Women in the Bakken: Dancing to a different drum

By Melanie Franner

Robin Arias and her husband moved to a small town near Williston, North Dakota, last August.
Robin Arias and her husband moved to a small town near Williston, North Dakota, last August.

The Bakken oilfields offer the allure of steady, good-paying jobs. And this in itself is enough to attract a fair number of working men. It also appeals to husbands and wives and/or families, many of whom who view it as a way to start over. And, as with life in any city or town, some of these people find the success they’re looking for and some don’t.

Running scared

The Matthew House is a non-profit homeless shelter located in Sidney, Montana. It was founded 22 years ago as a shelter for anyone who needed it. Today, it offers shelter to men and women from all walks of life, some of whom are women who can’t afford the high cost of rent. Others are coming out of prison, drug and alcohol programs or domestic abuse situations.

“We typically allow people to stay for three months free-of-charge until they can get back on their feet,” explains Elaine Hutton, a long-term board member, who adds that the organization has five fully furnished apartments. Food, blankets and other supplies are provided as needed.

“We’ve seen a real increase in demand for our services since the influx of people. There has been a direct correlation between more people and more violence and abuse.”

Another organization dedicated to helping women in domestic violence situations is the Richland County Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Program director Helen Schmitt speaks first-hand of the increase in the number of people in need of the Coalition’s services.

“A few years ago when things were just starting here, people were going out and getting good jobs,” she explains. “It took a lot of stress off of our families because the women were able to stay at home with the kids.”

The recent influx of people has brought with it an influx of problems.

“Our DUIs have gone up,” adds Schmitt. “The number of sexual assaults has gone up. We’ve already had five sexual assaults since January. I think a lot of people come up here thinking that this is going to be a new start but guess what, they still have the same issues as they had before they came up here.”

The Richmond County Coalition Against Domestic Violence also includes a shelter facility for women.

“During this past year alone, we have tripled the number of shelter nights,” explains Schmitt, who adds that the visitors don’t usually stay that long. “The women usually realize that things aren’t going to be any different up here from what they were back home and they immediately try to arrange for a way back home.”

Of course, an abundance of drugs, alcohol and a shortage of affordable housing all contribute to the growing problem of violence and abuse. And a predominance of male bodies doesn’t help the situation.

“You can go to any grocery store or restaurant and see for yourself that the number of males far outnumber the number of females,” states Schmitt. “From what I hear, if you are a woman, you don’t want to go out to any bars or social events. It’s probably not safe to go.”

Despite the harsh living environment, some women are making a success of their time in the Bakken oilfields.

Making the Most of it

Robin Arias is a married woman of 10 years who moved with her husband to a small town near Williston, North Dakota, last August. An online person from way back, Arias did some research into what to expect.

“As a woman coming up here with a teenage daughter, what I saw online seemed very frightening,” she says. “Most of what I read advised women against coming up here at all.”

The truth, however, proved to be slightly different.

“I am a big city girl and have lived in places like Las Vegas, Orlando and New York,” explains Arias. “I know what crime is. It’s definitely frustrating here but it is certainly not uninhabitable.”

That being said, Arias pretty much stays focused on her family and her online activities (including a blog about life in the oilfields: lifeinwilliston.com).

“I don’t have a big network of friends,” she says. “And yes, I wouldn’t go down a dark alleyway at night but the truth is, I feel safer with all of the men here. Most of them are decent guys who are working hard to make a living. I feel that if anything were to happen, there would be a 100 of them jumping in to defend me.”

Still, Arias feels anxious about her teenaged daughter. And she wouldn’t necessarily recommend life in the oilfields to all of her friends.

“If I were single, I would not want to live here,” she states. “It isn’t a good place for dating and trying to find a significant other. I don’t want my daughter staying here when she gets older. I’d rather she be with family in a more balanced place. It’s hard to explain what things are like here but it is similar to living in a vacuum.”

Another issue that is proving to be a hardship for Arias and her family is the cost of housing. Currently, she is “lucky” enough to be renting a four-bedroom house without having to share it with anyone. But the cost is high. If they were to put down roots for a few years, they would have to enter the real estate market. And that would be pricey.

“The market here consists of pre-manufactured, modular housing that would cost $50,000 anywhere else but carries a price tag of between $300,000 and $450,000 here,” she says. “My husband loves his job here and would like to stay but we can’t afford to unless we can cut our exorbitant rent in half.”

Melissa Anderson and her husband.
Melissa Anderson and her husband.

Melissa Anderson is another married woman who moved to the oilfields with her husband and family. A mother of five (ranging from a year-old to a 16-year-old), Anderson has lived in Bismarck, North Dakota, for the last five years.

“It’s not quite the boom town as some of the places in western North Dakota,” she explains. “But of course, I take precautions when I am out, like carrying pepper spray in my purse. I also have a handgun in the house.”

Anderson’s husband is gone for two weeks at a time. During these absences, she is constantly on the run with the children, going from activity to activity. She also heads out of town a lot to visit family, friends and her husband.

“With five kids, I wouldn’t have much of a social life anyway,” she jokes.

16-3Like Arias, Anderson started a blog about living in the oilfields (realoilfieldwives.com). She works with her partner, Christy Mensi, who lives in Texas. The blog posts typically garner around 2,000 hits.

“It started out as a support group,” says Anderson, who adds that it can get pretty lonely at times. The site offers mostly tips and advice on marriage and life in general.

“We’ve had responses from several women who are having a hard time,” adds Anderson. “People who are having to cope without having their husbands around for half of the year.”

One Life to Live

Whether it’s family life in the oilfields or just a relationship, the women of the Bakken are experiencing life in a different way from their male counterparts. Charitable organizations can go a long way to helping ease the burden of the harsh lifestyle, as can support groups and blogs, but in the end, it’s up to each individual woman to make of it what she will.

“A lot of women up here don’t have the same financial resources of their male counterparts,” states Tim Anderson, clinical director for the Sidney, Montana-based District II Alcohol and Drug Clinic. “A lot of them are coming out of relationships with people working in the oilfields. It’s a tough situation to be in.”

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