Riding to Casper I pass a pretty scarp or eroded ground called Hell’s Half Acre before driving over the wisp of the North Platte River and past a miniature drill rig in town. There’s very little sprawl in Wyoming, each town instead a well-articulated oasis in the vast prairie, adrift as if barely tethered to the low brush. Casper, too, contains its isolation like a champ. A friend told me that when her Indian-born mother moved there in the 1970s, from Singapore, she refused to unpack her bags for six months.
I meet this woman, Nimi McConigley, at the Casper Country Club. “Most people, when they meet me, they say, ‘Oh, it must be wonderful for an Indian person to come to America,” she says. “They think of this as a step up, leaving the jungles of India to come to this beautiful American sort of dream. But arriving in Casper was quite a traumatic experience.” As we talk we are surrounded by women, the youngest of whom are in their 50s, though most are older. This is the monthly meeting of the Geowives, a social club for the wives of geologists and other energy sector workers. The club turned 60 this year. This month the meeting features Cobb salad and a fashion show.
Nimi McConigley moved to Casper in 1976 and joined Geowives soon after. (Photo: Irina Zhorov)
When a piece of silverware tinkles against glass “the girls,” as the women call each other, quiet down. I’m seated between the outgoing president, Liz King, a friendly, energetic woman in her 70s, and Joanie Dunlap, a sprightly sexagenarian in a form-fitting red dress. A woman in sequined tights walks up to the podium and launches into a lengthy story about the flora decorating the runway. Later, she’ll recount the same story about the same flora and King will turn to me to ask whether she hadn’t already told that tale. “Oh well!” she’ll say, understanding. The woman in the tights introduces the designer, who used to sew prom dresses for some of the women’s daughters. When the lights dim and Lorde comes on over the speakers the models march out in sculptural clothing that, at times, seems to make it difficult for them to balance on their heels.
The women point at the dresses and admire potential outfits for the upcoming formal they organize with the Wyoming Geological Association, traditionally their male counterpart, though no longer restricted to male membership. “I think she forgot her slip!” Dunlap says, pointing to a model in a sheer getup and laughing.
WHEN THE GEOWIVES FORMED in 1954, Casper was enjoying both a post-war high and the good times brought on by its growing energy sector. “There was Marathon, there was Ohio, there was Mobile, there was Standard. I mean this place was solid oil town,” says Bette Faust, a charter member of the Geowives. Faust is 93 years old and she still attends these lunches frequently. “I love people,” she says as she takes a moment to marvel at the assembled group around her. She’s nonchalant explaining the club’s beginnings: Men came to Casper for the oil jobs and brought their young wives with them. “There were so many of us I imagine we just probably started meeting and then we organized.”
A booklet chronicling the group’s history paints the decade in ticky-tacky tones: picnics in the country, fashion shows with furs and “real French poodles,” dances with husbands, “hilarious entertainment,” hula-hoop demonstrations. In 1956-57 one of the Geowives’ husbands designed a logo for the group—a rolling pin crossed with a geologist’s pick—and the following year some of the women performed a ditty that went:
GEO Wives ... GEO Wives
They’ve excitement in their lives
While their men pound rocks and drill the merry hills
Fill their wives’ lives full of thrills!
The ‘thrills’ in the song perhaps betrays a more serious need for an organization like the Geowives that “real French poodles” don’t. During the boom of the 1950s the husbands disappeared into the oil fields for weeks at a time, leaving many of the women alone with young children at home. And since most families were coming from elsewhere—other oil fields or distant hometowns in search of work—the women did not know anybody in town. Plus, snowy, cold, isolated Casper can be a shock if you’re used to urban amenities, and, as McConigley says, the orchids of Singapore; “You feel almost immediately abandoned.” The Geowives helped each other cope with the loneliness and unfamiliarity. “It's a healthier way than hitting the bars,” McConigley says. “And it's certainly cheaper than going to a psychiatrist.”
The Geowives invited a local designer to showcase his clothing at one of their monthly luncheons. (Photo: Irina Zhorov)
The Geowives served as an immediately empathetic and, more importantly, innately understanding social network. They all knew what it was to move around constantly, to go weeks without their husbands, to have to look elsewhere for income when the booms turned to busts. The group’s activities never revolved around energy in any important way—not in the sense professional organizations’ activities do—but, instead, the members’ entire identities and lives were enmeshed with energy in an intimate and vital dance. They turned inward into their community for support, but all of Casper benefitted because they were educated, energetic doers.
“Every one of these women is interesting,” Faust says. “They have been everywhere, they have lived in all kinds of conditions, and faced all sorts of things. It makes Casper a much more interesting place.” Faust was involved in politics. McConigley started an international film series and worked to improve hospice care. The Geowives had a Gourmet Club, a hiking group, book clubs. What Casper lacked, the women made flourish. At the same time, the club itself was always purely social. Faust says while lots of do-gooders have come through, this club has purposefully never been the conduit for their good deeds.
Mary McPherson, the club's sole geologist, joined about three years ago when she retired. (Photo: Irina Zhorov)
MEMBERSHIP IN THE GEOWIVES peaked in the 1960s at 246 members. It has always ebbed and flowed with petroleum markets, and many women turned in their membership cards to join their husbands in new jobs or new professions altogether when the industry waned. But today, though poised for a boom—the flats of dry brush around Casper pocked with wells and significant fields being planned for the near future—membership in the Geowives hovers around 70.
“So many of the younger women who come to town are working women,” King says. Tuesday afternoon teas complicate membership for women who work full-time. And although the group tries hard to recruit younger women, some members are reticent to change the established meeting schedule, which has been constant since 1969. Also—and this is no small thing—women can be geologists, they can log wells and spend days out on a rig, rather than marry into that life.
As such, new members tend to be retirees. Mary McPherson came to Casper four years ago, retired, met 93-year-old Faust at the gym, and finally joined Geowives after her husband “kept harassing me that I needed to get out of the house.” She fits the Geowives profile: lively, smart, big laugh. But McPherson, in addition to marrying a petroleum engineer, had a long career as a geologist herself. She’s the only geologist in the group and at one point she was one of just six female Earth scientists at Chevron. “Spouses of some of my co-workers, they may have been curious about me,” she says.
Joanie Dunlap and Liz King, who joined Geowives in 1972 and 1975, respectively. (Photo: Irina Zhorov)
I had asked Faust earlier whether the Geowives might start to consider women who themselves work in the industry, rather than those who marry into it. Technically, the by-laws permit female members of the Wyoming Geological Association to join Geowives. In response to declining membership, the club changed its rules to allow a wider spectrum of women in, but Faust looked at me as if I was a little stupid. She made clear that she wanted to stick to the wives of energy workers. For her, the Geowives meetings are a fun distraction from the hard work of taking care of her husband, who has dementia. At the beginning of the program I leaned in close enough to see her pores and smell her coffee breath and she whispered to me that she’s exhausted, that she’s “just a shadow” of herself. As it always has, Geowives helps with hardships, distracts with a good time.
SOME WEEKS AFTER MY visit with the Geowives at the Country Club, King tells me that Faust’s health has started failing her. I see Faust in her matching pant suit with coffee in hand mingling with the other women, who all adore her. They wave to me, women from another age, when oil fields were more romantic, more manual, less controversial, when women were less busy and socializing more deliberate. The Geowives’ survival depends on its adopting to new norms, but the current members have little need for that.