch as a Production Supervisor.
I was also offered a position at Eastern New Mexico University to teach Petroleum Technology. I wish I could say things were better, but I had three problems: my boss put me over all the women, allowing them to come to me and discuss their problems with the men teachers; I was show and tell; and lastly, they were hiring the same men whom I had faced when I worked in the field. The students liked me though, and I also won the so called prestigious Kosa award as the Outstanding Vocational Teacher of the Year (I was the first instructor to win the award as a first year teacher).
I could tell you more, but I don’t think this is a place to go into some of the sexual things that happened, the total disrespect. I will tell you one man made a sexual advance toward me and realized that was not what I was about. He came back to me and apologized and became came my defender.
In some ways I could understand some of what the men felt; a lot of them had worked for Gulf for 20-30 years and here was this woman making the same amount of money and being interviewed by Time Magazine and newspapers. This had never happened to them, so yes, I could understand that, but what I could not and never would understand was how cruel and vulgar some of these men could be. Where was the humanity?
Did affirmative action work for me? It got me the job, but what it didn’t do was show the company that hired me how to integrate me into a work force that was dominated by men. The future for women depends on the young women of today, young ones like Whitney, Karen, and the Sarah Palins. Could it also be different for women because of the young men of today? I think so.
What has happened to me since I left the Oil Field? I went back to school and got a four-year business degree in 2 ½ years (started with 27 hours) and went to work for Wayland Baptist University as the Associate Register over the off campus programs. I worked towards an MBA, but became ill and did not finish (still need 18 hours). And I took care of a friend that had Alzheimer’s disease til they died. I also wrote and self published a book about being a caregiver, The Face Of Alzheimers As Seen From The Heart of a Caregiver.