Last Year I Lost Two Dear Friends

I lost two dear friends last year, Alice Fialkin and Ruth Maguire. When the New York Times put out a call for 400-word essays about people who died in 2015, I wrote about my friends. Their stories didn’t make it into the Times, and so here they are. Just pretend you are reading the Times Sunday magazine section.

Alice Fialkin 1946-2015

Alice in the early days when women were issued men's uniforms. It took years to get women's uniforms.
Alice in the early days when women were issued men’s uniforms. It took years to get women’s uniforms.

Alice Fialkin and I reconnected just as she began losing her mind. The process of getting to know her again was fraught with misunderstandings and conflict. Our friendship taught me a lot about how to interact with a person with cognitive disability and helped me acknowledge my own cognitive limitations.

We had known each other in the 1970s as tradeswomen activists. I broke into the electrician trade. Alice was one of the first women in our generation to get a job as a city bus driver in San Francisco, one job category that has since been integrated by race and gender. Alice became active in the transit workers union and was elected president of the union local. Years passed and we lost touch. When we found each other again after we’d both retired, we learned that we had lived just two blocks from each other for 25 years.

We began walking and doing local precinct work together. When we learned that neighbors were losing their homes to foreclosure, we joined with others to form an Occupy group in our neighborhood, Bernal Heights. We went door to door talking to folks on the foreclosure lists and, in coalition with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), saved the homes of many neighbors by occupying banks and foreclosed homes, protesting home auctions and renegotiating with banks for better mortgage terms.

Alice had survived three bouts of breast cancer, but she also complained of chemo brain, a condition finally acknowledged by the medical establishment. I began to see that Alice had trouble retrieving her emails and had difficulty using her smart phone. She became paranoid. She misinterpreted social interactions and felt that everyone was against her, and often she would confront me asking why I was mad at her. Still, she continued to participate in meetings and community events. Our Occupy group made room for her and valued her long experience as an activist.

As Alice was dying and suffering from worsening dementia, the movie Still Alice, about a woman experiencing Alzheimer’s disease, was playing in theaters. I was hesitant to see it, but was glad I did. The movie helped me to understand what life must have been like from her perspective. Just as Alice Fialkin had, the movie’s protagonist Alice did the best she could to continue to engage in life.


 

Ruth Maguire 1925-2015

Ruth at the climate action march in Oakland in 2015
Ruth at the climate action march in Oakland in 2015. I turned around and snapped her picture.

“A major influence in my life was my many years in the Communist movement,” said Ruth Maguire in a letter to friends and family on the occasion of her 90th birthday earlier this year. “I feel that becoming 90 is kind of a moment of reckoning.”

As a Boomer who has cultivated a romantic attachment to old commies, I was delighted to meet Ruth at a May Day celebration of Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans. Her ex-husband of many years ago, Bill Bailey, had been an ALB vet. Then I got to know Ruth while recording her oral history. Her parents had emigrated from a shtetl in a small town in Poland a century ago. She grew up in Los Angeles and lived most of her life in the San Francisco Bay Area, raising three children.

Ruth joined the Young Pioneers, the Communist Party youth group, as a kid. “In the 30s and 40s, it was not outlandish to be a Communist. It was a legal political party; it ran candidates; it had a vision of a better life for struggling people everywhere,” she wrote. She left the party in the 1950s, but she never changed her core beliefs. She appeared in the 1983 documentary film Seeing Red.

The Communist Party taught people how to organize. Ruth and a couple of other single mothers started a pre-feminist organization, Mothers Alone Working, in the early 1960s. Their demands for childcare and programs to aid working mothers were echoed a decade later by my generation of feminists.

Ruth was most proud of her work helping to open and manage the first integrated housing development in San Francisco, built with the sponsorship of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Until the end of her life, Ruth continued working for justice and against war and racism. She was right behind me in the Climate Action March in Oakland last year when I turned around and snapped her photo.

She wrote: “I didn’t do anything great in this life. I wasn’t an inspiring teacher, I didn’t cure cancer, I didn’t write a great book or compose beautiful music, I sure didn’t end our wars. But I did participate in the issues and struggles of my time. That gave my life purpose and meaning.”

Ruth Maguire died in December from metastatic breast cancer.

Advertisements

What I Know About Stereotyping

The culture of the construction site was manmade. No women had been involved in its creation and so we had to negotiate the best we could. I said to myself I had a father and three brothers, I should be able to fit in. I’d been a tomboy as a kid and thought I knew how to hang with males of the species. Every new job, each with a new group of guys, held new challenges.SFconst2

I quickly learned that my coworkers thought women were incapable of doing the physically challenging work of construction. They brought to work a stereotype of women as whiny, useless, money-grubbing weaklings who needed a man to give them worth in the world. (Most of these guys were divorced and still angry at ex-wives). They repeated to me an old saying: If this work was easy, women and children could do it. Something told me that when they repeated it to each other, the word they used was not women.

“Cunt,” whispered the ironworker tying rebar next to me as I tied pipe to it. Then he quickly moved on. After I got over the shock, here’s what I thought: “Ironworkers are a bunch of cowardly sexist dickheads.”

My coworkers told me women weren’t good partners on the job because we couldn’t be trusted to hold up our end of a 300 pound piece of floor duct. We were all afraid of heights, we didn’t know how to swing a hammer and hit anything. We were just there to get a man. Our presence on the job would cost the contractor money since it took us twice as long to complete a task. When criticized we would cry, so they had to be careful what they said to us. (Too bad that didn’t translate to not insulting us.) Their worth was predicated on our worthlessness, our lack of merit. You are only as tall as the person you are stepping on.SFconst

I went to work each day with the objective of overturning the old stereotype. I was usually the only female on the job, and very conscious that I would embody a new improved stereotype. I worked hard, but was careful not to work so hard that I’d be accused of breaking down conditions and brown-nosing the employer. I tried to work just as fast as they did, but not faster. I picked up my end of the floor duct and used lifting skills to save my back, while thinking to myself that nobody should have to lift 300 pounds of anything. I was not afraid of heights, but if I had been, I never would have admitted it. I never cried, even when I felt like it.

A worker was welcomed into the construction culture in a backhanded manner. You didn’t know whether you were being dissed or included. Race and ethnicity as well as gender were called out with jokes and put-downs. How one responded was noted. You were supposed to go along to get along.

The men could be empathetic while at the same time expressing homophobia, sexism and racism. I tried to come out as a lesbian whenever the opportunity arose because I was convinced this honesty made the job easier for me. On one job I worked with a traveler* from Arizona. We were assigned to tape connectors and boxes in the trailer while we waited for the deck to be readied for the electrical crew, so we had time to chat. He told me his wife worked as a nurse in a hospital in Oakland and the place was overrun with faggots. She was disgusted. Here was my opportunity! I admitted to being a dyke and probably noted that fags were a lot more fun to work with than his sorry ass. At that he did an about-face. He needed to make a confession too. He acknowledged that he was an alcoholic, that he was in recovery and that he was letting me in on the secret. That made us even, and we were friends from then on.hospital

Ethnic slurs were thrown at people with what seemed like a try at love. Wetback, Chink, Dago were used inclusively, like welcome to our club, this is your identity. If I didn’t object in the beginning, my nickname would be Girl. I objected, but not to every slight. You had to pick your battles. I let them know I wasn’t keen on sexist or racist remarks. No one ever said the N word in racially-mixed company, maybe because they didn’t want to risk getting the shit beat out of them. The exception was travelers who came from sister union locals in the South, but they only used the word when conversing with whites. Talking about football, one remarked, “I never understood why anyone would want to watch a bunch of niggers running around a field.” The Northern white guys on the crew were silent after that. Maybe they were seriously considering that football was no longer a white game. Or maybe they were silent on my account and would have agreed with the cracker if I hadn’t been there. I hope it was because they were so appalled they were speechless.

The Southern travelers were a different breed—bigots who bragged about killing cops and evading taxes. All white. The story was told about one guy that he kept a length of 000 wire under the seat of his truck and had once used it on a cop’s head. One day he drug up** and asked for his check. He was on the run, they said. White trash and dangerous.

That’s the way it was, and few of us minorities were exempt. On one job I had a Jewish foreman. I knew he was Jewish when others on the job started making gas chamber and oven jokes. Jewish men—at least out Jewish men—were rare on the construction site, although I knew many Jewish women who worked in construction. This guy had been a carpenter and later got into the electrician apprenticeship. He was a skilled mechanic and a competent foreman with an upbeat attitude. He let the jokes slide off.

The job was an interior remodel of the Hyatt Regency hotel in San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center. Cozy and insulated, we worked on an upper floor of the high-rise, piping in the ceiling, running up and down ladders. The construction crew would assemble in the basement in the mornings and ride the service elevator up to our floor together. The hotel pastry chef, a stern Austrian, came to work at the same time and rode the elevator with us. He never spoke to us, we figured, because he thought himself better than a bunch of construction workers. An unflattering stereotype of Austrians immediately took root in my mind. Austrians equal Nazis. Our crew began to refer to him as Herr Pastry. My foreman always spoke to him. Good morning or how are you this morning. The pastry chef may have nodded but he never spoke or smiled. It became a game. The Jew would force the Nazi to acknowledge us lower class plebes (the irony was that we union workers probably made way more money than he did).

Our IBEW contract gave us a half-hour lunch break 12 to 12:30 and one ten-minute coffee break, which we took at 10 am. I usually brought a bagel with cream cheese for break. I’d be starving by 10 even after eating a huge breakfast at 7. On jobs where the ten minutes was taken literally, I found I barely had time to down the bagel, which required some chewing, and to wash it down with my thermos of tea. This job was a bit looser. Coffee break might last 15 minutes.

“It’s too short,” I whined to no one in particular while standing on a ladder with my head in the ceiling. The piece of EMT*** I’d just cut didn’t fit and I’d have to start over. “What a thing to tell a man!” came back to me from the Irish carpenter foreman whose head was the only one I could see up there. That made me smile. Irish guys—full of blarney.

“Break time,” someone yelled, and I looked down to see coffee being served in a fancy silver service with a huge plate of pastries beside it. The gift had come from the pastry chef, and for the rest of that job we had complimentary coffee and pastries at 10 am, thanks to the persistent civility of our foreman. My stereotype of Austrians crumbled. I’m still waiting for help with my prejudice against ironworkers and white Southern men.

*Travelers follow the work around the country when work at home is slow.

**To drag up is to quit the job.

***Electrical Metallic Tubing, a kind of pipe used in the electrical industry.

 

Sexist Language is a Bitch

As a young reader I took umbrage at authors who insisted on referring to mankind and men when discussing all humans including women. It didn’t help when librarians and teachers patiently explained to me that the words mankind and men were meant to include women. I didn’t believe it and I just stopped reading those writers. But I was still angry at the dominant paradigm. You couldn’t escape it.

When I found feminism, I found sisters who agreed with me. Women were being left out of history and the present by the use of sexist language. Several feminists developed genderless languages and pronoun replacements, which unfortunately never caught on. Today transgender activists seem to agree on replacing “she” and “he” with “they,” but I find it cumbersome and difficult to adopt.

Gender specific job titles have always rankled women who work in or aspire to work in male dominated jobs. If a job title ends in man like lineman, mailman, policeman, craftsman, draughtsman, we get the point that women do not belong and are not welcome in these jobs. Girls and young women understand that they should seek careers elsewhere.

Sisters in the Brotherhood

workersAhead
So much more inclusive than MEN WORKING

I was just lucky that electrician, my own trade, is already gender neutral. Visiting Mexico, I was delighted to learn that electrician in Spanish is electricista. We haven’t had to fight battles about carpenter, plumber, ironworker or sheet metal worker. Unfortunately, however, all these unions are brotherhoods by title and all except the painters, bricklayers and the longshore workers have refused to consider changing to a neutral term. Instead of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, how about International Union of Electrical Workers? Over the years sister electricians have floated the idea of getting the International to change its title to a more inclusive one, but the men in power refuse to entertain the idea. My one defiant act was to write my dues checks to the “International Sisterhood of Electrical Workers.” No one ever said anything and the checks were always cashed. I guess the bank doesn’t care what term we use.

The one union to do battle with its membership about the brotherhood issue was the Teamsters, 30 percent of whose 1.4 million members are women. A proposal to change brotherhood to a more inclusive term was put forward by the progressive president Ron Carey at an international meeting in 1996. Members were consulted about the idea and debated the issue for months in union publications, but Carey’s rival, James P. Hoffa opposed the change. He famously said, “It’s gender neutral. The definition of brotherhood is that it’s neutral.” Supporters of inclusion lost the vote, Hoffa took over as president, and the Teamsters remain a brotherhood.

Taking an Ax to Fireman

Feminists have spent many years trying to retrain reporters and speakers to use the term firefighter instead of fireman. Mostly we have been successful, but it takes letters to writers in all genres to make a change. The New Yorker magazine is one recalcitrant actor. I think those New Yorkers must look at their own backward fire department and think, “Why should I use a gender neutral term? There are no women.” And this is almost true. But their response should be embarrassment at their city’s failure to integrate its fire department.

3540934-portrait-of-female-firefighter-holding-axe
Firefighting gear renders gender unrecognizable

I’ve written many letters to my daily newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, about this issue over the years. One of the most grievous examples was a column by Rob Morse, a writer with liberal politics whom I read regularly while he was published. After a big fire destroyed one of the buildings at the old Ghirardelli chocolate factory, Morse thanked the brave “firemen” who extinguished the blaze. Ironically, the photo of one of the working firefighters that appeared on the front page of the Chronicle was a picture of a female. You just couldn’t tell the gender because of all the protective gear she wore. My outraged letter to the editor was published but only with poor edits which made me look stupid. Still, it brought the issue to the editors’ attention. The Chronicle eventually changed its style to firefighter.

One example of the prevalence of this misuse of the word in the culture is in the comics. I’m a regular reader of the comic Luann, whose central character is a teenage girl (kudos!). I was heartened when the artist, Greg Evans, introduced a female character who becomes a firefighter and eventually dates Luann’s older brother. In the comic she also must contend with an abusive boyfriend, an issue that doesn’t often make it into the comics. Still, the artist continued to use the term fireman even when referring to that character. In my letter I praised the artist for creating this female character and tried to explain how using a gender-neutral descriptor would make her an even better role model for girls who read the comic. Presumably mine was not the only complaint. The comic eventually changed the term.

The firefighter argument is closest to my heart. Feminist activists in San Francisco battled for 16 years with the SFFD before women were allowed to work as firefighters. Then for 12 years I was partnered with a female firefighter who eventually became the SF fire marshal. I don’t always fault women in the gunsights for not fighting this battle. Working in a male-dominated culture you have to pick your battles and descriptive terms may not be the most important issue. That’s why it is imperative that feminist activists outside these workplaces pile on to push for change. When I worked in the SF Department of Building Inspection I had a cordial relationship with the fire inspectors I worked with (that’s where I met my now ex-partner). I didn’t hesitate to correct their language. When they didn’t change, I would greet them in the elevator, “How are the firewomen today?” That got their attention.

During my stint as the “fire marshal’s wife,” I saw these guys at parties and social events. Just like in the building trades, they had no second thoughts about insulting me or women in general, right to my face. When you first hear “Women can’t do the job, women shouldn’t be in the fire department,” etc., you are shocked, but the fortunate thing about continually being subjected to insults (as with sexual harassment) is that it gives you practice in responding. I was never great at quick retorts, but I got better with lots of practice.

My ex-partner said: “Every time I read the word fireman, it’s like a punch in the stomach.  It reminds me of when my brother (four years older, bigger, and stronger) would punch me, then hold me at arm’s length by putting his palm on my forehead and I’d be swinging away at him, never able to land a punch back.”

Fishing for Fishers

Lately I’ve been addressing writers about the term fisherman. Fisher is such an obvious and easy choice and I can’t understand why speakers and writers are so resistant to change. It’s not just men. Women are just as argumentative. Except there’s not a very good argument. “We’ve always done it that way,” the typical response, just doesn’t cut it.

FisherTina
My fisher friend Tina Moreda on her boat at Bodega Bay Harbor

The last few times I’ve written to the Chronicle’s writers about the term fisherman (I love that the writer’s email address is listed at the end of the article), one didn’t reply, one wrote back to say simply “thank you,” and one wrote that she had thought of fisherman as a gender-neutral term.

Perhaps the reason this choice of words is ignored is that the fishing industry has been floundering and dying now for decades. Few choose to be fishers anymore, but I personally know women who integrated this industry in the 1970s and women who continue to make a living fishing. It’s still an important industry on the California coast, so the Chronicle runs fishing stories often. In recent stories, writers have used both the terms fisher and fisherman. I think my letters must have made an impact. They seem to be breaking their readers in slowly.

One wonders what they would think if all reporters were referred to as “newsmen.” Oh, wait. They were. And not that long ago.

News flash: From a story in The Guardian about the discovery of four new elements in the periodic table: “This article was amended on 4 January 2016. The reference to the new elements being “manmade” was changed to “synthetic” to follow Guardian style guidance on the use of gender-neutral terms.”