She was described to me as neither very articulate nor overly bright. I think my middle-class informant was grievously mistaken.
I’ve always done a lot of needlework. Needlework and beadwork, any kind of real intricate work with your hands, I liked. In fact, I still embroider a lot. But I don’t tell too many people about that or that I spent fifteen months living in Israel and have traveled throughout Europe. When you work in a mill like I do, with people who are lucky if they make it up to Bellingham and back, you don’t say much about anything else. A paper mill is like being in a very tight family. It’s the only place I know of where a job is like family. It’s a clique. It’s very tight and no one just comes in there thinking they’re going to be a papermaker. I never went in there with that attitude. I went out there because it paid good and if I had to work I might as well work for the money.
I had done warehouse work for a small company down in Seattle. They sold out to some California people and we were all laid off. So I came back to Everett and I go, “Four dollars and eleven cents an hour! Wow!” That was in nineteen seventy-three. I’m on my second time around down there. I started in seventy-three and quit in seventy-five to have my little boy. I stayed home with him until he started walking. They rehired me in nineteen seventy-six, and that’s when I decided to change areas where I worked.
Before, I’d been real happy hand packing, roll inspecting—just standing there for eight hours. But when I came back and I was in the same place, I just couldn’t take it. I don’t know why. It seemed like I wasn’t going anyplace, and I knew they were going to automate finishing and that would do away with me. The wrapping and packing of the finished paper products like toilet paper would all be done by machines, so I put in my bid for the paper mill and all the other things that would open up, like material handling and shipping.
The paper mill bid came up first, and the men below me in seniority just hit the ceiling. “Oh,” they said, “that’s no place to go. That’s no place for a woman. The last woman that was out there, she got hurt.” And she did get hurt. That was her, it’s not me. And there was a reason why she got hurt and, I mean, everybody knows it. She was careless around machinery. She didn’t think before she did things and got caught in one of the rewinds. They said, “That’s gonna happen to you. Every woman that’s been out there has been hurt. It’s no place for a woman.”
And I said, “Well, there has to be a reason why they got hurt. Did you teach them the right way the first time?”
They said, “Well, we tell ’em.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but telling them is different than showing them. How about—do you show the men?”
“Well, we work with the men, too.”
“But,” I said, “you work with women, too.”
“Women just don’t understand machinery.” I heard this over and over again as they tried to talk me out of going.
And the different people I worked with, the men and women, who knew me from before and then knew me when I hired back in, wanted to let me know that they were going to pray that I should change my mind. Oh, but I was really upset about it, and I said, “Let me try, let me try! I want to try!”
Then the men higher up in the company that are over everybody in the paper mill decided they had to interview me. I’m not going to give names because these men know who they are and they just know for a fact. They finally decided to let me try for ninety days and, if I didn’t like it, I could go back to the other side without losing my position.
No matter what I do there I get the fringe benefits, like your medical, your dental, and everything else. When you hire in you get this as a package, but out in the paper mill the money was there. When you moved up from a position you didn’t move up for pennies like in finishing. You moved up for dollars out there. From one position to another there’s sometimes a dollar, two dollars difference in pay. When I went out there as a roll handler, I got eight-something an hour. Now as a junior fourth hand I get eleven dollars fifty-and-a-half cents an hour. The highest paid man, a machine tender, runs the machine. He makes sixteen dollars an hour.
I started out in the paper mill throwing rolls. They call it bouncing rolls. You throw thirty-five-pound rolls—twenty-three to a shaft—onto a pallet. You pick them off a conveyor belt and stack them four or five high onto the pallet. All day long—all day long. And they’re a nice size—they’re hefty. I had to build myself up a lot to do that job.
After that I went into broke handling, making beaters. That consists of taking paper that they can’t use as a finished product and repulping it and sending it back to the machines again. You put one-and-a-half tons of finished broke, which is the paper that is being reprocessed, into a beater and you add water, steam, and bleach and pulp it up, and you turn it white and send it back to be used on the machines again. To get an idea what it is like, imagine you’re talking to a housewife. It’s just like you had a beater and a bowl and you keep adding to it. And you have this big agitator, like an airplane engine, to beat all this up while you’re cooking it and adding the different acids and the bleach to it.
You dump these carts full of paper into this big beater. These carts are, oh, about five feet long, maybe three feet wide—full of paper, clear high. You can imagine how heavy they are. The carts are dumped by hand. They have a door in the front. You hit the paper out this door into the beater. I kick it. You’re not supposed to kick it out, but you have to wear a safety line to do it because you’re around this beater. If you ever went down in that beater, the only thing they’d ever find of you is what’s metal—your teeth fillings and your belt buckle is about all they’d find. No one has gone down in this plant, but I’ve heard of people nearly falling in. If it wasn’t for their safety line, they would have fallen in. We’ve had scares that someone did, but I’ve heard that up north they have fallen in.
After that I moved up to train as a fourth hand. That’s where you work in what they call pulp. They work more or less with the paper mill, but they aren’t considered a machine crew. Being on a crew has a lot more status.
As a fourth hand you help the third hand change the blades, rewind, help core up, and if the machine hays out you’re right there with her. Let me explain what that all means. Haying out is where they have a hard time keeping the paper on the reel, and the best way to explain that to a fella who doesn’t know is—it’s just like rolling a big piece, a big roll of toilet paper on a cylinder. This is what it does. Paper follows smooth surfaces, so when your pulp first comes out it goes over a wire that more or less shapes it to the uniform-size paper they need. Then it goes over these different felts, a fabric material. Your paper isn’t dry or anything. It’s lying just like cookie dough, not baked, on this felt and at the same time pressure is applied on different rolls to flatten out the pulp into paper. Then it goes through drying, and how much crepe they want determines how dry they want it to get.
After reaching a certain dryness it hits the blade that crepes it, and then it goes through a dryer to get the dryness needed to make a certain weight of paper. Your different weights would depend on if you want paper towels, toilet tissue, or other paper products. Then it is either made two-ply or decorated and is ready to go to packaging. It’s a big process.
Changing the blades that crepe the paper is a little scary. They’re really big blades, right? They’re very long and a little thicker than a razor blade and probably four inches wide, and you go the whole length of the machine putting the blade in. You see, when the blades get worn sharp they start causing problems with the paper coming off the dryer, so you have to change them. I wear gloves. It would be real easy to cut yourself. I wouldn’t want to get in the way of a blade for anyone. You don’t stand around when they take it out, and you don’t stand around when they put them in, because they’re sharp. Putting one in is quite a stretch for me. Everything out there is made for about a six-foot person, I swear, and I’m only five-five. I’m second to the shortest of all the crews.
When I went out into the mill they told me, no matter how long I’m going to be out there—it could be twenty-five, thirty years—every day I have to prove myself. I had to follow a bad path because of the women who’d been hurt and who couldn’t handle the job and had given up. I wasn’t that way. There was something in me that said, you know, “What’s so bad about this?” And I just carried through. I wasn’t out there for any big women’s rights thing or any ERA thing. I wasn’t out for that. I was out there because all I could think of was, “I have a house to support and a child to support and I’m not going to ever depend on welfare.” I’m just stubborn. I was going to make it. I wanted it that bad. So I carried through. And every day I make it part of my work to learn something new, because there’s so much on those machines to learn.
It has not been easy though. The men harassed me a lot. I’ve had a few guys shove and push me and pull me around—push me out of the way. I didn’t care for it, and it upset me. I told the supervisor about it, but you would have to be down there to understand what it was like. I came unglued a couple times. I just excused myself from the job, which you really don’t do, but I did, and I went in the women’s room, and I cried, because a man pushed me under a machine. And I don’t want to be pushed around a machine, and then I’d tell the supervisor about it and nothing would ever take place, you know, because they don’t come up against this man because he’s so mean. They don’t ever say anything against him. They just say, “He’s known for that. He’s known to push people around. He’s known to throw a punch. He’s known to do this. I mean, he’s done it with everybody. What makes you so different?”
Aside from the physical, I’ve heard stuff about women doing a man’s job from all the angles. The men admit they think it’s a man’s job and a woman has no right out there. I always ask them back, “You get the book and you show me where it’s written in black and white that this is a man’s job and then I’ll think about it.” They’ve never been able to provide me with that book, but everybody’s told me that.
Everybody in management, from the head guy on down, said, “It’s always been a man’s job.” I’ve even gone to personnel and asked for their help and they’ve said, “Hey, it’s just like the blacks had to fight down South about sitting in the back of the bus. You take the back seat.”
. . . I’ve had supervisors try—it’s always a big joke. “Let’s get Beaver”—that’s my nickname—“behind the machine.” Because see there’s a big aisleway behind the machine that no one can see anything that goes on. I mean, there’s a lot of places in that mill—there’s a lot of nooks and crannies that no one would ever find you. I’ve had a lot of men try to corner me—just thinking it was fun and jokes. I didn’t think it was fun and jokes, and I let them know now.
Men! I swear their whole life is sex anyway. They come out with some really weird things that women wouldn’t even think about, much less talk about. Like for example—“You aren’t going to get your tit caught in the winder, are you? The other lady did. We don’t want you to do that.” “Gee, you could show a little bit more cleavage there.” “Boy, we sure like the way you bounce when you bend over.” And they make fun of the way I walk, or “Boy, Bev, you’re putting weight on. Look at that ass on you.”
“Well, shoot, I know it,” I said. “I just have to get back to this manual labor again just like you guys.”
They also make a lot of fun of me bending over. They always tell me, they’ve warned me—“Don’t bend over like that in front of me, you know better.” If I do, they get a broom handle, a air hose, or whatever and—you get some really weird people out there. I’m not kidding. We get some real weirdos.
I’ve had to put emotion aside—just say there’s no such thing as having feelings. But I still will get hurt if someone comes up and says, “What a dumb broad,” if they aren’t kidding. But you don’t let them know it. If they’re kidding and I know it, I just kid them back. I’ve learned how to come back with some pretty smart remarks.
When men touch me, the first time I accept it as an accident. The second time I just tell them right out, “Watch it, Buster. If you really want your front teeth, you really like to look nice—just watch where you put your hands.” I really do. I have to now. That’s the way it is.
Other times I’ll decide if you want to be that way I can be the same way. I say, “You grab me there and so help me, I’ll tear your balls off.” And I do—you think it’s funny, but it really puts them in their place more so than you would think. And when you start talking about messing around with their male physique, you know, it’s a no-no. Females, it’s fine, but the men—they can get sensitive about it. I’ve learned how to hit home really fast.
Another thing that really ticks the men off is to have you give them the finger. Boy, they come unglued. It’s okay for a man to flip another man off—give them the finger. Fine. Have a woman do it to a man sometime. They come unglued. “Don’t you ever do that to me!” It’s just the worst disgust. “It’s just disgusting to us, just downright intolerable!”
But a lot of the times they will do it to me, and I’ll look at them and I’ll go, “God, I only wish. I’d rather be doing that now than what I’m doing here at the time.” Because usually it’s a bad job when guys lose their tempers bad enough to give the finger to somebody or flip somebody off. It has to be a really grungy day, so a lot of times I just look back at them and say, “Oh, you only wish,” or “Wishful thinking on your part.” And it stops them in their tracks three-fourths of the time.
When I first started working out there, I was very embarrassed by things like that. I was very upset about it. I didn’t like it. I wasn’t used to it. I’m still not used to it, but now I expect it to happen—being around men. I’m still not used to it. How does it make me feel? Nothing—I don’t have any feeling towards it any more. I really don’t. Not any more. I’ve gotten hard to my feelings. Let’s put it this way. If I went home from work and had an old man sitting there, I would probably beat him up. You know, that’s how I feel towards men sometimes when I come home from work. It’s lucky that I don’t have anybody sitting here at the house. I come home and take my frustrations out. On my boy I never have and never will, because he’s so much a part of me. But if I had someone, a boy friend—I don’t. I don’t have any boy friends, you know as boy friend boy friends or lover boy friends. I just don’t. I just haven’t. I don’t have any girl friends. I stay with my son and myself here. If something really bothers me, I come home and I have a good cry about it. That’ll make me feel better and I’ll go to bed and forget about it. And something, if it really, really bothers me, I’ll write it down. But then it’s shut up, shut away, and nothing’s ever brought up about it again, because I guess I’ve just, you just get numb to it, more or less, because a lot of times it happens over and over again.
I was married for two, two-and-a-half years. My husband—ex-husband now—worked for the same company. We both worked different shifts. He knows that outfit. My ex, he’s been down there now for sixteen years, something like that. He was really against my going out into the mill, but he didn’t come out and say, “No”—not to do it, not to try it. He just was against it because of how men are set against women being out there, and the work it consists of, and of the paper mill being a very tight family.
I get child support from my ex-husband. And he’s good on it—sometimes not. I don’t force it. I make more than he does, so I don’t force it—never have. He’s very self-centered so he comes first, and Aaron, our son, comes maybe third or fourth in line, after he gets through with all his friends and everything else, but he still has made quite a bit of time for Aaron. And a lot of times I’m real grateful that he doesn’t spend a tremendous amount of time with the family and make it harder on me.
I mean, I make a home life just for my son and me, and nobody else. I make our home as cozy as I can. I try to make it a nice place for both of us to come home to. It’s our isolation from the world. Both my son and I, if he has a bad day at school or at the babysitter’s, or I have a bad day at work, this is our place to come to. We’re very close, maybe too close, like they say. It’s just that we don’t find that much time together, so when we’re together, we’re together. I’ve never made a thing of going anyplace without him. On my vacation, like I’m home now—this whole week is his week. He had his birthday party this week at his cousin’s place. After school we go places he wants to go. This is our week to be together. And everything I do, any time I have off, is our time together. Aaron comes first, no matter what.
Spending time with Aaron is much more important to me than some other things like vacuuming; things like that—just to me—come last, later. When things really buckle under and I feel like I’m just swimming, I get help. I go out and have a lady come in and do the work. She more or less knows what has to be done. I’m not a Supermother. I keep my boy clean and keep his clothes clean, but when it comes to the house—yes, you will see needles from the trees outside on the floor here and there. You will see dust on my tables. I’m just not going to let that bother me.
I keep in touch with what my boy does in school and go to the pancake dinners, or any festival things he has, or circus things he participates in. I like to make sure he gets his end of the social aspect of growing up. But me? I just don’t think of myself. I don’t know how to think of myself.
I have a hard time participating in social things. I feel like I’m so different than the people around me. They’ve made me feel that way. I don’t associate with a lot of women. I work with nothing but men. I see the women come through the paper mills, but they aren’t working there with me side by side for eight hours a day, seven days a week. So I get out of touch with women’s talk. I get out of “Well, what’s in Better Homes and Gardens today?” or what’s going on in this or that, what are good buys, how to make meaals, who we’re entertaining, where I’m going out to have a good time. The men just aren’t into that. Three-fourths of the men you talk to, their main thing is sports, and I haven’t learned that much about sports, so I’m in a limbo. I can hear what the men are saying, I can hear what the women are saying, but I’m just right there in limbo. I’m in a real twilight area. I can’t say I have a bad relationship with women, but I can’t say it’s really good either, because I don’t associate with them. I can’t say I have a bad relationship with men. I don’t know. I really don’t associate with them. I’m right in that limbo.
I’m not a macho person but I don’t really lean too far to the left because I’m not a real feminine person. You know, I’m not a really frilly, squeaky, high-voice, “Oooo, poor little me,” and I’m not a real “Boy, let’s get out there and cut another cord of wood.” I’m right in the gap. I mean, I do go out and cut my own wood, because I have my own stove, but yet I could go out there and bake a dozen cookies better than most women. It’s hard. I haven’t found anybody that fits into that area that I can talk with, you know, intimately, yet be accepted for what I do. Men don’t want a woman that goes out there, cleans her sledgehammer, and hits a plastic wedge to break wood apart. And a lot of women don’t see me as being feminine. They can’t talk to me because of the work I do.
I don’t even know what to think of myself. I can say that I’m proud I’ve come as far as I have, being twenty-nine, having my own home, not that it’s paid for, but it’s my own home. It’s nothing extravagant, but it’s a home for my son and me, and I’ve taken on my own responsibilities. I am a responsible person. Oh, I’d like to have a big house some day. My boy and I both are that way, and we keep saying to each other, “Aaron, boy it would be nice to have a new house,” and Aaron’ll go, “Yes, Mom, I’d like a new house.” We’d like to better ourselves—not just material possessions, but I’m putting away for Aaron’s education. I want him to have an education. I don’t want to see him go into papermaking like me. I don’t want him to even touch it. To me, it doesn’t take any brains to be—I like to hear me say that, it doesn’t take many brains to go into a factory. It’s not what I’d want for my boy.