Anna Brinkley appeared a master of performing many tasks at once. While talking with me, she changed dirty diapers, folded clothes, and bathed a child. Being “superwoman” has its price, however.
When I was a girl growing up in Cashmere, Washington, my hero was Annie Oakley. She was the only powerful woman figure that we had in the television of that day. I think that’s significant. Generally, the male and female roles were pretty well defined. Like I was a cheerleader in high school.
I was a bit afraid of college, but tried it and ended up studying English and political science. During college and right afterwards I did restaurant work—cocktail and food waitressing. I disliked the restaurant jobs because of the pay, and ultimately it always came down to some kind of crap from the male above you. Like the maitre d’ would make a pass at you, and when you wouldn’t do anything with him you’d get fired.
I was married to my first husband at that time. It was real funny. Here I had credits for a college degree, but no skills to go out and do anything, and he had no college and could make eight or nine dollars an hour as an electrician. We were raising two children at that time, Andrea, a girl from his previous marriage, and our daughter, Latifa, who was born in nineteen seventy-four. My husband walked out of good jobs, like with the city of Mercer Island and with Boeing. I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t work on those jobs. I kept thinking to myself, “My God, if I ever could stabilize my family income at that amount of money an hour, I’d be to work every day.”
That’s when I began to think about non-traditional work. I didn’t pick the career according to what I thought I’d like to do. The bottom line was the dollar. I mean, it was the money. Money meant independence, being able to support my family without having a man around, if I couldn’t find a decent man to relate to the family. In other words, a trade meant not being financially dependent on a man.
There was also something about the eight-to-five life that appealed to me. It is a stabilizing factor in my life. It’s a life-regulating thing, and some people find that boring and nonartistic, but I don’t think it’s necessarily so. I liked getting the kids out of bed in the morning, getting them dressed, driving my first husband to work in the early morning, and stopping off to have a doughnut. You know, there’s something about the working-class thing that has always appealed to me.
So I went up to North Seattle Community College for vocational testing and picked out a training program called electromechanical technology, without even knowing what I was doing. It’s a two-year program, eight hours a day. I was never able to carry the full load, because I had the kids to care for. I went three years and still haven’t completed the hundred and sixty credits. I think I have thirty credits to go.
My first husband did not want me to go to trade school. He felt like maybe I was going out with somebody there. He accused me of having physical relationships with men. Probably going to school had something to do with him leaving, because I was getting myself together, and I no longer wanted an icky relationship. I wanted a good relationship or no relationship at all. So that first quarter of school ended up being real rough, because I was going through a divorce and custody battle, as well as going to classes. I didn’t do well at all in school and was just devastated. I felt I had failed and slept a lot. I was real depressed and it took a lot of courage to go back out there the next quarter.
There were two core teachers in the electromechanical program. One teacher and I just had a personality clash. Since then I worked with one of his daughters. She’s a jitney driver and told me that he used to go home at night and talk about me at every family dinner and rant and rave and be upset. What was happening was that the daughter was doing a lot of non-traditional, feminist-type things and he wanted to scream and jump up and down at her, but couldn’t, and took it out on me. This teacher used to come into the electronics lab, which wasn’t even his class, and tell me that I’d never make it through the program and I’d never amount to anything. He was just trying to discourage me. But that quarter I got A’s in everybody’s class but his. The other teacher made passes at me. That was real hard because at the time I was very afraid of men. I was overwhelmed. I had nothing. I mean, I’m not afraid now, because I have a skill nobody can take from me. I have a job. I own a house. I have some control over my life. I’m thirty-three. But at that time I had never felt what it was like to support your family. I had been totally dominated and controlled by men.
By the end of the program I was doing very well and enjoying math and physics a great deal. I had quit studying math as a sophomore in high school to do other more socially acceptable things and had been afraid of it in college. I really enjoyed picking it up again. The only deficiency in the program was that I didn’t learn how to use tools until I was on a job. That was the only legitimate place the men could attack me on. All men, even the ones from professional families, have dinged around tools. I think I’m just now beginning to master tools.
An uncle of mine had been a supervisor at an aircraft plant for about a million years, and when he found out I was going to trade school, he told my parents that they were looking for women in non-traditional trades. He gave my name to the lady in charge of personnel for the maintenance department. She hired me without my even completing the electromechanical program. That was in April of nineteen seventy-seven. That was very lucky because I had gone into debt about ten thousand dollars going to trade school. If I hadn’t found a job, I would have been deep in the hole, with two kids.
I remember I was excited, pleased to be making some money and able to support my children, but for at least the first two-and-a-half years I kept expecting that somehow I would get fired. As a cocktail waitress, the boss can come up and say, “You’re gone,” and you wouldn’t even know why. I had never worked in a job where there was a strong union. I didn’t realize in a union shop that, once you get past a probation period, it’s very difficult for management to get rid of a union member. Having a powerful workers’ organization like the Machinists Union was a totally new experience for me.
The other thing was that when I worked there I was so anti-management in my politics that I was unable to see anything good in any management people at all. I think that was probably bad, because I think that there are people that do go into management that still do have some good qualities and do try to demonstrate some fairness in their dealing with workers. Several of my supervisors were people who did not do anything for me, but did not do anything against me. They just basically left me alone. A good supervisor in that company does not have to do anything. They just have to maintain a middle ground and not rock the boat. One of my supervisors was great at that. He was a very slick, typical first-line manager, who dressed real nice and had a silver mouth. Under him we won the Crew of the Year Award, which was based on attendance and not having any accidents. What this supervisor did, if we came in late, was to plug us in on the computer instead of having us punch in late. So we got Crew of the Year because he cheated. Another supervisor gave me good evaluations until he found out I had black children. Then all of a sudden he started giving me poor evaluations.
I think race is one of the biggest issues in the shop. If you’re Caucasian and align yourself with minorities at all, then you pull down your status in the shop. Being racist and sexist is one of the unwritten rules of social acceptance in the trades. There was one woman who worked in the reproduction area that I got along well with until she saw my children in the parking lot one day. Then she started a whole series of racist jokes every time I had to come into her area. It turned out that she was a member of a Klan organization and was a real redneck. The guys in the shop really liked her. She made it difficult to establish standards with the guys, because she used to hang Playboy pictures and, worse, Hustler pictures all over the walls. Anyhow, when her comments failed to irritate me, she left a supposed-joke thing called “Nigger’s Application for Employment” in my tool box. You ever seen it? It’s the worst piece of racist shit I’ve ever seen. It had, like, “What kind of things do you prefer to eat?” And then all the cliche type of soul food things, “What kind of car do you prefer—Lincoln Continental, Cadillac . . . ?” What’s your favorite pastime—screwing white women?” It was just really gross, so I took it to my superintendent and he said, “Well, what’s wrong with this? This has been going around for years. What do you want me to do with this?”
And I said, “This was left in my tool box and I know who left it there, and I expect you to do something about it.” He got real mad about that, but took it to security. The woman got three days off and vowed to get me. But a little later on she got a golden opportunity to be a mechanic, so I think that was an indication of how her being a racist got her ahead. My superintendent’s attitude toward me changed immediately after that. Personnel said that he had been calling and saying I was doing good work and I was getting along, but the next day after this incident he reported I was doing poorly.
Working maintenance, to date, has been one of the nicest or easiest blue-collar jobs. That’s part of why I chose it. I’m not saying it’s not difficult. There are safety hazards and times when you take a lot of chances, and you have to be skilled, but it’s not as difficult as being a production-line worker. There’s some intellectual stimulation in maintenance. I got to work a lot of different jobs while I worked there.
When I worked cranes, I was on the top of a building in a little—what we called the crane barn. They would drive the cranes into the barn there at the same level they would be at in the factory—high above everything. It was a dark, little room with no windows and a lot of machinery. There was a desk, a blueprint table, and boxes of tools. The whole effect was pretty grim. I guess if you hadn’t been in a factory, in some ways it would remind you of the inside of a service station. There’s the smell of grease and the noise of the factory—the bang, bang, bang, the clash, clash, clash all day long, and the fumes from welding become a kind of blue haze rising above it all. There was no air conditioning and it became very hot up there. In the summertime the temperature up there would be like ninety-nine to a hundred degrees. But I liked the work. There was something very exciting about working on the big machinery and the cranes coming in.
Sometimes I worked in the motor shop, which is on the floor. It was right outside the supervisors’ office, which is kind of a pain. The supervisors used to come out and just watch me work. They had stuck me on a bench there repairing fluorescent lights, which was a very mundane, terrible job. It was like doing the same light over and over again. I was on that tacky job for seven months.
I worked the floor, which is where you take calls when something in the factory breaks down. A supervisor will have a big mill down and call dispatch. Dispatch will type up a card that they send to you. The card will give you the building number, column number, and maybe supervisor’s number. It might take you forty-five minutes to find out exactly which mill is broken down. Then you try to troubleshoot the machine, which means fixing it, ordering parts, saying it needs to be junked, or sometimes just tagging it for a day or two while you think about what the problem is.
You could be sent anywhere. One job most of the other electricians wouldn’t do, because it was so noisy, was go out on the wing line. The guys were riveting parts and when their jigs moved, their fluorescent lights broke. I liked fixing their fluorescent lighting. I kind of admired the guys that riveted. That was the lowest-paying and hardest production work and their working conditions were just terrible. It felt really good to go out and give them good lighting. The riveters used to call me Sparky and in general were much friendlier to me than the other maintenance workers. It was funny, because I could see them having some justified hostility because here I breezed in doing a better, higher-paying job.
I think a lot of the men were afraid of me because they thought if they screwed up I would file a sex-discrimination charge on them. Male workers really over-estimate that. They don’t realize it’s nearly impossible to win a case, and that there’s not a chance in a thousand if they did something terribly sexist to me that they could ever lose their job. Things are very difficult to prove. This whole thing about discrimination confuses them. A lot of the nice guys are confused by it and don’t know how to act around a woman in the workplace.
Mostly, I got support from older male workers. These men were really good electricians, really skilled, and felt absolutely not threatened by me on any level. I couldn’t take their job. I could never attain their skill in their working lifetime, so they weren’t threatened. They taught me and enjoyed me. A lot of them saw me as a daughter and that was fine with me. Sometimes their level of paternalism was annoying, but it was a lot more acceptable than working with someone who was a member of the Klan.
I left there in nineteen eighty because I thought it would be going down and laying off. My current husband works there, and I thought we might have a better chance of maintaining two jobs in the family if I went to work somewhere else. As it turned out, that’s what is happening. They are laying off and the economy is down. It was basically a question of money and security. When I left I was making almost ten dollars an hour and I started out on my next job earning thirteen an hour. Now I am up to fifteen or sixteen dollars an hour, give or take a few cents here and there.
I’m a maintenance electrician again, which means I maintain everything electrical there with the exception of the refrigeration units. Another union has jurisdiction over that. During an event like a football or baseball game, one electrician is in charge of the entire building. You have to handle any emergency like a failure of arena lighting or the power to television and press people. In the case of power going down to television, you can imagine the amount of dollars you’re talking about. Some of the men don’t have any confidence in my ability to handle an emergency when I’m the only electrician there. I’ve worked there two-and-a-half years, and there has never been an emergency that I haven’t handled, but, like I told the director, “To tell the truth, there could be some emergencies that no one could handle, and the best thing to do is to do good preventive maintenance and do your best to prevent an emergency.”
My lead man does not put enough energy into avoiding an emergency during an event by having a really tight ship, as far as panels and connections being clean and tight. You have a situation where sixty-five thousand people are in there during a football game, and we should be thinking real preventive maintenance. My lead man sees it in terms of dollars and cents for overtime. I see that as more of a wide thing of, we may pay four electricians thirty thousand dollars a year, but if we’re doing our jobs, somewhere down the road we’re gonna save half a million dollars in one night.
It seems like the sex discrimination is always there, minor things like twisting my name around; it’s like he was trying to make a joke out of my being there. There’s other biases which are more serious. Like we work a rotating shift and sometimes work turnbacks, which means that we work events at night and have to be back at seven the next morning. Usually they try to avoid that, but with me they didn’t. I think they were hoping I would fail to show up and get a poor attendance record. Just the fact that people don’t have confidence in your ability to do the work, and so they don’t give you the hard jobs, is a form of discrimination. They give you the things that they think you can handle, which means that you fall into that and don’t learn. You will be reduced to being a “gofer.” “Go get this. Go get me that,” which is fine while you learn parts, but becomes limiting. Deciding when to accept this and when to fight it is real difficult.
I got pregnant with my daughter, Jamillah, while working there. They didn’t know I was pregnant for a while, but when they found out they just freaked. At one point my supervisor gave me a job that he knew I couldn’t handle. I had to walk around on a false roof in an attic, and I was too bulky to do it, so I just walked into his office and said, “Okay, I’m gone. It’s time for me to go on my pregnancy leave. I can’t handle this any more.”
When I took my maternity leave, my lead man swore up and down that, if they made me a permanent employee when I came back, that he was going to file a reverse discrimination suit against me. He felt I was not qualified to be a journeyperson electrician and he based that on working with me once. That was the time I just stood and watched him try to find the breakers. He had a line of, like, six individual circuits hooked up to individual duplex receptacles, and he just started pulling them out in handfuls and letting them pop and crack and smoke, with the idea that the breakers would break, and then he would go around to the different panels and find out which breakers were off. This method of finding breakers really appalled me, and after watching him do that, I didn’t think he was a journeyperson electrician, but I was nice enough not to file suit against him. The guy’s crazy. I’ll never know how he’s lived so long in the trade. He’s the kind of guy who will do anything for management. You know, if they want a light ninety feet up and don’t want to spend the money to put in the right equipment, he’ll hang by a rope with one arm to do the job.
When I came back from my maternity leave, I was real tired. I had to come back when the baby was two months old or forfeit my job. This lead man approached me right away, and he was more friendly than when I left. He told me that he thought they were gonna use him to get rid of me, and that he wasn’t gonna be used. Then he proceeded to show me the building—where the panels were, and where the different circuits were. I appreciated this until he started making comments like, “You sure are thin for having a two-month-old baby,” or “You sure are nice looking.”
One of the things you’re not supposed to do is go up a ladder until another person is, like, all the way to the top. That’s because if the person ahead of you falls, then both of you go. Well one of the lead’s little tricks was to follow me up a ladder just as close as he could. Get it? It’s the kind of thing, if you told anybody about, would sound really petty. What do you do? Go to management and say, “This guy follows me up a ladder really close”? They would look at you like, “You’re really crazy, lady.” But he did that often enough, and then the little brush of his hand in the wrong place when you’re in confined quarters. Call him on it, and shit, it would be an accident. But it begins to happen enough to where you know this guy has a real problem. Then he began the old “My wife doesn’t understand me” stories. Finally, one time we were working in the attic, and he got bold enough to come out and ask me, “Would it be sex discrimination if I told you that I wanted to sleep with you?”
I said, “Well, it wouldn’t be sex discrimination if you asked, or said that you were attracted to me, because people are attracted to people, but what would be sex discrimination is if when I turned you down, because I am going to, is how you act about that, if you retaliate.”
And he said, “Oh,” but basically he had a real hard time working with me from then on. It was real embarrassing. He would get a hard-on whenever he worked around me. It was a real difficult time for me, because I was very tired and sad about having to leave the baby. I dealt with it by just hanging in there the best I could. I didn’t feel like I could talk with the other workers there, because he had been there five years and I had been there for only one. And my husband doesn’t like hearing about what happens to me at work.
Part of the problem I’ve had, and I’ve come to realize this in the last couple months, is that I get involved with the other workers, even the jerks, in the sense of I can always see something good, if they’re not management. That’s where I can draw the line. I can see behind the Archie Bunker sick person to the scared little boy. I wish I wasn’t sensitive to that. I wish that all I could relate to is this vicious, ugly man who is trying to get my job. I kept hoping that maybe he was going to be my friend. I think our sensitivity hangs a lot of women up.
At the same time the lead man started this sexual harassment trip, he began playing a real anti-union role in the shop. He began being a snitch and aiding the supervisor in writing people up. Then he started helping the supervisor in trying to get rid of me. He’d tell me that the supervisor was going to upper management saying he didn’t need all four electricians, and I was going to get laid off during the football strike. I don’t know if that was really true, or if it was something to upset me. That’s how they function. They can’t get rid of you unless you blow your cool, so they shake you. My supervisor will follow me to the bathroom and wait outside until I come out, and then just look me up and down with really evil eyes. It’s not real life-threatening stuff, but it eats on you and scares you. I saw this same supervisor grab a guy around the neck and choke him because he didn’t like him. Another electrician wore black turtlenecks, and the superintendent backed him into the corner with intimidating body language and said, “Why do you always wear that black turtleneck? Don’t you know that black is an omen of death?” To anyone with any brains that is a threat. It frightens me. The word that comes to my mind when I think of him is mentally deranged. The guys on the crew call him a cancerous growth on us. Right now, I’m formalizing charges of sex discrimination against this supervisor, and I’m having a real hard time deciding whether to include the lead man. I don’t want him to take the rap, but I do have to be honest about some things that he has done.
Two years ago I just assumed I would always be in a trade. Now I’m thinking about what point I’m going to get out, because it’s so draining. I’m maintaining the job and the kids are okay. They’re being well taken care of and reaping the benefits of my salary. Latifa has piano lessons, horseback-riding lessons, and is in a private school. The others are too young for those things, but all of them have a reasonable life. But Mama’s real tired at night and I complain a lot. I think my influence on them is not as deep as I would like. Basically, I feel that my husband and I don’t have too much of a relationship at all. We love each other, but we don’t have time for anything except for taking care of the kids. He cooks one week and I cook the next. The week you cook, you don’t get too much else done because you also clean the kitchen. The person who isn’t cooking interacts a bit more with the kids and does the clothes. On the weekends we clean the house. There is no time to go any place. My husband and I don’t communicate. There’s no time for movies or shows or walks in the park.