Women & Timber
The Pacific Northwest Logging Community, 1920 - 1998
Debra Sutphen, Center for Columbia River HistoryINTRODUCTION
This project pursued the forgotten histories of the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of Pacific Northwest loggers from 1920 to 1997, primarily through oral history interviews.
A dangerous, labor-intensive, and male-dominated occupation, logging was, until very recently, central to the Pacific Northwest's extractive-based economy and to what historian Carlos Schwantes, in his introduction to The Pacific Northwest, An Interpretive History, has criticized as a regional history limited by its preoccupation with heroic men engaged in heroic battles to tame or subdue nature. Consistent with Schwantes' characterization of Pacific Northwest historiography, most studies about logging focus on the logistics and lore of the logger and his occupation. Few scholars have turned their attention to the experiences of women affiliated with loggers through kinship and marriage. This project explores womens' roles as key participants in the development and maintenance of the logging community and culture that has, in many ways, helped define Pacific Northwest history.
Logging women, as did their men, sustained and strengthened a distinctive work community bound by a shared occupational identity. This "occupational community," a concept familiar to both sociologists and anthropologists, may be defined by four common values. According to sociologist Matthew Carroll, those who consider themselves part of this community:
- are engaged in the same sort of work;
- draw their identity from the work;
- share a set of values, norms, and perspectives that apply to but extend beyond work related matters;
- develop and sustain social relationships that meld work and leisure.
The women and men of logging also fit an additional value articulated by sociologist Graeme Salamon in that they were, "to some extent, separate from the rest of society."
Though logging women rarely became paid loggers, their identification with logging men and with the natural environment resonated in the daily work that they did as an integral part of that occupational community and in the emotional and intellectual ties to logging that they created or inherited through their affiliation with logging men. They then relayed what they absorbed to family members and friends. These ties were often as important to their sense of self and the lives that they led as were the various occupational conduits that linked their men to the woods. The women of logging proved the primary forces in developing and nurturing strong kinship and friendship ties that became essential to their daily lives and sometimes to them and their family's economic and spiritual survival, especially when timber jobs required loggers to range far from home, leaving women as the sole emotional and/or parental household heads. Additionally, logging women typically labored at home at jobs that encouraged and allowed the male logger to work outside the home. These women often became essential and sometimes primary economic supports for their families when shifting markets, seasonal conditions, or injuries forced their men from work in the woods temporarily or permanently.
In short, logging women were in no sense on the periphery of Pacific Northwest logging -- mere observers of logging activity and its distinctive culture and therefore of minor significance to the history of logging. Though their lives were most often gender-defined and consequently restricted by the logging occupation with which they were affiliated, women were, nevertheless, integral to the form and function of the post-1920 Pacific Northwest logging community and culture. This project should help to dismantle the erroneous but enduring notion of Pacific Northwest logging as a male bastion, an occupation defined primarily by the heroic struggle between man and nature. For most of the timber women interviewed in this project, logging meant daily struggles to maintain homes, raise children, and develop and nurture family life as well as a sense of self under routinely challenging and sometimes very difficult economic and emotional conditions. Their stories are compelling, and invite readers to pursue a richer understanding of one of the Pacific Northwest's most significant economic institutions.