Extra Tough: Women of the North

On view Nov. 6, 2020 - Sept. 6, 2021

Alaska and the Circumpolar North have been shaped for centuries by Indigenous women’s creativity, labor and love. With colonization and the arrival of Western cultures, the North became seen as a masculine testing ground, a place to be explored, exploited and developed. Artists, mothers, scientists and makers included in this exhibition confront and dismantle this myth, testifying to the vital role that both Indigenous and newcomer women have held, and continue to hold, in Northern communities.

From ceremony to social critique, the artworks, historical objects and archival images on view capture and communicate their makers' experiences of landscape and place, gender roles and social norms, work and childrearing. In a North being shaped at unprecedented rates by the forces of climate change and globalization, women’s voices and visions provide rich ground for imagining a future guided by principles of gender equity, sustainability and strength. Extra Tough upholds and celebrates the stories and perspectives of Northern women. It also examines the traditional and non-traditional roles and contributions of women throughout Alaska’s history.

This online presentation represents an excerpted portion of the exhibition, which is on view at the Anchorage Museum. 

Title graphic image: Alaska State Library, Pipeline Construction and Impact Photograph Collection, ASL-P17-8028.

Women and Society

Womanhood, as it is understood and expressed, varies greatly across cultures and has also varied across time. Social forces shape gender identities. In this exhibition, artists demonstrate how social norms are modeled and learned—or disrupted—and how self-expression can be a tool for social commentary.

Although female-identified narratives are emphasized in this exhibition along with some nonbinary perspectives, we acknowledge the need for a diversity of perspectives beyond a simplistic male-female gender binary and for a representation of voices across the gender spectrum. We hope Extra Tough opens the door to future conversations.

Gender Is A Social Construct

Ideas surrounding gender identity and expression vary across cultures and through time. In Unangax̂ culture, for example, as elder Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff explains, “Being a man means being patient, a keen observer, considerate of people and wildlife, cooperative, not macho or aggressive, soft spoken, always in relationship to everything and being present in the moment. Western society calls these qualities ‘feminine’ and somehow that is negative, but in the Unangax̂ worldview, these qualities are necessary to be a true man.”

Historically, Indigenous cultures also recognized two-spirits, people who identify as having both a male and female essence or spirit. Colonization introduced a patriarchal social organization, and the idea of a rigid gender binary with two opposing genders.

Today, we see increased visibility of two-spirit, nonbinary, transgender, and gender-neutral identities, among others. Here, artists explore how gender roles are learned, enforced, subverted, and transformed.

Standards of Beauty

Western culture has traditionally upheld thinness, light skin, long hair, and youth as physical attributes considered to be beautiful. Yet these limited standards become more inclusive as people push back, recognizing beauty and asserting pride in a diversity of shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and gender expressions.

Seeing the Self

Many artists use portraiture to question oppressive norms surrounding how women are seen, categorized, and expected to behave. They draw attention to, and push back against, constricting social expectations and norms.

Healing And The Future

As artists consider the challenges facing the North and the globe—racism, environmental destruction, violence against women, and the COVID-19 pandemic—they offer visions of how we might respond and move forward with care, compassion, strength, imagination, and collective action.

Women and Place

Famous landscape painters of the 19th and 20th centuries, most of them male, often reinforced romantic notions of the North as a place untouched. Paintings depicted grand geographical features and sublime vistas on a scale that minimized human activity. The artists in this exhibition are working against or reimagining those notions, offering a more intimate and complicated view of the land—entangled with human lives and shaped by human desires.

Domestic Landscapes

The North is often romanticized for its natural wonders, but many residents spend long winter months mostly indoors. Artists draw attention to the landscapes behind closed doors: the familiar, mundane, and un-picturesque aspects of Northern life.


Whether expressing lasting ancestral ties to the land, or a sense of fleeting ephemerality, materials can convey meanings and evoke associations that extend beyond what they are used to represent.

Women and Work

Women’s labor—often unseen or underpaid—holds up families, communities, and economies. As social attitudes have changed, so have the jobs and choices available to women. From the classroom to the oilfield to the boardroom, women’s contributions are more visible than ever.

Gendered Labor

In Western society, labor is often gendered, meaning that certain professions or types of work are dominated by either men or women. The reasons for this are many, including socialization, differences in education and networking opportunities, and employer bias. Female-dominated work like teaching and caregiving tend to be undercompensated compared to male-dominated work.

Heroes and Trailblazers

Perhaps the most culturally enduring image of the colonized North is that of the rugged explorer and adventurer—usually a man. Mardy Murie, Ada Blackjack, and Alaska Nellie are three of the many women whose stories complicate mythologies of the North as a testing ground for male strength and bravery.

Leadership and Activism

Alaska women are deeply engaged in political and civic life and hold leadership positions, whether as elected officials, religious leaders, activists, or trusted elders.

Alaska’s first female legislator was Nell Scott of Seldovia, elected to the territorial House of Representatives in 1937. The number of woman lawmakers remained limited until the late 1970s, when seven women served in the State House and Senate. Since that time, numbers have grown. In 2019, 23 of 60 House and Senate legislators were women.

In 1994, Alaska elected Fran Ulmer as lieutenant governor. She was the first woman to hold statewide office. In 2002, Lisa Murkowski was appointed by her father, Governor Frank Murkowski, to fill his vacated US Senate seat. She remains Alaska’s senator, having won three subsequent elections. Sarah Palin was Alaska’s first woman governor, taking office in 2006. She served less than one term, resigning after a run on the 2008 republican presidential ticket, as the party’s first female vice-presidential nominee.


The goal of the #ExtraToughWomenAK social media project is to shine a light on the stories of women through history.

The project draws upon archival resources throughout the state. Archives tell only partial histories, however, and the accomplishments of immigrant and Black women have not been as well-documented or preserved. We continue to work with community members to uncover stories that reflect Alaska’s diversity.

Use the digital hub to learn more about individual women. We will continue to add content and profiles. We also encourage you to post your own stories using the hashtag #ExtraToughWomenAK.

To view those profiles, and learn their stories, click here.

The Affirmation Chair

Over 50 individuals have contributed to The Affirmation Chair, self-recording a guiding mantra or piece of advice that has helped them in their lives. Many reference the wisdom of their mothers, grandmothers, and elders. Affirmations are in English and other languages, including Yup’ik, Spanish, Turkish, Italian, and Iñupiaq.

The Affirmation Chair was inspired by the 1983 publication Profiles in Change: Names, Notes, and Quotes for Alaskan Women, compiled by the Alaska Commission on the Status of Women.

Listen here:

Related Content

Chatter Marks Issue 02:
This edition of the Chatter Marks journal examines the role of women and is developed in conjunction with the exhibition Extra Tough: Women of the North, (2021-2022).


Presented with support from:

John and Carolann Weir

Brian Kirchner and Ryan G. Webb

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