Gendering Extraction: Expectations and Identities in Women's Motives for Shale Energy Opposition

By Willow, Anna J.; Keefer, Samantha | Journal of Research in Gender Studies, July 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Gendering Extraction: Expectations and Identities in Women's Motives for Shale Energy Opposition


Willow, Anna J., Keefer, Samantha, Journal of Research in Gender Studies


Many women who oppose shale energy extraction describe a "moment of transformation" (McNeil 2012:142) in which they realized they had to take action to stop, slow, or better regulate the hydraulic fracturing and ffacwaste disposal that is rapidly encompassing local landscapes and communities in the United States and beyond. For Allison, taking action against extraction (shorthanded here as extrACTION) meant becoming an activist for the first time as her desire to protect her family grew into a highlypoliticized state-level public education campaign. "I'm a new activist," Allison said,

I'm a mom that's been feeding my kids organic because I wanted the least toxic food for my kids. When I discovered fracking about two and a half years ago, I was just blown away when I did the research. And then I realized I had to do something because I went to every single state lawmaker and I saw that they weren't going to be stopping any time soon. Democrat and Republican alike. So I started educating people. But I'm doing it because I feel protective about our state.1

Barbara told a corresponding tale about a fight against oil and gas drilling in residential areas that began at the community level but expanded rapidly:

It started up just in my little community and it started out with just drilling and fracking. And the initial reason was to help. My main concern was that this is dangerous both health-wise and just physically if there's an explosion, because [the oil and gas wells] are next to schools and playgrounds. It really started out as just being worried about the kids and that expanded to the health of everyone in the community. Then that expanded to the health of everyone around. And then the water. What's it doing to the water? What's it doing to the food we're eating? What's it doing to the air we're all breathing? The realization of the whole fossil fuel industry and how it's affecting not just our community, but the state and the country. And then that expanded into the planet.2

The agenda outlined by Colleen was different. Colleen underscored an urgent need to halt shale energy's environmentally destructive potential and the industry's disregard of democratic rights and human lives:

It just totally transformed the trajectory of my life to know that this is happening and to realize what it really can do to the water, to the air, and to the land. And how it relates to our right to say yes or no to something.3

These stories, along with many others shared by the sixteen women who contributed to this study, indicate that women who oppose shale energy extraction comprehend the catalysts for their initial action and the ultimate goals of their ongoing work in ways that both corroborate and challenge gendered expectations.

Introduction

In 2012, the lead author commenced ethnographic research designed to better understand Ohio residents' diverse experiences of and responses to the surge in oil and gas industry activity that followed the regional introduction of high-volume slick water horizontal hydraulic fracturing technology (see Willow 2014, 2015; Willow et al. 2014).4 Published contact information led to the first shale energy research participants, while subsequent participants were identified through the growth of several simultaneous referral chains. The author never anticipated a gender imbalance among her research sample, but the fact that women comprised twenty-one of the twenty-seven concerned citizens who contributed to earlier project phases could not be ignored. Because many observers (including movement participants, journalists, and survey analysts) have noted the prominence of women in shale energy opposition, we set out to examine the overrepresentation of women in this emerging social movement context as a topic in its own right, tailoring our investigation to shed light on their inspirations for involvement.5

The hydraulic fracturing process that makes shale energy extraction achievable entails pumping water, proppants (silica sand or manufactured granules that prop rock fractures open), and assorted chemicals into subter-ranean geological formations at a velocity capable of splintering rocks and releasing hydrocarbons to flow to surface wells. …

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