A former school teacher, she took on the task of educating her fellow pipefitters on how their language was degrading to women. It has not been an easy endeavor.
My parents thought I would make a good teacher. They kinda did that to all of their children. They picked out a career for everyone. There were three older girls and they had definite careers for all of us, and each one of us did these careers.
I got a master’s in elementary education and taught kindergarten through sixth grade in an alternative school. It was a private non-accredited school in eastern Washington. The public school system over there wasn’t the best, so parents who were unhappy with the school system put together their own school in nineteen seventy-six. The only thing I really loved was working with the children, the relationship between you and the children. What I disliked was the pay, which was eighty dollars a month and room, and having to deal with the parents. Parents are real difficult to deal with. It was hard making ends meet. There were some breaks. People did bring money and food, but I don’t think I bought a stitch of clothing for the two years I was there.
When I left the school I thought it was just for the summer. I was gonna go to Seattle and make some money before I came back. I knew I didn’t want a teaching job. I needed a rest and ended up at this women’s employment service which is no longer in existence. Turned out the gas company was hiring, and all it took was one call. I started out at five dollars and six cents an hour as a helper. Now, two years later, as a fitter I earn ten twenty-two.
I had a lot of fears about being a woman with so many men. The scariest thing was the sense of being alone. It was real obvious to me, like the first or second day that I was there, that the men weren’t overjoyed about my being there. Their general attitude was that women are hired by the gas company, but aren’t worked. They were surprised to find that I was really willing to do the work. For a while I was in the tool room and then I was put out on the street. The men just pretty much ignored me until I started talking up. I started telling them I didn’t like the way they referred to women as bitches and cunts. That led to me getting the nickname of Hothead. It meant they couldn’t tease me in that way and that I’d call them on a lot of their shit.
As a helper you don’t have a whole lot of power, but some things have to be dealt with. I used to try and explain how abusive dirty magazines were to women. Finally one day we were workin’ out in the middle of Rainier Avenue and this young man, who had been hassling me ever since I started, was standing around with the other guys looking at a dirty magazine. I think it might have been Playboy because it had a center foldout. They were all giggling and brought it over to me. I said, “I’ve had enough of this shit,” and pulled the centerfold out of the magazine and burnt it up with a cigarette lighter. That kind of stopped them, and as new people would come in they would get the story, so I didn’t have to deal with a lot of that afterwards.
For a long time I wasn’t allowed to do certain types of jobs. I had to fight for that. Some of the men would take the tools out of my hands. You see it is just very hard for them to work with me because they’re really into proving their masculinity and being tough. And when a woman comes on a job that can work, get something done as fast and efficiently, as well, as they can, it really affects them. Somehow if a woman can do it, it ain’t that masculine, not that tough.
There was a long time when all they would allow me to do was dig. That’s not good because when you’re a helper you’re supposed to be out there getting trained, getting hands-on experience. Some of it I put down to my own personality because I kept holding back from pushing “the man.” And what you gotta do is as soon as the pipe gets uncovered, you gotta jump down into the hole. The first person in the hole does all the work. The only thing helpers can’t do is weld. But even when I jumped down in the hole, I sometimes had problems. I’ve had men take me out of the hole. It has to be because I’m a woman.
I got promoted to fitter eight months ago. At first it was terrible. I was real insecure about being able to do the job, still am. They transferred me from Seattle to the Totem Lake area. I didn’t know the supervisor, and they had a somewhat different system over there, so I didn’t even know the system. There was different pipe and the area was developed differently, so I felt like I didn’t know anything. On top of that I hadn’t done any welding in six months so my welding skills were real low. But I did okay and gained a lot of confidence in the last months. I feel fairly competent and on top of it now.
There’s a lot involved in fitting. The gas company has it set up so a fitter, a helper, and a truck are sent out on a job. The jobs entail either maintenance, which is taking care of the pipe that’s already in the ground, or installing new pipe. All the mains are out in the street and are usually buried three to four feet deep. All the service piping from the main to the house is buried, too. If you have to run a new service, what you have to do is dig up the main. In Seattle you have blacktop and concrete so you have to use a ninety-pound breaker. That’s a kind of jackhammer. Pretty much I would say the most demanding thing for a woman to do on the job is to use the breaker, because it usually takes, depending on the concrete and blacktop, from a half-hour up to three or four hours. Fortunately, they don’t run away from you. It’s just heavy physical labor.
What does run away is the tamper, which tamps down the earth. It makes a hole solid in the back. The machines had a big, round, four-foot heavy disc type of thing on the bottom. It’s run by air and pounds down the dirt. But it’ll run away on you and is hard on the lower back. You gotta be fairly strong to even be able to lift it. I did a lot of swimming when I was younger so I’ve always been fairly broad and didn’t have a lot of problems with physically controlling it. I’ve also gotten a lot stronger since I started working.
But anyhow, after breaking the concrete you either dig by hand or have a backhoe crew come in and do it, depending upon what’s happening elsewhere. Once it is dug up, there’s different ways to get the pipe in the ground. There’s a machine called a holehog which is real popular right now. It’s this long five-foot machine that just kind of bangs its way through the earth. With a holehog there’s not a whole lot of physical labor. I’ve spent two, three days digging with it all day long. That’s not bad.
As a fitter I do gas welding, which is different from tig or arc welding. Gas welding is where you use oxygen and acetylene, where with tig or arc it is done with electricity. Gas welding is a lot harder and slower because you’re actually melting pipe with heat. It’s hot and slow. At first it was hard for me to control the puddle of liquid metal. It’s a matter of learning how to angle the tip of the welding rod. That controls the way the puddle moves. You have to be fairly confident and the work must be steady. There’s different size pipes and you put different size pipes on the other size pipes. And that has, you know, a tendency of one melting faster than the other. All together it’s a fairly complicated skill.
I don’t think I’ve ever done anything really dangerous to prove myself, but this job could be dangerous. It isn’t too much if you follow the set pattern and all the safety precautions. You always have to remember, though, you’re dealing with live gas. You weld on live gas, which can catch on fire. If you have a tendency to weld through the main you can have a gas fire on your hands. Also gas takes up the oxygen in the air so, if there’s gas blowing in the hole, you could end up passing out from no oxygen. Those are probably the two most dangerous things as far as work is concerned. To protect yourself, you just follow the standards. When welding on gas have someone there with a fire bottle to put any fire out. Whenever there’s live gas you should have someone with a fire bottle there to watch it. As far as using the tools and stuff, there’s a correct way and an incorrect way. As long as you use them the correct way and listen to what your body’s telling you, it’s okay. I watch myself real close.
When I first made fitter, the helpers were really pissed and angry that they were going to have to work with me. There was a lot of talk about having to work for a woman, to take orders from a woman. Some of them came right out in saying I didn’t know what I was doing. One guy said, “You can’t tell me ’cause you don’t know what you’re doing.” I was told they didn’t wanna take orders from a woman. And there was one man marching around telling everybody that he wasn’t gonna have to work with me because he was too important to have to work for a woman. At the beginning I used my supervisor to back me up with the helpers. Depending on my mood, I sometimes told ’em it was too bad if they didn’t wanna work with a woman because I didn’t want to work with them either. Others I told to sit in the truck while I did the job.
When you go out on a job, and this still happens, you have to deal with somebody at the house. Usually it’s a man, but sometimes a woman—the customers will immediately go to the male helper to talk the situation over. The helper, he won’t hold back. They just walk right in the door. When things like this keep happening, I just get more and more angry.
My regular supervisor, like I said earlier, has been real good about backing me up. One time when he was off for a day I learned what it would be like working for someone who didn’t back you up. The field rep, who is underneath the supervisor, was put in charge. He got into doing a lot of loud, disrespectful girl talk with the helper that I had. I asked him to change the subject, so he changed it to talking about some gay man who worked in an office over in Bellevue and why don’t I go date him, he’d be a real good one for you. I kinda left it at that, but the field rep told the supervisor the next day that I’d gotten hysterical. That I was doing a lot of ranting and raving and screaming and yelling. How am I supposed to get respect out of my helpers when management can do that? And what came out of this was that this man, the field rep, was maybe disrespectful to me because I used bad language. I was told there were standards in language, that I could not say the word “fuck.” That’s kinda what was told to me.
When I worked in Seattle as a helper there were other women working in that area for the gas company, so there was some support. On the east side, at Totem Lake, where I went as a fitter, there were no other women. I went into therapy to work on building my self-confidence. The counselor was really difficult to find because I wanted a woman who had done work with women in trades. But she has helped me a lot. That and the support I’ve gotten from my friends has been really good.
Although in some ways this job has put a bit of a strain on friendships. I spend a lot of energy at work and don’t have a lot of it for other things. I don’t get out as much as I’d like, to the movies or whatever. My friends have had to start accepting that is the way it is. For a while I was playing the flute, but I stopped doing that. I spend my energy at work.
Other than that the biggest difference is I do a lot more consuming than I did before because I have the money for it and enjoy it. I mean I have a good car, you know, and lots of extra clothes and a stereo and a tape. . . .