Wyoming Women’s History: Choices and Changes Oral History Project

In the United States, the generation born post-Depression, or about 1939 to the end of World War II in August 1945 have been named “War Babies.” The Baby Boomer generation soon followed, beginning in 1946, and has been credited with contributing significant societal changes, usually without acknowledgement that their forebearers – the War Babies – led the way. 

By the time War Babies became young adults in the early ‘60s, major cultural changes were occurring. Women coming of age in the early- and mid-1960s were school children in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s—a period of relative stability on the home front. Then, as noted by Gail Collins in her 2009 book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, major societal transformations occurred—from the availability of birth control pills and other new methods of contraception; career choices expanding beyond being nurses, teachers, and secretaries; the passage of Title IX legislation on June 25, 1972, which allowed and promoted girls’ participation in organized sports; to increased frequency of divorce. Expectations girls held about prospects for their adult lives collided with changed realities for many young women.

So, what were the experiences of Wyoming women who were born War Babies? That’s a question Dr. Susan McKay sought to answer. Dr. McKay is Professor Emerita of the University of Wyoming Gender & Women’s Studies Program. For more than two decades, she taught and researched issues focused on women, girls, and armed conflict; women and peacebuilding; and feminist issues in peace psychology. Her books include Where Are the Girls? Girls in Fighting Forces in Northern Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Mozambique, Their Lives During and After War (2004); Raising Women’s Voices for Peacebuilding: Vision, Impact, and Limitations of Media Technologies (2001); and Women and Peacebuilding (1999).

Dr. Susan McKay, 2021. Photo by Sharon McKay.

Throughout her career, Dr. McKay employed oral history methodology to provide authentic voices to her research and publications. Based on her knowledge as a psychologist with experience conducting in-person interviewing, she decided that this method would best help her delve into the experiences of Wyoming women who were War Babies. The project was conducted with a cross-section of women born between 1939 and 1946 who lived in Wyoming all or most of their lives. The influence of living in Wyoming upon their choices and the changes experienced were a particular focus.

The interviews explored whether the expectations that girls held for their adult lives collided with changed realities for women. In Wyoming the changes tended to be more incremental due to the relative isolation associated with the state’s predominantly rural and semi-rural demographics. Many of the women interviewed experienced childhoods during which they were given a lot of responsibility and freedom to roam. Also, ranching and farming traditions of self-sufficiency and independence for both men and women may have blunted the sense among some women of a pressing need for self-autonomy compared to elsewhere in the country.

Donna Ruffing, who grew up on a ranch, remembers bringing in the cows at age 5, raising a fawn at age 8, and raising her own flock of 25 sheep at age 9. “My dad took me to the bank and co-signed a note,” she said. “I had [the sheep] until I was between my junior and senior year in high school. I made a lot of money. I had champion livestock.” At times her parents worked at other jobs, and she and her brother took on a lot of independent responsibility on the ranch. “My brother and I were expected to go to the hayfield in the summertime. He would mow, and I would ride the dump-rake…. Then when my dad came home from work, he wanted to bale what we had done that day. So, when he came to the field, Bob and I would go home and milk the cow and feed the pigs and gather the eggs, because mom came home later than that. And I started supper.”

Donna Ruffing, 2018. Photo by Susan McKay.

Frances Audier, who moved from France to Wyoming at age 7, recalls, “The freedom, the kind of wild places and the freedom that a girl would have in Wyoming, was a huge contrast to the very restricted, very controlled environment in France. And the fact that as a seven- and eight-year-old and from then on, every summer of my life, that I could climb anything, go anywhere, be responsible for herding cattle, it was absolutely remarkable. It was as if the world had opened up. And that, as a female, I think it made me feel that I could pretty much do whatever I wanted.”

Frances Audier, 2021. Photo by Susan McKay.

Nonetheless, many women talked about what it was like to come of age in a world in which choices for women were curtailed. Connie Owen dropped out of college to get married at 19, and when the second of the two children she had with her husband was 8 months old, he told her he was leaving her. She quickly found out that as a woman without a husband, no one would issue her a credit card. In the early 1970s, she found that because she was a woman alone, no bank would loan her the $8,000 she needed for a mortgage, even though by then she had $25,000 in equity to bring to the table.

Connie Owen, 2017. Photo by Susan McKay.

No matter what their true passions and interests, women often felt that they were expected to choose within a narrow range of possible careers. Frances Audier reflects, “I was limited by the notion that women could be nurses, teachers, airline hostess, secretary. It never occurred to me to look beyond that until later.” Kathy Karpan remembered that “You had two choices. You either became a wife and a mother or you pursued a career. And you did not, in those days, sleep around. And you did not think that you could marry somebody who would support, entirely, your choice of having a full-time career. I mean, you didn’t. And if you don’t think there’s a difference, just look at the difference between my situation and Hillary and Bill Clinton. And they’re only four years behind me. I’m telling you, it accelerated each year.”

Kathy Karpan, 2019. Photo by Susan McKay.

Many women, however, went beyond those expectations—some through the independence and rigors of ranching and farming life, others by becoming, for example, academics, politicians, or businesswomen at a time when this was not the norm.

Frances Audier, mentioned above, went on to own a sporting goods store, become an actress and an accountant, and in later life relished being a vision consultant helping those experiencing low vision to access resources to allow for more independent living.  

Irene Devin, who did choose to be educated as a nurse, progressed from teaching nursing to working to promote family planning services, serving as a member and chair of Laramie’s hospital board, starting the national Rural Healthcare Coalition, and finally, serving for four years in the Wyoming House of Representatives and eight years in the Wyoming Senate.

Irene Devin, 2018. Photo by Susan McKay.

Barb Niner found herself doing unusual work for a woman of her generation: “After I was married, I became a certified weighmaster. I weighed all the cattle as they came through the sale ring. Cattle are sold by the pound, and so that was quite a responsibility…. And of course, I had to be certified by the state to do that.”

Barb Niner, 2018. Photo by Susan McKay.

Other women interviewed became college professors, politicians, horse trainers, building contractors, hospital administrators, and journalists. One became a poet, while simultaneously running a ranch. Kathy Karpan, quoted above, served as Wyoming Secretary of State, the head of the Department of Health and Social Services, the national Office of Surface Mining, and ran for both U.S. Senate and Wyoming Governor.

In similarly non-gender-conforming style, Barbara Ross didn’t finish high school, married at 17, and worked on oil rigs with her husband. “I was probably one of the first women that ever worked on the rigs. And I loved it,” she remembers.

As Barbara Ross said, “The women in Wyoming—most of them—work damn hard all their life at something.”

Barbara Ross, 2021. Photo by Susan McKay.

Overall, many of the women who became professionals started on those careers later than is now typical for women, but, although they may have gotten a late start, the vast majority of the women interviewed led accomplished lives whether professionally or as involved members of their communities, something Connie Coca’s life illustrates so well. She dreamed of becoming a nurse, but when she was young the $50 tuition was more than she could afford. Later, after she married and had a child, she tried enrolling in a nursing program, but had to drop out after only 6 months due to the cost of and unreliability of babysitters. And yet, after her two daughters were grown, she went to college, earned an undergraduate degree, and went on to get a master’s degree, both degrees in social work. In addition to working for many years in that field, and despite her late career start, she also taught Chicano Studies at the University of Wyoming.

Connie Coca, 2020. Photo by Susan McKay.

By the late 1960s and into the 1970s, feminist ideas were sweeping the nation, such as broader career possibilities, as was resistance against rigid gender roles and lack of independence for women. The interviews delve into the interviewees’ thoughts about all of these changes, and one of the themes that emerged is that although these changes often became an important part of younger generations’ worldviews, many of the women in the age group that was interviewed for this collection already were so enmeshed in childrearing and hard work that they didn’t feel they had time to think much about such cultural changes. Gail Aldred voiced this issue, which was also echoed by other women. When asked if she identified with feminism or had been involved in the feminist movement, she said, “No, we were busy with the kids.” In part, these feelings arose from the early parenthood that followed the early marriages (late teens to very early 20s) that were the norm for this generation. On the other hand, many of the women spoke with pride about their daughters’ (and sons’) independence and professional achievements.

Gail Aldred, 2018. Photo by Susan McKay.

When asked about feminism and its meaning to them personally, women expressed a range of responses including disgust at “bra burners”; strong statements that if women want to be “equal,” they should prove that they were by taking on the responsibilities of a man; and mistaking “feminist” for “feminine,” that is, wanting to be treated by men as “feminine.” Many women were adamant that Wyoming is the “equality state” and women should be treated as equal. Women, even those who did not identify with feminism, per se, expressed support for the idea that women should receive equal pay for equal work.

Often women struggled to define feminism and its meaning to them. Rancher Patricia Frolander explained, “It’s hard for me to define feminism. I like being a woman. I used to be able to pick up a 50-pound feed sack, but I always loved it when my husband said, ‘Let me go ahead and stack those for you.’ I could pick them up and feed them. He knew that. But it wasn’t an issue for us. On the other hand, when he came in at night, I never expected him to do the dishes, and we might have both been out all day. I prepared the meal; I did the dishes. It was a quid pro quo.”

Pat Frolander, 2021. Photo by Susan McKay.

Divorce was becoming more common in the 1970s and thereafter—it occurred in 31% of the cohort interviewed (17 of 54 women). Eleanor Stepp Johnston indicated that divorce was far more common in rural Wyoming than may be realized. “Oh, honey, that was very common then,” said Johnston in her interview, continuing, “There were so many divorced people…in Big Piney, Kemmerer. Yes. There were a lot of divorces.” When asked if she felt different in her small community of La Barge after her divorce, she replied, “I didn’t feel different. I liked not being married. I liked not being abused. I liked not being kept down all the time…. Yeah, I liked it. I liked not being married…”

Eleanor Stepp Johnston, 2021. Photo by Susan McKay.

Other women who were divorced commented on the difficulties of supporting a family during this era of relatively limited job-opportunities for women. Kayne Pyatt discussed having to get married at a young age because of pregnancy. Finally, after ten years of marriage, when she and her husband were living in Phoenix, she found out that her he was having an affair with her best friend. “I just said, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ And so, I came back to Evanston. And my mom and my stepfather helped me get a place. And I got a job at the Wyoming State Hospital. I worked many, many jobs…. Worked in restaurants, worked in bars. I did everything I could…. And I was on welfare…. That was probably some of the hardest times in my life, was being on welfare, because people look down on you, they snub you in the grocery stores when they’re checking you out. In fact, I even sent my kids one time to get groceries with food stamps, and they came home crying because the clerk was so rude to them. So, I never sent them again.”

Kayne Pyatt, 2020. Photo courtesy of Kayne Pyatt.

In terms of living in Wyoming, many women mentioned the positives of the less frenetic lifestyle in Wyoming compared to some other parts of the country, the feeling that in such a small state there is a heightened sense of community, the pleasures of the beauty of the Wyoming landscape, and the positive health effects of outdoor activities that that landscape enabled.

Dolores Haslam, who has lived in Crowheart all her life, talked about her love of living in Wyoming. “[I] appreciate what we have here: the fresh air, being able to look out and not see skyscrapers, and to be able to see the clouds and blue sky…. I just have no desire to move, to leave here, and move into a big city or even a little town. I just like the fresh air and the wide-open spaces.”

Dolores Haslam, 2019. Photo by Susan McKay.

Joyce Diedtrich commented on the community aspect of life in Wyoming: “I like the practicality of Wyoming people. I like the fact that there is such a history here of us being self-sufficient; of us being open-handed with our neighbors because you needed their support often and they needed yours, just to make life good.”

Joyce Diedtrich, 2019. Photo by Susan McKay.

Also notable was a difference between those who were born in Wyoming and those who came to the state as young adults—born-to-Wyoming women grew up with the above feelings about the state as a sort of birthright, while for transplants, especially those who came from more urban environments, there often was a period of culture shock as they adapted to this rural state.

In general, the interviews give voice to a wide range of women who grew up and began their adulthood during a time of great change as they look back on their lives from the vantage point of their 70s and 80s. And, in spite of many challenges, the vast majority of them expressed a great deal of satisfaction with how their lives turned out.

You can find out more about this fascinating project in the Wyoming Women’s History: Choices and Changes Oral History Project, 2017-2022. The collection contains audio oral history interviews, transcripts, photographs of the participants, a map indicating interview locations, and project documentation. Contact the AHC’s Reference Department at ahcref@uwyo.edu or 307-766-3756 to access the materials.

A huge thanks goes to Susan Becker, a longtime expert in oral history methodology, for participating in the conceptualization of the project and transcribing 54 interviews contained in this collection. Susan was the program manager for the Boulder Public Library Maria Rogers Oral History Program in Boulder, Colorado, from 1998 to 2014.

Post contributed by Leslie Waggener with significant contributions from Dr. Susan McKay and Susan Becker.


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