North Dakota's Attitude Towards Women is All About ... Oil?

ByCarly Crane

When I offer the introduction “I’m from North Dakota,” the usual answer is a snarky/incredulous, “People live there?”

Well, I am standing before you, and I wasn’t exactly raised by buffalo, although that would be fun. I understand the reaction, and I don’t begrudge the occasional comparison to Siberia, because, in the scheme of the lives of hundreds of millions of American citizens, a state as under-populated as ND just sort of fades in with the rest of the Midwest in the rolling recesses of America’s mind.

But the nation is starting to take notice of my scrappy little home state. Why? Oil. And we’ve got lots of it. North Dakota is changing at a booming rate, thanks to its vast shale oil fields, effecting major socio-economic changes in communities that have been static or in decline for decades. Many of these changes are acutely affecting the lives of women in North Dakota.

Here’s some background information on the ND oil boom: On February 3, North Dakota made the cover of New York Times Magazine and boasted the (intended-to-be-ironic) heading “The Luckiest Place on Earth.” The article “North Dakota Went Boom” depicts the rapid growth of the state’s population and oil industry in western ND, which climbed from the country’s ninth oil producer to its second, behind only Texas. ND is even projected to pass them, and soon. (Eat your heart out, Texas.) The influx in oil production began about seven years ago, fueled by technological advancements in hydraulic fracturing (known scathingly as “fracking” on the East Coast) that made it easier and cheaper to extract oil from the rocks.

Most of the oil comes from the Bakken Formation, also known as the Williston Basin. Oil towns in the area have been rocked by the population growth. Williston, ND, a hub of oil production, has grown from a steady, if not slightly declining, 12,000 people, to a bloated 20,000 in the last four years. Much of the growth is attributed to incoming single, able-bodied young men who flock to the high paying jobs in the oil fields. As the New York Times summed it up: Oil Towns "Where Men are Many, and Women Are Hounded."

The article cites that in 2011, the census data showed 58% of North Dakotans ages 18-35 were men. And in the areas most affected by the oil boom, the disparity in gender ratios becomes even more obvious: There were more than 1.6 men for every 1 woman, and that’s only data for those who have reported a permanent residence, which many of the short-term oil labor and construction workers have not. (As an aside, strippers often make more money on an average night in Williston than they would in Las Vegas. As women become fewer and farther between, the objectification of women has skyrocketed.)

Men are secluded in “man camps,” where men in the hundreds, with new camps under construction that can house thousands, inhabit tiny cubicles in tightly packed rows of trailers. They have curfews, and “visiting hours.” Their salaries are often six digits, and there is no where for them to live other than dormitories. Because there is so little housing available, men who come to work in the oil fields leave their families behind for weeks, and often months at a time. Not only is the boom affecting the families already living in North Dakota, it affects thousands of families around the country whose husbands or fathers have left for a new start in a nationally downturned economy.

The population boom has also caused major problems in the health care sector. North Dakota has only one abortion clinic, Red River Women’s Clinic, in the 700,000 square mile state. We are now notorious for our record on abortion, thanks to three recently signed bills, one of which will ban all abortions after a heartbeat can be detected, which is usually around 6 weeks. The legislature also moved to define life as beginning at conception in the ND state constitution, and the amendment will be put on the ballot for the next state-wide election.

These laws are currently the toughest restrictions on abortion in the nation. There have been protests all over the state, and the lonely abortion clinic was forced to put this heading at the top of its website in response:

“Abortion is STILL legal in the state of North Dakota – despite legislators attempts to restrict access to abortion. 

Red River Women’s Clinic is OPEN, available for appointments and

LEGALLY performing abortions in the state of North Dakota.”

The incoming men have certainly not brought in resources to resolve this problem, as health care facilities rush to keep up with thousands of young men surging into emergency rooms from their dangerous occupations, often without insurance or a permanent address. Due to this bottle neck in the health care sector, sexual and reproductive health is taking a back seat. Chlamydia rates in the Bakken doubled from 2010 to 2011.

As the population increases, so does the crime rate. While there is not necessarily a traceable increase in gender motivated violence, awareness surrounding such crimes has certainly been augmented. A Montana school teacher, Sherry Arnold, went missing during her morning jog in January of 2012, in a town right outside the Bakken (or the Williston Basin area). I remember when she went missing and my parents began worrying about my little sister still living in ND more than they worried about my safety in New York. All of my female ND friends got pepper spray for their birthdays. Similarly, several women I know applied for concealed weapons permit. It’s less of a shock for people to do this in the gun-friendly rural regions of the MidWest, but it is still not very common, especially among young women.

In towns as small and tightly knit as North Dakota, the safety of the “home” is often inclusive of the entire community. For instance, I’m from Bismarck — a city bigger than Williston (for now) — and we haven’t locked our house in 20 years. As far as I know, we lost the key long ago. In communities where you didn’t have to lock your doors five years ago, now as a woman you can’t even take a walk after dark.

That’s a huge adjustment for a lot of North Dakotans. We take friendly smiles, German food, and safety for granted. The larger the community grows, the smaller the sphere of safety becomes, and the home is no longer your home. For women living in North Dakota, this feeling is amplified.

In my experience as a 19-year-old woman native to North Dakota, the oil boom is further concreting the state’s already conservative gender norms. Young men flock to the oil fields or engineering jobs to make their fortunes, and young women fill the much needed (and much lower paid) positions of teachers, healthcare providers, or waitresses in the rapidly expanding boom towns.

When I was a senior in high school two years ago, the local petroleum refinery set up a recruitment table in the cafeteria. Not one woman was seen reading the brochures about the two-year petroleum engineering jobs (which are not, keep in mind, positions requiring strenuous labor), nor were they encouraged to. A few male recruiters made an appearance in my chemistry class. I remember one in particular making a closing comment along the lines of: “Well, what do you think, boys? Sound like something you want to do?”

An earlier version of this article appeared at the Barnard Center for Research on Women's blog.