This article uncovers the hidden history of Desk and Derrick, a female-only petroleum industry employees’ club, to emphasize the importance of clerical work and support staff to oil industry development. In doing so, it demonstrates that despite the oil industry's mythology of individual inventors and lucky wildcatters, oil was remarkably similar to other large-scale scientific and engineering enterprises during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, oil's white-collar and administrative jobs expanded rapidly. And in this industry as in others, women were fundamental to oil industry technological development and labor conflicts. Desk and Derrick's was a haven for working women, providing community, training, and leadership opportunities in an industry deeply hostile to female employees. The club provided numerous outreach and educational campaigns included seminars, workshops, fieldtrips, and conventions. These events showcased female competence and technical knowledge, clashing with union derision and corporate dismissal. The club's vocal emphasis on scientific education and credentialization represented a bid for female inclusion within an increasingly technically complex professional world. However, entrenched workplace sexism and union hostility to changing labor structures limited member opportunities. Ultimately, Desk and Derrick's middle-class aspirations allied the club with industry rebranding efforts and helped support industry automation and union-busting. Desk and Derrick valorized industry engineers and scientific professionals, spreading narratives of prosperity through technology that coincided with industry-wide efforts to repair oil companies’ reputations as greedy, wasteful, and exploitative. In turn, midcentury oil companies promoted Desk and Derrick as a convenient, grassroots way to spread their message.
Inez Awty, a secretary in the Humble Oil and Refining Company's New Orleans office, founded the International Association of Desk and Derrick Clubs in 1949. According to the club's newsletter, Awty was “tired of writing reports about things she knew little about” and wanted to create an organization that helped the industry's growing female clerical staff learn more about oil technology.1 Awty's idea was popular. The first meeting, held in April of that year, included twelve members. The next year, secretaries in Los Angeles, Houston, and Jackson, Mississippi, all formed clubs. Total membership was 883.2 By 1951, the organization had expanded to over 1,400 members in the United States and Canada and included employees from approximately 450 different companies.3 Eight years later, Desk and Derrick had grown six times over, with 9,018 members organized into 199 Desk and Derrick chapters across North America.4
This article uncovers the hidden history of Desk and Derrick, emphasizing the importance of clerical work and support staff to oil industry development. In doing so, it demonstrates that despite the industry's mythology of individual inventors and lucky wildcatters, oil was remarkably similar to other large-scale scientific and engineering enterprises during the middle decades of the twentieth century. As in the aerospace and nuclear industries, women were fundamental to oil industry technological development and labor conflicts.5 And as in other tech industries, their contributions have been largely overlooked. Further, while corporate narratives of oil-fueled consumer abundance have been well studied by scholars, the oil industry's internal labor battles are less clearly understood.6 Desk and Derrick helps to shed light on this history.
Such analysis highlights the impact of labor patterns and social norms on the development of technological systems. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s a modernist emphasis on scientific discovery and the rise of middle management structures reshaped American business culture.7 As the number of white-collar and administrative jobs expanded, the oil industry was at the forefront of these trends. In refineries, along pipelines, and on drilling rigs, a push toward automation reduced human error and workplace danger but also decreased the number of jobs available and reduced autonomy for individual workers.
Desk and Derrick heralded a seemingly new kind of technocratic benevolence designed to buffer internal opposition to automation and industry consolidation. The club's vocal emphasis on scientific education and credentialization represented a bid for female inclusion within an increasingly technically complex professional world. However, entrenched workplace sexism and union hostility to changing labor structures limited member opportunities. As a result, Desk and Derrick's middle-class aspirations ultimately allied the club with industry rebranding efforts and helped support industry automation and union-busting.
. . . . . . . .
While historians of the oil industry often credit technological innovation and American geopolitical goals for the global reach of US oil, clerical organization was also vital to the highly speculative industry. From the US industry's founding in 1859, oil exploration depended on the savvy management of documents and contracts. Oil companies rarely owned the land that they drilled. Instead, they leased domestic drilling rights, often on small sections owned by farmers or ranchers.8 For both large and small oil companies, property boundaries, survey lines, royalty fees, and drilling contracts were heavily disputed, sometimes in court. Financial backing for oil exploration often did not include cash transactions. Instead, oil companies relied on paper documentation detailing financing and accrued debt.9 Oil companies relied on the industry's typists, secretaries, and stenographers to produce, organize, and distribute the millions of pages of leases, deeds, contracts, reports, and stock certificates that kept the industry running (see fig. 1). As early as the 1920s and 1930s, many of these secretaries and typists were female. Mid-1930s images from the American Petroleum Institute (API) show an all-female typing pool at the Phillips Petroleum central offices in Tulsa, Oklahoma.10 These women transcribed notes, typed drilling leases, filed drilling reports and geological surveys, and fielded interoffice correspondence for the hundreds of American oil companies concentrated in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.11
Clerical employment was constrained by the era's social hierarchies. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, oil work, especially in the South, was strictly segregated, with the most lucrative pay limited to white workers. Oil towns were divided by race and racial hierarches were enforced, at times, through violence.12 As part of this tradition, clerical jobs were limited almost exclusively to white women. Bolstered by racial privilege, it was common for female clerical staff to begin work in oil through personal connections. Women grew up in oil company camps with fathers or brothers working on drilling rigs. Others married into the industry or took oil jobs after the industry arrived on their doorstep. By the 1950s, many women entered oil industry employment through family connections. Karen Gray, who worked on an offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico, remembered, “Both [my] parents worked in the oil and gas industry. My grandfather worked in the oil and gas industry. He was an old wildcatter from East Texas. So were my parents. . . . It was kind of in my blood.”13 While Karen Gray's job on an offshore rig made her unusual, her family connections were not.
Industry consolidation also impacted clerical work.14 During and after the Depression, new oil booms in Texas and Oklahoma increased demand for independent clerical work in isolated, rural areas. Such work was informal in the expanding oilfields of West Texas. In 1941, local female entrepreneurs cashed in on a local oil boom by setting up typewriters on any available surface and charging by the page for their services.15 Such independent clerical work was the exception, however, not the rule. As early as the late 1930s, a new generation of “major” oil companies controlled most of the drilling, transport, and oil refining in the US. As the Depression and World War II found more women looking for work, these major oil companies provided women with stable, well-paying jobs with some room for professional advancement within an increasingly vertically and horizontally integrated industry.
This process continued after World War II. While small refineries in the Midwest did not record salaried clerical staff during the 1930s and 1940s, by the 1960s they were listed on the payroll of several refineries in West Texas.16 Socony Vacuum employee manuals in 1948 described building exclusive lounges for female staff in order to attract and retain more women.17 During the 1950s the Texas and Pacific Oil Company maintained a steadily increasing population of female employees, including receptionists, records department employees, telephone operators, and personal secretaries.18 During the same period, Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAWU) records showed women managing company accounts and working as telephone dispatchers and secretaries for small refineries throughout Texas.19
Desk and Derrick was founded in 1949 and created a community of female professionals in an era—and an industry—hostile to female employment. Immediately after World War II American female employment hit a new high. Many of these jobs were in heavily unionized industrial production and manufacturing industries. In 1945 one-fifth of all industrial union members were women, but in the early 1950s this figure rapidly declined due to a mix of cultural and economic pressures. Women left industrial jobs in particularly high numbers, and by the early 1950s only 33 percent of women held employment of any kind outside of the home.20 Countering these trends, the need for secretarial and office support work remained on the rise throughout the 1950s and 1960s. This held true even in the South, where opposition to white women pursuing careers was particularly strong. These competing trends impacted the oil industry, which was increasingly concentrated in the Gulf South. Southern oil companies had reluctantly hired and quickly fired women during and after World War II. At midcentury, however, the industry need for secretarial and office support staff had only grown. Tellingly, this need for support staff was not strong enough to overcome racial segregation, and even for white women, social stigma made workplace conditions challenging. In smaller offices, members could easily be the only woman.21 In such a climate, Desk and Derrick provided a vital social lifeline.
Profiles of club members suggest that Desk and Derrick acted as not only a source of companionship but also an avenue for female engineering education in an era with limited options.22 Many members were likely overqualified for their jobs. For example, Gladys Watford was a personal secretary for independent oil producer Ralph A. Johnson. Without formal business or legal credentials, Watford oversaw all of Johnson's oil leases and land records. Watford completed a liberal arts degree from the University of Texas. She was also president of the Houston Desk and Derrick Club and editor of the Desk and Derrick newsletter, the Oil and Gal Journal.
Similarly, Ellen M. Vaughan was a secretary in the records department of the Carter Oil Company. She was also highly educated. Vaughn attended Columbia University and held a master's degree from the University of Colorado. Vaughan was an active member of numerous other women's clubs and organizations, including the American Association of University Women. Vaughan reportedly “devoted her life to the oil industry” and probably held a personal interest in petroleum engineering and geology.23
Gloria Caravantez, president of the Corpus Christi, Texas, Desk and Derrick Club embodied the organization's focus on personal growth and mobility through education. Caravantez was born in Mexico City and as a child moved first to Laredo, then to Dallas, Texas. She arrived in Corpus Christi in 1933. As a Mexican immigrant, Caravantez was probably subject to the racial and ethnic discrimination common to midcentury Texas. Even so, Caravantez pursued a career as a stenographer and title clerk with the Humble Oil and Refining Company. And her credentials indicate aspirations well beyond her job title. After graduating from high school in Corpus Christi, Caravantez attended night classes at Del Mar College and graduated salutatorian.24 A member of the Young Republicans Club, she was active in Dwight D. Eisenhower's campaign for president and a keynote speaker at the county Republican convention.
Desk and Derrick programming demonstrates the extent of the club's educational mission. According the club's Articles of Association, 80 percent of all Desk and Derrick programming was required to focus “on some phase of the oil industry.”25 Monthly meetings consisted of lectures by invited academics, policy makers, CEOs, and white-collar professionals working in oil exploration, production, and processing. Members went on several fieldtrips each year to observe refineries, analyze geological formations, and view drilling technology in action. The annual International Convention of Desk and Derrick Clubs was punctuated by a keynote address on new developments in oil science and technology.
While Desk and Derrick did not advertise their seminars and field trips as tools to move female employees into technical or managerial jobs, club members did seek professional recognition and argued publicly that the industry's female clerical staff played a vital role in industry expansion.26 Such public display helped members gain credibility in an industry in which technical knowledge about drilling mud, slush pits, fractionation towers, and cracking units was a social and professional gatekeeper. Scholars have identified the use of technical language and the growth of credential requirements as gatekeepers in engineering and the sciences.27 For women in oil, hiring discrimination was paired with on-the-job prejudice that mixed sexual harassment with myths of a female inability to comprehend technical language.
In the pages of the club newsletter, the Oil and Gal Journal, Inez Awty, Gladys Watford, and others went on the offensive, repeatedly declaring that Desk and Derrick was not a social club but an organization of industry professionals committed to company growth.28 Desk and Derrick members were organized into national, regional, and then local chapters that adhered rigidly to the charter's commitment to education. In an oral history interview, Doris Mullendore explained, “Really we started the Desk and Derrick Club here [in Morgan City, Louisiana] in 1966 in an effort to try to educate the females. At that time, it was strictly a female club. Educate them into what the industry was, what made it work, how maybe just better knowledge of the people that they do business with all the time would actually better them in their jobs.”29 Meetings were focused on bringing women into the professional world outside the home and including them in scientific and policy debates central to the industry.
The first national Desk and Derrick convention, held in 1952 at the Shamrock Hotel in Houston, Texas, exemplified the club's desire to expand member scientific knowledge and push female industry visibility. Approximately a thousand club members attended. Members represented forty (out of forty-six total) member clubs located in the United States and Canada. The luxury hotel, famous for its uniformly green interior, had been built in 1949 by Texas oil tycoon Glen McCarthy. By 1952, McCarthy was a larger-than-life figure in the Texas oil industry, and his hotel regularly played host to an array of Texas wealth and Hollywood celebrities. It was also a meeting spot for industry elites.30 Hosting the first Desk and Derrick convention in this space placed the club, and the industry's female workforce, at the heart of the Texas oil industry's self-consciously colorful history.
Convention speakers and special guests included industry leaders and national politicians. In 1952, the headline speaker was Walter S. Hallaman, chairman of the National Petroleum Council and president of Plymouth Oil Company.31 Similar programming extended to the local level. The Midland, Texas, Desk and Derrick club was active for decades and held several talks on oil science and technology each year.32 At the April 1957 Midland chapter meeting, George H. W. Bush, then resident of Midland, Texas, and president of the Zapata Petroleum Corporation and Zapata Drilling Company, gave a lecture on offshore drilling operations.33 Bush was accompanied by a local geologist, Jerry Covington, who spoke about oil exploration possibilities in the nearby Delaware Basin. Almost ten years later, the club continued to host numerous events. In June 1965, the Midland Desk and Derrick Club's monthly newsletter recorded trips to the “G. W. O'Brien No 584” oil well and a trip to a helium plant in Amarillo, Texas, for a regional convention.34
Local clubs throughout North America kept similar schedules. The Desk and Derrick Club of Calgary, Alberta, averaged ten guest speakers per year.35 According to a 1962 press release, the Desk and Derrick Club of the Rio Grande Valley, founded in 1951, toured refineries and drilling rigs throughout southern Texas and northern Mexico.36 In 1964, the Desk and Derrick Club of Lake Charles, Louisiana, hosted W. C. Wilhite, district manager of the US Department of Conservation, who gave a talk titled “Conservation's Role in the Oil and Gas Industry.”37 Such busy social calendars enabled clerical women to become better versed in oil science and allowed members the chance to travel and network with other female professionals. Members presumably developed friendships based on shared experiences and excitement about industry technology.
As time went on, Desk and Derrick membership expanded beyond the industry's secretarial staff. This coincided with broader trends. The number of American women enrolled in college and graduate programs rose steadily throughout the 1950s and 1960s.38 Female employment in science and engineering also increased. While in 1952 Los Angeles–based geologist Dorothy Harkness was an anomaly at the Desk and Derrick International Convention, by the end of the decade Desk and Derrick was not only a place for clerical staff to learn but also a avenue for credentialed female geologists and oil scientists to share knowledge in a sympathetic public forum. As early as 1957, the Hobbs Daily New Sun reported that geologist Mrs. Marshall Keathley [sic], who taught at Odessa College, had conducted a public lecture on oil science for the Desk and Derrick Club of Midland, Texas.39 Club press releases published in Texas and Louisiana proudly listed club members’ growing credentials. In 1963 this included “geologists, secretaries, editors, stenographers, auditors, drafts-women, clerks, and executives.”40 Although the number of female managers and scientists in the oil industry remained small, Desk and Derrick proudly advertised these members to demonstrate their importance to industry technological development.
Despite their displays of scientific interest and technical competence, Desk and Derrick's efforts to boost the profile of industry women were mixed at best. Female oil employees remained the subject of sexual innuendo and blatant discrimination that limited professional advancement. Gendered harassment and sexual violence were and are not uncommon in other industries too, of course, but scholars note that they have long been reported in oil-producing communities.41 According to oral history interviews from the 1930s, smart women did not appear publicly in oil towns for fear of male harassment.42 In the postwar era, such connotations merged with common stereotypes about sexually promiscuous working women. The Union News, national publication for the OCAWU, regularly published cartoons lampooning supposedly ditzy, buxom secretaries who distracted their employers with thinly veiled sexual advances.43 The newspaper also documented sexual harassment. In one case a woman was fired from her job because she refused romantic advances from her boss's son.44 Female sexualization often headlined postwar industry events. In 1952 the oil town of Odessa, Texas, hosted a traveling show sponsored by the API. The event was headlined by “high school bathing beauties” who modeled swimwear and heels while serving attendees dinner.45
OCAWU records and industry booster materials reveal other professional challenges. Women were often paid less than their male counterparts. They had less access to employee benefits such as overtime pay and sickness compensation. Often women were fired from their jobs if they were married or got pregnant.46 In one case, a female employee, Inez Jeanette Fountain, won a settlement against her employer, the Texas-US Chemical Co., for failing to provide job training in a deliberate attempt to prevent her promotion.47 Industry publications and publicity photographs documented a sense of female isolation on the job. As implied by photographs of API and Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association meetings, industry golf tournaments, business events, and fundraisers were often held at male-only clubs and resorts.48
Such hostility, while similar to challenges faced by professional women in other industries, was exacerbated by structural changes in oil processing and extraction at midcentury. Industry hostility was linked to a postwar oil industry identity crisis—tension between a corporate push toward technocratic management and the industry's blue-collar culture of individual contractors and taxing manual labor.49 As upward mobility slowed, rank-and-file workers on drilling rigs, offshore platforms, and refinery floors doubled down on their traditions. Women were an easy target, as male workers perpetuated aggressively sexist workscapes that left little space for either white-collar management personnel or the industry's growing population of clerical staff.
This story echoes trends across the United States. Scholars have demonstrated the central role that manual labor and job autonomy played in cultural understandings of masculinity at midcentury.50 During the same period, US labor unions went into decline across the manufacturing industries. This produced a crisis of identity among white, working-class American men as the rise of white-collar labor throughout the 1960s and 1970s exacerbated workplace tensions.51 In the oil industry, this new white-collar workforce was less likely to identify with union traditions. Engineers, drawing on a long cultural history of opposing union agitation, were more likely to accuse unions of socialist or communist leanings and generally had more faith in company benevolence and guaranteed upward mobility.52
The divide between the blue- and white-collar workforce was particularly sharp in the oil industry.53 Starting in the 1930s, the popularization of the more efficient rotary drill, along with the development of the seismograph, magnetometer, and other subsurface detection technologies allowed drillers to more accurately find and access oil located very deep underground. New technologies also made drilling more expensive. Industry overproduction kept prices low and large oil companies squeezed out smaller competitors who could not afford new technologies. These major oil companies hired an increasing number of credentialed engineers and geologists as subcontractors to manage their drilling operations. These, in turn, employed a growing staff of secretaries, assistants, and typists. At the drill site, these engineers replaced the primacy of the head driller as the final word in drilling location, speed, and direction.54
The oil processing and refining industries experienced a similar phenomenon.55 During World War II, wartime patent suspension had given large companies access to more efficient refining processes and increased their control over oil transport networks.56 The largest oil companies received federal support to build expansive research and development labs, and smaller firms were unable to keep up.57 Even as the industry set new production records during the 1950s, more workers were laid off as companies installed automated refinery machinery. More efficient technology meant fewer laborers and machine technicians. Simultaneously, such new technology increased the need for white-collar engineers, chemists, and geologists as an industry arms race in the development of new fuels, chemicals, and plastics made research and development highly lucrative.58 Refinery and chemical plant management increasingly came from the ranks of the college educated, replacing experienced workers promoted from the refinery or drilling floor. This shift in labor power created daily tensions between a new middle- class elite and the industry's traditional hard-drinking, hard-laboring workforce.
In response to industry changes, the OCAWU launched a series of strikes in refineries across the US and Canada. A nationwide strike shut down American refineries in 1952.59 This happened again in 1963 and again in the late 1960s.60 These strikes were heavily publicized in an effort to boost union membership. The Union News fanned existing fears that automation would decrease the need for human employees with articles such as “Automation May Grab the Bosses [sic] Job Next.” The union exacerbated a growing rift between management and employees with “More Maintenance Men and Scientists, but Fewer Production Men Needed.”61 Such fears were echoed in Union News letters to the editor in which laborers expressed resentment at the replacement of their knowledge and understanding with technocrats—overeducated scientists who would tell them when and how to do their jobs. For these rank-and-file union men, technology was taking workers’ independence and automating them out of existence. Industry engineers and scientists were described as out-of-touch, elitist, and feminine. In a November 7, 1960, Union News letter to the editor, Joseph Rodriguez of Kirkwood, Missouri, derided engineers as those “who for the greater part are more interested in status than take home pay.”62
Changing workplace hierarchies and distaste for white-collar workers help explain OCAWU hostility toward the industry's female clerical staff and sexism undoubtedly influenced Desk and Derrick's apparently stilted relationship with established oil unions. Some women did join the OCAWU.63 However, they were often cast by union leadership as either peripheral or a hindrance to union agendas. A comic strip in the 1957 Union News (see fig. 2) read, “There's one in every outfit, Silly Sally the only thing she knows about unions is that [CIO president] Walter Reuther is cute!”64 A June 1958 Union News article declared “Gals: Beware of Automation Bulge,” warning that electric typewriters would make secretaries fat.65 In general, women did not hold leadership roles in the OCAWU.66 During periods of industry downturn, vicious debates erupted in the pages of the OCAWU Union News about women who were “selfishly” taking jobs away from male breadwinners.67
While virulent, such gender politics was similar to other industrial unions at that time. However, Desk and Derrick's vocal celebration of technocratic middle management reveals a more complicated set of relationships, linking the club's educational outreach efforts to a top-down, industry-wide rebranding effort. Oil companies were concerned about the OCAWU strikes and looking to repair a decades-old national reputation for monopoly, greed, and industry waste.68 Beginning in the 1950s oil industry executives launched a multitier effort to foster support for the industry, boost cradle-to-grave employee loyalty, and push opposition to industrial unions. The elevation of the white-collar engineer and the promotion of science and technology were central to this effort.69 Executives appealed to the links between research and development and midcentury consumer abundance in attempts to repair the industry's historically negative public image.70 Desk and Derrick was an already-established grassroots mouthpiece for these campaigns.
Desk and Derrick, interested in demonstrating member knowledge of oil science and the centrality of white-collar employees to the industry, often spread industry-approved messages.71 Members such as Ellen M. Vaughan, president of the club's chapter in Shreveport, Louisiana, “preached the gospel of the oil industry” as local representatives for industry lobbyists.72 In particular, Vaughan and other club leaders provided logistical and administrative support for the API's annual Petroleum Progress Week celebrations.73 These annual events, funded by the API, were designed to generate local support for oil industrialization across the country. Shows consisted of public parades and media spectacles that showcased the links between oil technology and American prosperity. The API partnered with local Desk and Derrick chapters in towns across America. For example, the McAllen, Texas, Desk and Derrick Club provided “speakers, Magic Suitcase shows, service station participation, window displays, school programs, newspaper, and radio and TV publicity” for the 1956 Oil Progress Week festival.74
Desk and Derrick educational efforts reached both adults and children in oil-producing communities. Local chapters advertised their seminars on oil and gas law, well logging, petroleum economics, oil conservation, petrochemical production, and future technological development to the public. These seminars explained potentially contentious issues like refinery water use, air contamination, and oil depletion in industry-favorable terms. Desk and Derrick published several books, including a dictionary of common industry terms as well as books on geology and land leasing practices. The club developed several petroleum science correspondence courses based out of the University of Texas.75
The Desk and Derrick chapter in Corpus Christi, Texas, maintained a library of model building kits, filmstrips, and wall charts that they used in pro-industry demonstrations at local schools. Corpus Christi chapter president Gloria Caravantes explained these efforts thus: “May our local school project create among the grade school, junior high and senior high students an interest in, and an understanding of, the petroleum industry, that the generation coming after us be prepared to take our places and mark progress to an even greater extent.”76 Chapters in Farmington, New Mexico, and Calgary, Canada, also maintained active school programs. Like Desk and Derrick's correspondence courses, such efforts were designed to inspire youth to become excited about petroleum science and pursue college education and white-collar careers in chemical or petroleum engineering, not look for jobs as unionized industry operators or machinists.
Such campaigns were the local face of a national and international public relations push. In the 1950s and 1960s oil companies used advertising, press releases, and corporate philanthropy to cash in on American postwar optimism and consumerism, advertising that oil engineers sparked technological development and that oil consumption would produce a new, unlimited future (see fig. 3). An illustrative 1963 ad from Mobil Oil boasted that oil scientists “propel golf balls and probes the moon.”77 Such campaigns tacitly dismissed union concerns about automation as hindering national prosperity and progress. Promotional material featured large, automated machinery, run by industry engineers and scientists, not unionized industry personnel. For example, according to the API and other industry lobbyists, these new technologies would provide an unending, ever-expanding supply of oil that would revolutionize human transportation and daily life.78 Energy historians have demonstrated the effectiveness of such national campaigns. Oil fueled suburban sprawl and a culture of conspicuous consumption that was based on the ubiquity of disposable synthetics.79 Later, national dependence on an expanding oil supply would be used by the industry to sidestep accusations of racial discrimination in oil employment and calls for reparations for industrial contamination in nonwhite communities. Throughout, the constant availability of cheap oil fed narratives of American hegemony and helped justify the expansion of American oil interests abroad.80
While no evidence of Desk and Derrick chapters outside of North America have been found, the industry's political and economic significance held personal importance for domestic members. Ruth Aultman, Desk and Derrick member and secretary and maintenance clerk with the General Tire and Rubber Company in Odessa, Texas, explained, “Before I became active in Desk and Derrick . . . I knew that the city wouldn't be here without oil, but I just took it for granted until I visited oil wells, drilling rigs, and gasoline plants, and saw it firsthand.”81 Such sentiments were echoed by Irma Cline, 1960 national president of Desk and Derrick: “The accelerated growth of our nation in recent years was due in large part to the impact of the oil industry in giving a source of power and motivation.” Cline continued, “It [the oil industry] put this nation on fast-turning wheels of progress, giving dynamic leadership from its ranks to help guide the forward motion.”82 When the Odessa, Texas, Desk and Derrick members helped to organize the annual Permian Basin Oil Show and built a float for the city's annual oil industry parade, they were connecting local oil production to a broader political and economic project.83
Available records do not reveal how much, if at all, Desk and Derrick was paid for their pro-industry outreach. However, it is safe to assume that Desk and Derrick's popularity and expansive educational and public outreach campaigns were encouraged by management. In an era when the atomic bomb and the space race made science and technology into awesome symbols of human power and potential, Desk and Derrick sold narratives of oil company benevolence and technological utopianism to its members and to local oil communities. Scholars have shown that in the 1950s and 1960s women were key mouthpieces for public health and science policy. They gained public trust by embodying a sense of maternal responsibility.84 In their many symposia, conferences, and field trips, Desk and Derrick put a familiar face to white-collar science that humanized oil company management, widening ideological and economic divides that would define labor politics for the rest of the century.
Desk and Derrick membership peaked in 1982 with 12,750 members and 127 clubs. However, the decline of domestic oil production beginning in the early 1980s would make Desk and Derrick a very different organization. In 1983, Desk and Derrick was publicly accused of being discriminatory to men. In 1988, facing renewed hostility, the automation of clerical work, and declining membership, Desk and Derrick opened its doors to male administrative and clerical staff for the first time.85
. . . . . . . .
The early history of Desk and Derrick highlights the conflicted role of white American women in the grassroots dissemination of scientific knowledge at midcentury. Desk and Derrick was a social haven. The club was a place to gain leadership skills and technical knowledge within an industry deeply hostile to female employees. The club's insistent affiliation with middle-class, white-collar respectability flew in the face of old stereotypes about oil town prostitutes or promiscuous working women. Tensions between Desk and Derrick and blue-collar oil industry personnel were the result of broad midcentury conflicts over the meaning of industry automation and technological development that peaked as traditional shop-floor unions declined. Knowledge of industry technology was a tool for Desk and Derrick that promoted both automated production and oil company community benevolence, even as club outreach and educational campaigns demonstrated female competence and professionalization. Ultimately, their emphasis on industry-led technical sophistication foreshadowed future battles between the industry, federal regulators, and environmentalists over control over knowledge, credibility, and environmental contamination.
Midland Reporter Telegram, “Desk and Derrick,” November 18, 1951.
“Longview Desk and Derrick Club Was Established in May of 1953,” Longview (TX) News-Journal, January 1, 1959, 138.
Membership dipped in the 1960s, fluctuating with a slowdown in the US oil industry. However, the organization would continue to grow into the 1980s. “Longview Desk and Derrick Club Was Established in May of 1953,” 138.
For more on oil's social and political significance see Vitalis, America's Kingdom; Mitchell, Carbon Democracy; Huber, Lifeblood. Women are rarely mentioned in academic histories of oil industry development or industry labor histories. For example, see Boatright, Tales from the Derrick Floor; Weaver, Oilfield Trash; Olien and Hinton, Wildcatters.
By the twentieth century, oil leases were standardized. The land was leased for a set period of time, often ten years, and landowners received a lump payment as well as a set percentage of the profit from future oil discovery. Smaller drilling jobs financed these payments through joint stock agreements sold door to door or through direct mail advertisements. Small drillers were often heavily in debt, using profits from producing wells to pay back creditors from previous jobs. Large, integrated oil companies often leased wide swaths of land, contracting out the actual drilling work to independent drilling operations who were paid a set fee. Mr. Elliott Cowden and Mr. Holt Jowel, interview, September 16, 1970, Midland, Texas, Oral History Collection, Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Midland, TX; Letters—Royalty Payments, folder “Cummins Area: Correspondence Ector County, TX 83-021 C. J. Red Davidson,” box 83-021 (3 of 4), C. J. Red Davidson Collection, Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Midland, TX. See also Olien and Hinton, Wildcatters.
Oil Leases and Contracts, folder “Cummins Area Lease Assignments and Misc Ector County TX 83-021 C J ‘Red’ Davidson” and folder “Cummins Area, Ector County TX Title Abstracts 83-021 C J Red Davidson,” box 83-021, C. J. Red Davidson Collection, Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Midland, TX; Statements of Assets and Liabilities, folder “Subject Files 1933 A. N. Griers as trustee for deep rock oil corporation: Oklahoma,” box 11, Majewski Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie.
Black-and-White Photographs, box 31c, Collection 711, API Photo and Film Collection, Smithsonian Archives Center, Washington, DC.
Beginning in the 1950s the American oil industry was increasingly concentrated in the refining and shipping centers along the Gulf Coast. Eastabrook, Labor-Environmental Coalitions.
For an exemplary case study, see Hadjicostandi, “Historical Growth of African Americans in Odessa, Texas.”
For a broader history of clerical work in America see Cobble, Other Women's Movement. See also Berebitsky, Sex and the Office.
News clippings, Dallas News, February 2, 1941, image 1, Texas Oil Industry Scrapbooks Collection, box 31425, Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
No clerical staff are listed on the payroll of Deep Rock Oil Company during the 1930s and 1940. By contrast, clerical staff are listed as excluded from a 1965 OCAWU union drive among Shell Oil employees in Odessa, Texas. Employee tax information, folder “Withholding Exemptions Folder 1 (1943–1944),” box 15, Bernard Majewski Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming; Case files, folder “04-177 Shell Oil Co. (Refinery) (Operations only) Odessa Tex Pot 60,” box 27, OCAWY District 4 and 5, OCAWU Records, Special Collections, University of Colorado, Boulder (hereafter cited as OCAWU Records). This is representative of national trends. The number of clerical workers increased nationally during the postwar period. Wyatt and Hecker, “Occupation Changes during the 20th Century.”
Employee Handbooks, folder “Human Resources: Employee Orientation: Publications and Handbooks 1943–1954,” box 2.207/E35, Exxon Mobil Historical Collection, Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
“The People Who Make It Work,” TP Voice, Texas and Pacific Oil Company, May/June 1965, Hagley Museum and Library, 12.
National Labor Relations Board Magnolia Pipeline Co vs. International Oil Workers Union-CIO, case no. 16-1130, 1945, folder “Magnolia Pipe Line Co. System Wide 16-R-1130,” box 27, OCAWU Districts 4 and 5, OCAWU Records.
“Women in the Laborforce.” This number dropped in the 1950s for a variety of reasons. See Cobble, Other Women's Movement; and Ryan and Schlup, Historical Dictionary of the 1940s, 119. For more on the history of working women after World War II see Kessler-Harris, Women Have Always Worked; and Kessler-Harris, “Radical Consequences of Incremental Change,” in Out to Work .
Employee tax records from the Deep Rock Oil Company reveal such gender disparity. In 1947, out of 114 recorded employees located throughout the Midwest, only 4 were women. None lived within a hundred miles of each other. Tax Records, folder “Withholding Exemptions Folder 1 (1943–1944),” box 15, Bernard Majewski Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie.
Founder Inez Awty chaired the first Desk and Derrick Board of Directors meeting in New Orleans. However, she married and left her job at Humble in 1952. She was replaced by Mrs. Lee Wilson Hoover, also of New Orleans, who became the club's first president. Although Desk and Derrick membership was contingent on employment in the oil industry, Awty was invited to be a guest speaker at the first Desk and Derrick National Convention in Houston. “Interview with Inez Awty Schaeffer.”
“Desk and Derrick Seminar Opens Today,” Abilene Reporter News, June 25, 1960; “Jonesville-Reared Woman Is National Figure in the Oil Industry,” Marshall News Messenger, February 18, 1958, 5.
Velma Timbers, “Meet the Oil Woman: Gloria Caravantes, New D&D Prexy [sic], Ready for Big Year,” Corpus Christi Caller Times Sun, January 23, 1955.
“D&D Members Play Big Part in Oil Show,” Odessa American, October 18, 1970, 82.
In 1951 one newspaper paraphrased Awty's desire for female community thus: “Miss Awty thought if men in the oil industry could be organized and know other men outside their own company, then the women could do likewise.” “Desk and Derrick,” Midland Reporter Telegram, November 18, 1951.
The Oil and Gal Journal was founded in 1952. Signaling the club's growing popularity, the journal name was decided through a national write-in contest. Josephine Nolen of Odessa, Texas, won the contest with her play on the popular industry periodical, the Oil and Gas Journal. An editorial committee out of the Desk and Derrick central office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, published the Oil and Gal Journal three times per year. By 1954 the journal had a readership of eight thousand and regularly featured industry statistics, reports on new exploratory efforts, and announcements for new developments in oil technology. Helen Turgeon interview by Nadine Mackenzie, September 1983, Oral History Transcripts, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, https://www.glenbow.org/collections/search/findingAids/archhtm/extras/piohp/PIOHP_Turgeon_Helen.pdf, http://poncacity.com/history/docs/oklahoma_centennial_1907-2007_section_k.pdf. (accessed April 21, 2022). See also “Named Editor,” Independent Press Telegram (Long Beach, CA), April 18, 1954, 62.
Nell Lindenmeyer told a similar story. In 1976 the Denver, Colorado, Desk and Derrick chapter had to solicit special permission to hold meetings in the men-only, thirteenth-floor lounge of the Denver Petroleum Club. Nell Lindenmeyer, “Pumping Up Your Life, Personally and Professionally,” Desert Candle: The Official Bulletin of the Desk and Derrick Club of Farmington, New Mexico, March 2015, http://danddfarmington.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/2015-03-Desert-Candle.pdf. (accessed April 21, 2022).
AP, “Oil Women's Group to Meet in Houston,” Marshall News Messenger, August 11, 1952, 9. Such trends continued at the next two national conventions in Denver and New Orleans. Three years later, the club hosted Robert B. Anderson, President Dwight Eisenhower's secretary of navy and deputy secretary of defense, at the 1955 National Desk and Derrick Convention in New York City. “Anderson to Speak at New York Convention; Delegate Sets Tour,” Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, August 1955, 28.
The Midland chapter was chartered on November 20, 1951, by six women: May Belle Graves, who worked for the Shell Oil Company; Mary Emma Elder of Fuhrman Petroleum Corporation; Fannie Bess Taylor of Crump & Corrigan; Glenyth Herring from the McElroy Ranch Company; Burlynne Guyger of Humble Pipe Line Company; and Doris Hanks of the Atlantic Refining Company. Fourteen other women soon joined the club.
“Future Years Termed Greatest Era for Oil,” Odessa American, August 3, 1958, 35.
In April 1965, C. C. Michel explained the science governing common drilling techniques, including “cement jobs, acidizing, and fracking.” In July, the club hosted H. E. Lindsey Jr. of MWL Tool & Supply Co., who discussed the process of “fishing,” or methods used in the recovery of foreign objects (fish) from open-cased holes. Leroux, “Great Knowledge Greater Service.”
Turgeon interview by Nadine Mackenzie.
“Valley Desk, Derrick Club Began in ’51,” The Monitor, March 20, 1962, 8.
“D and D Club Meets Monday,” Lake Charles (LA) American-Press, September 12, 1963, 24.
Snyder, “120 Years of American Education.” See also Polachek, “Sex Differences in College Major.” The number of women earning engineering degrees rose quickly. In 1960, less than 1 percent of engineering degrees were awarded to women. This number rose to 17 percent by 1970. Graham and Smith, “Gender Differences in Employment and Earnings in Science and Engineering in the US.”
Keathley had a long career in the industry. She worked as an independent geologist as well as for Standard Oil of Texas, Sun Oil, Republic Natural Gas, and as a consultant for Degoyler-McNaughton's Foreign Division. She spoke again ten years later at a Desk and Derrick meeting in Hobbs, New Mexico. “Woman Geologist to Address D&D District Meeting,” Hobbs Daily News Sun, April 5, 1967, 7.
“Local Desk and Derrick Club Is One of 116 Clubs in a National Association,” Lake Charles (LA) American-Press, October 27, 1963, 25.
Similar descriptions came from both male and female informants. E. E. Brackens, interview, July 16, 1970, Wink, TX, Oral History Collection, Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Midland, TX, 11; William Wolfe and Anna Wolfe, Interview, February 12, 1970, McCamey, TX, Oral History Collection, Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Midland, TX, 25.
Some cartoons mocked female employees as distractions in science labs. Others depicted secretaries propositioning their bosses or coming to work wearing tiny bikinis. Comic strip, OCAW Union News, July 11, 1955, 9; comic strip, Union News, April 2, 1956, 6. In 1956, a regular “For Women” column was replaced with a recurring cartoon of woman in striped bikini giving occupational advice. Union News, May 7, 1956, 2–4, OCAWU Records. See also Berebitsky, Sex and the Office.
“She Said No,” Union News, March 19, 1956, 11, OCAWU Records.
“Odessa Oil Progress Week Observance Expected to Rank as Nation's Largest,” Odessa American, October 12, 1952, 1.
Correspondence, folder “Human Resources Women 1917–1985,” box 2.207/E46, Exxon Mobil Historical Collection, Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. In 1957 Gulf Oil clerical workers in Detroit struck, calling for higher wages and guaranteed pregnancy leave. Union News, February 18, 1957, 3, OCAWU Records. Helen Turgeon of Calgary, Canada, described quitting her job each time she got pregnant. If, according to her, the employer was particularly kind, she would be hired back several months later. Helen Turgeon interview by Nadine Mackenzie.
“Texas Woman Wins Back Job, $2094 for Lost Time,” Union News, February 22, 1960, 7, OCAWU Records.
Folder “API Meeting Photos,” collection 711, box 38, API Photo and Film Collection, Washington, DC. Doris Mullendore remembered men-only golf tournaments and company retreats. Austin et al., History of the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry, 187.
Early twentieth-century oil workers pushed back against automation and a perceived lack of workplace control by perpetuating an individualistic culture based on overcoming physical risk. Wickham, “Re-reading Man's Conquest of Nature.” This continued into the 1950s and 1960s as oil corporations consolidated their operations and industry management was increasingly dominated by credentialed engineers. Stanford-McIntyre, “Refining the Desert.” For similar trends in other industries see Thompson, “Playing at Being Skilled Men.”
See Kessler-Harris, Gendering Labor History; Meyer, Manhood on the Line; Baron, Work Engendered. This phenomenon extended beyond North America. See Stein, Hot Metal.
Grossman, Mining the Borderlands; Opler, For All White-Collar Workers; Meiksins and Smith, “Why American Engineers Aren't Unionized.”
The pre–World War II drilling workforce was dominated by largely itinerate labor, contracted by either independent drilling firms or large oil companies. Wages were paid either by the day or on completion of the job and, while generally higher than similar work in agriculture, did not make oil employees wealthy. The job was physically challenging and very dangerous, often requiring residence in remote locations for months at a time. This exclusively male workforce cultivated a reputation for violence, promiscuity, petty crime, and hard drinking. Boatright, Tales from the Derrick Floor, 121. Such an assessment was widespread. Correspondence from 1924 between Sun Oil executive J. N. Pew to his brother expresses frustration at the violent, unreliable men who work on oil rigs. Letters, folder “Dallas, Texas J. Edgar Pew 1924,” box 109, series 1F, Administrative Interoffice (Geographical), Sun Oil Company Records, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE.
Boatwright, Tales from the Derrick Floor, 229; Oil and Gas Journal: Golden Anniversary, 90, Trade Literature Collection, 110, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE.
Technical contractors became increasingly common as time went on. Reports, folder “Haliburton: Annual Reports 1966–1974,” “The TXL Oil Corporation: Annual Reports 1955–1961,” Company Annual Reports, Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Midland, TX.
Improvements to the thermal cracking process allowed more accurate separation of oil and natural gas into its component parts. This made the production of gasoline cheaper and spearheaded the development of cheap synthetic rubbers and plastics. Gustav Egloff, “The Cracking of California Gas Oil and Fuel Oil,” 1930; Alfred Fisher, “Cracked Gasses to Bring Higher Prices,” Universal Oil Products Company, Chicago, n.d.; and Gustav Egloff, The Cracking Art (Chicago: Universal Oil Products Company, 1930–32), all in box 7, collection 60, Warshaw Petroleum Collection, Smithsonian Archives Center, Washington, DC.
Most of the hastily constructed refineries, pipelines, and infrastructure was sold immediately after the war. Most often, these facilities were sold to the large oil companies that had operated them in wartime. Petroleum Administration for War, History of the Petroleum Administration for War, 213; World War II section, folder “Histories Publications: History of the Refining Division 1957,” box 2.207/E222, Exxon Mobil Historical Collection, Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics documented a nationwide decline in laborer jobs and steady increase in the need for scientists and engineers during this period. “Women in the Laborforce: A Databook.” This change was documented with trepidation by the OCAWU. “White Collar Job Hike Threatens Union's Bargaining Position,” Union News, July 8, 1957, 1; “Oil Refineries Seek to Replace Craft Jobs with Jack of All Trades Classification,” Union News, March 24, 1958, 12, OCAUW Records.
AP, “Texas Refineries Close, Shivers Urges Taft-Hartley Law Be Used in Oil Strikes,” Abilene Reporter-News, May 1, 1952, 1.
AP, “Oil Refinery Workers Strike in Wages Dispute,” Abilene Reporter News Sun, January 5, 1969, 13; AP, “Strike Threat Hits Lone Star Gas Firm,” Odessa American, July 4, 1969, 11.
“Automation May Grab the Bosses Job Next,” Union News, November 7, 1955, 12; “More Maintenance Men and Scientists but Fewer Production Men Needed,” Union News, January 9, 1956, 3; and Union News, April 27, 1959, 15.
Joseph Rodriguez, Union News, November 7, 1960, 4; “White Collar Drive,” Union News, July 27, 1959, 16; “Aid to Local White Collar Drives Asked,” Union News, October 26, 1959; S. K. Lenar, “It's a Living,” comics strip depicting workers replaced by automation. Union News, June 20, 1960, 5–6, all in OCAUW Records.
Exact numbers for female union membership are unavailable, but evidence suggests they were very small. Membership cards for OCAWU Districts 4 and 5 do list a few female names, and between 1930 and 1980 the OCAWU engaged in three discrimination cases on behalf of female union members. District 4 and 5 Records, OCAWU Records.
Comic strip, Union News, April 8, 1957, 7, OCAWU Records.
“Gals: Beware of Automation Bulge,” Union News, June 2, 1958, 10, OCAWU Records.
In the 1950s, women in OCAW were largely relegated to an extensive network of wives’ auxiliaries that made food for picket lines, canvassed for union elections, and raised money for charity. With a few important exceptions, female members of union committees were unfailingly secretaries. “What Office Gals Think about Their Bosses,” Union News, May 7, 1956, 9, OCAWU Records.
Mrs. Woneda Stage, wife of a male member of Local 7-336 of Griffith, Indiana, wrote to the “Letters and Comments” section saying, “A lot of little children are going hungry just because some people are so greedy.” Union News, February 3, 1958, 6. In May 1959 J. F. Kavanaugh of Groves, Texas, advised the union to “retire men at 60” and to “send women home.” His words were echoed by Hope Sweeley, a member of Local 11-176 of Detroit. Union News, May 1959, OCAWU Records.
An already bad reputation had taken recent hits. Renewed antitrust accusations, and increased resource conservation and environmental protection legislation that would decrease industry control over offshore oil put many in panic mode. Hinton and Olien, Oil and Ideology; Gorman, Redefining Efficiency.
Beginning in the 1950s, corporate human resources departments across the United States revived the idea of the corporate family to foster employee loyalty and to avoid employee concerns about automation, deskilling, or decreased labor power. For example, the 1966 Drill Co. Oil Company Employees Handbook reminds employees that “using the golden rule is our guide—it is our purpose.” Folder “Annual Report: DrillCo Oil Tools Inc. 1966–1967,” Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Midland, TX.
Oil companies had a historical image as lawless, wasteful, and monopolistic. As early as the 1860s, Pennsylvania landowners bemoaned destructive land-clearing practices and ubiquitous pipeline spills. “Experience of Farmers, and Others Owning Land along Pipe Lines Now in Operation,” Affidavits of Suffering Land Owners, from Devastations Caused by Pipe Line Companies, State of Pennsylvania, Union County, 1883, Special Collections, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE. Beginning in the 1880s and continuing ever since, regulation of unscrupulous and wasteful oil companies was a constant source of friction among concerned citizens, federal regulators, and in the US Congress. Ickes, Fightin’ Oil.
According to the Longview (TX) News-Journal, “Desk and Derrick members have assisted in public relations and educational programs of the oil industry in their communities.” “Longview Desk and Derrick Club Was Established in May of 1953,” Longview News-Journal, 138.
“Jonesville Reared Woman Is National Figure in Oil Industry,” Marshall News Messenger, February 18, 1958, 5.
“Desk and Derrick Members Are Commended in Article,” Hobbs Daily News-Sun, November 15, 1961, 27.
“Oil Progress Celebration Set,” The Monitor, September 13, 1956, 10.
Cecilia Gutierrez Venable, “Desk and Derrick Clubs,” Texas State Historical Association, June 12, 2010, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/dod06.
Timbers, “Meet the Oil Woman: Gloria Caravantes.”
Mobil Oil Co. advertisement, folder “Mobil Corporation Subject Files Affiliates, Mobil Chemical Company: Petrochemicals Division 1956–1999,” box 2.207/F122, Exxon Mobil Historical Collection, Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
“Odessa Oil Progress Week Observance Expected to Rank as Nation's Largest,” Odessa American, October 12, 1952, 1. Such sentiments were expressed nationally in film scripts and press kits produced and distributed by the API. Scripts, box 115, collection 711, API Photo and Film Collection, Smithsonian Archives Center, Washington, DC. In many oil cities, locals expressed excitement at such celebrations. Photos from the API depict local marching bands spelling out “Oil Progress” and Boy Scout troops completing merit badges in petroleum geology. Photos, box 69, API Photo and Film Collection, Smithsonian Archives Center, Washington, DC.
“D&D Members Play Big Part in Oil Show,” Odessa American, October 18, 1970, 82.
Larry N. Doherty, “Speaker Stresses Oil's Challenges,” Odessa American, May 22, 1960, 33.
“D&D Members Play Big Part in Oil Show.”