Weekly Q&A

Joanne Goodwin on women in Las Vegas—perception and reality in the 20th century

Photo: Steve Marcus

Cinema and literature have presented the most riveting stories built around the lives of ordinary people. As Joanne Goodwin explains, “Ordinary people’s lives are, in a way, what constitutes our society.” The UNLV history professor and director of the university’s Women’s Research Institute of Nevada (WRIN) has spent two decades piecing together the story of Las Vegas, adding in the role of women—high profile and not—who have largely remained invisible.

In her recent book, Changing the Game: Women at Work in Las Vegas 1940-1990, Goodwin collects narratives told by women who came to Nevada as part of a larger migration to find work. Far from a dry academic read, Changing the Game merges a data-driven story of women in the workforce with first-hand tales of independent women making a life for themselves, with colorful asides depicting the unique character of Las Vegas. The book evolved from Goodwin’s ongoing work with colleagues and students within UNLV’s library and Special Collections and the WRIN, an effort to build an archive of a more complete history of Las Vegas and Nevada.

Why is this research important? Historians of women often portray the period after the war as one of women retreating from the factory, moving back into the home and starting families. The 1950s was portrayed as a very domestic era. That’s been challenged in the last 15 to 20 years, and it’s been challenged by people who don’t fit that model—women in labor unions; African American women who’ve been working before, during and after; and Latino women who have become more active in their community. The picture has become more complex.

What have you learned? Women in Las Vegas were leading the country in terms of their involvement with employment. They came here because they needed work. What was important was the story they were telling about themselves. The fact that they were employed at higher rates on average of women in the United States led me to examine how Las Vegas was a magnet for women who needed or wanted to be employed, but also how women survived in an era that was before equal employment opportunity.

Why oral histories? That is a primary way that we get a particular set of lived experiences. If you look at the movie Selma there’s great contention about the way LBJ is presented by the people who keep his legacy, but the only way you’re going to know about the individuals who made the march is by interviews that were done with them. There are just no other sources. If they show up in the newspaper it’s simply a name.

And in the context of Las Vegas? I was hearing at conferences the trivialized view that very smart people had about women’s experiences in Las Vegas. It brought out this part of me that said, “Wait till you hear their stories.” Hopefully their stories will give a very different impression of this community and the women in this community.

What is the takeaway? It speaks to this fact that this city deserves its own history, yet the history of this city has been really narrowly focused, for important reasons, but narrowly focused. We’re beginning to see some work now that looks at the history of the people who actually worked in the industries. My particular interest in that is the women who worked in the development of Las Vegas and how that informs the larger picture of U.S. history and women in U.S. history.

Were there surprises? Yeah. The stories about gambling families migrating [from areas where gambling was illegal]. I had not thought about that migration. We know about the migration of African Americans to Las Vegas, but the migration of gambling families, you couldn’t really have casinos without those families. The other thing was this independence of women during this period who were going to figure out a way around the obstacles.

You discuss lived experience versus perception, something many residents here can relate to, and also mention Annie Leibovitz’s 1990s photographs of Las Vegas showgirls in their costumes juxtaposed with images of them living their daily lives. How did that play out in your world? I heard about that photo essay at every conference I went to when it first came out. It really grabbed people. They were stunned at the regularlness, and I thought, “Wow, you are really wrapped up in the fantasy.” For scholars and academics that’s kind of funny because people in academia are all about deconstructing things, and here their minds were scrambled about deconstructing the showgirls to the regular mom.

What about the current portrayal of Las Vegas women in the media? They don’t think it reflects what’s happening in the corporations these days. There are aspiring women in the hotel and entertainment and casino industries who really want to change that perception. They certainly want to see more of their experience portrayed. What’s ironic is that their companies do so much to continue to expand that perception. But that’s the funny part about tourism. Tourism demands the perpetuation of a fantasy that people want to come and buy.

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