My first close-up encounter with drag queens took place in a Tenderloin bar when I worked as an electrician for Wonder Woman Electric in the late 1970s.
An all-female collective of electricians, we did mostly residential work. But our regular commercial accounts included some of the multitude of San Francisco gay bars. Each of the bars catered to a particular subculture in the larger gay community. Lesbians had a few bars and coffee houses. But bars for gay men proliferated. There were bars geared toward disco queens, the leather crowd, the sweater gays, uniform wearers, beach bunnies, cross dressers, fairies, bathing beauties–really more than I could even imagine.
One day in the middle of the week I was called to a hole-in-the-wall bar in the Tenderloin. When I finally found a place to park the Wonder Woman van, it was blocks away and I had to lug heavy tool bags through streets lined with junkies and drunks. This was the bad part of town.
I found the address on Turk Street, a nondescript brick front building. The door was locked, but I saw a discreet push-button near it. I pushed it and after a moment a beautiful young man, far more femme than I, greeted me. He wore matching coral pedal pushers, cardigan and mules with little heels. He did not look pleased to see me.
“I’m the electrician,” I said hopefully. “Ok,” he said, looking me over. Then his perfectly lipsticked mouth curled into a little smile. “Come with me. We’ve been waiting for you.”
A small town girl who’d only lived in San Francisco for a year or so, I had just barely come out as a lesbian and had little experience with drag queens, transsexuals or transvestites, especially not the big city kind.
Stepping from the gray Tenderloin street into that little bar was like entering the Harry Potter toy store at Christmas. Lights and colored decorations hung from the low ceiling. Glitter littered the grungy floor.
I was surprised to see a good number of patrons at the bar in the early part of the day. Some sat at the bar, some at tables, but all looked fabulous. Most were men dressed in women’s clothing. Some dressed as over-the-top made-up drag queens, but most looked more like the gals from the office across the street, dressed in low heels and conservative skirts and blouses. I thought I overheard one of them say “fish” which was pretty funny considering I was the butchest thing in the room, wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and work boots.
The bartender looked like a tough sailor just off the boat who’d thrown on a shoulder-length blonde wig and serious makeup—several shades of eye shadow and bright red lips outlined beyond their natural borders. He worked the bar in a tasteful tailored Donna Reed housedress, popped collar and pearls, and ran the joint with cutting sarcasm. I felt like I was encountering the Wizard of Oz and had to keep myself from jumping back like Dorothy did when she and her three cohorts first encountered him. A person could not help being intimidated.
“Here’s what we need,” he directed me. “I don’t want the patrons to use the bathroom without my permission. They get in there, lock the door and stay. And, honey, we all know what they do in there.” I could only speculate. Drugs? Sex? Probably both. Lesbians had been known to use the bathrooms in our bars for such purposes. Where else could a couple go? And if they were quick about it and others didn’t have to wait too long, we were usually forgiving.
The bartender continued, “I want to be able to push a button right here under the bar to unlock the bathroom door when someone wants to use it. Can you set that up?”
This drag queen was also a Control Queen! I looked around the room at the disapproving patrons. I was going to be responsible for limiting their bathroom privileges. I was already the villain and I hadn’t even done anything yet. But I was certainly capable of installing a push button and door lock. It would be all low voltage, so I’d just have to put in a transformer and run low voltage cable. I wouldn’t need to run pipe or install junction boxes. “I can do that,” I said.
I got to work, planning the job. Could I run the low voltage cable under the floor? Yes, said the bartender. There was a full basement. The beautiful young man ushered me down to the basement, a dank, spiderwebby space with a hundred years of grime on every surface. I had to figure out where to drill through the floor to run wires from the bar to the door lock. The job took me up and down the stairs and back to the van to retrieve materials. I focused on my work and I was relieved that the patrons went back to drinking and dishing.
Finally the job was finished. I emerged from the basement coated in its crud, looking more than ever like a construction worker.
“Let’s test it,” I said. I gave a nod to the bartender who pushed the button. The door buzzed open and, with a flourish, a patron entered the bathroom. It worked! Like electricians everywhere, I always got a thrill when I flipped the switch and my masterpiece (no matter how small) performed as intended. But I didn’t usually have an audience.
These patrons understood drama far better than I. The dramatic moment of the day was all mine. It was as if I were making my big entrance, walking down the runway, head held high. They had all been watching closely and when the door opened, they let out a big cheer. I bowed to the applause. The dyke and the drag queens. One big happy family.
Look up in this city of highrises and you will see cranes. There’s lots of construction going on and presumably lots of jobs for construction workers. As in the States, I’m always on the lookout for women, and I found quite a few here. Most of the women I saw were flaggers, just like at home. But I did run into a cement mason on the street, so I’m confident there are many more women inside the buildings working in different trades.
Her job is Terminal Attendant at BC Ferries. She’s a single mom who likes her job. Benefits are good.
That’s a female laborer beyond the sign.
Ironworkers laying rod
On our way to the west coast of Vancouver Island, we saw women working at non-traditional jobs on the BC Ferries, a public/private partnership. High voltage line workers were upgrading poles and lines along Highway 4 on the island, and I wondered if any of them were electrician sisters.
One of many big buildings going up in Vancouver
The crane is on the site of a new casino being built in Vancouver
Downtown Vancouver is full of big cranes. Lots of new construction.
Just from my little anecdotal evidence, I think Canada is surpassing the US in breaking down barriers to women in construction. The signs are better here, too. Most are in a universal sign language that doesn’t require words. We saw not a single sign that said MEN WORKING.
Flagger on Hwy 4
Many flaggers are women
Workers were replacing high voltage lines along Highway 4 on Vancouver Island. I didn’t see women but it was hard to tell. Made me think of my Canadian high voltage electrician sisters.
The feminist revolution in Yakima, Washington was not televised but I can testify that we were just as angry and militant as the sisters in New York who got all the press.
In the summer of 1970 I got a job as a reporter at the Yakima Herald-Republic, returning to my hometown to raise money to finance my senior year at college. I’d joined the feminist movement and I’d brought along my mom, Flo. She was already feminist material, a prolific writer of letters to the editor–an activist at heart. A look at my first monthly pay check–$409–radicalized her further. She’d been making a quarter of that all her life as the kind of secretary who actually runs the business while being paid as a typist.
At that time, newspaper reporter was a non-traditional job for women. It was ok for women to write for the women’s section and the food section and to work as secretaries, but reporter was a man’s job. The reporters at the YH-R had been organized into the Newspaper Guild and this was my first union job. I was elated, although I knew the Guild to be a weak union. I felt strongly that the secretaries and office workers ought to have a union too so I started talking up the idea of organizing. That got shut down fast! The office workers made it clear that they felt joining a union would be treasonous. They identified with the owners of the paper, at that time the descendants of its founding family. So, at the outset, this radical feminist succeeded in making enemies of the women workers. But they had been predisposed to dislike me from the beginning, especially one territorial secretary who saw me as a threat and whose put-downs had me hiding in the bathroom crying—the only time in my working career.
In the newsroom, the editor predictably assigned me to the women’s page, where readers turned to discover which of Yakima’s maidens were getting married that week. My job was to type up the wedding descriptions, which involved all of the fussy details like the cut of the bride’s dress and color of the bridesmaids’ frocks. In journalism school and as a student newspaper editor, I’d learned well the craft of editing. In my world, these unimportant details didn’t belong in any story. My wedding paragraphs got shorter and shorter until–busted! Brides’ mothers had begun calling my editor demanding to know why all the important details were missing. It turned out some people thought, and I venture to guess still think, that the color of the bride’s mother’s dress is big news. So my editor returned to writing up weddings and I went on to the news desk.
I did want to write about women, just not weddings. The features editor threw a few human-interest stories my way: a legally blind woman who’d become a pilot, a man who tatted, a dog that could ride on the back of a bike. I pitched a story to the news editor about where women in the Yakima Valley worked. Agriculture, mostly fruit orchards, was still the economic base of the region. My own grandmother had worked the line at a fruit processor and I’d picked apples in high school. I was truly interested in the demographics, but also wanted to investigate where we were not allowed to work. The editor thought it was a pretty good idea, but later reproached me, saying he had not known I was a feminist. How could I possibly write about this subject objectively, he wanted to know? Word sure got around fast.
When I pitched a story about the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, they bit. Maybe I could find some real suffragists who’d been part of the struggle to win the vote! Washington women got the vote in 1910, the fifth state to give women the vote, ten years before the 19th amendment became law, so I figured there must have been a suffrage movement. My mother, who’d grown up in Yakima, wasn’t born until 1913. She didn’t know any suffragists, but I got a few leads and started searching nursing homes. I did find women to interview, but they had been mostly too busy raising kids and running farms to pay attention to politics, they said. This I dutifully reported in a feature article. If there had been militant suffragists in the early 1900s in Yakima, I failed to find them.
Yakima is a conservative place, infamous as the hometown of liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When FDR appointed Douglas to the Court, the Yakima paper disowned him. “Not From Here” said the headline. Douglas had been born in Minnesota and raised in Yakima. Ironically, Douglas was nominated to the Court as a representative of the West. But he couldn’t wait to get away from Yakima to seek his fortune. He wrote a book titled Go East Young Man.
Though I was undeniably a Yakima native, like Douglas I couldn’t wait to get away from my hometown. But the prospect of living with my parents, working as a reporter and making trouble just for the summer seemed like fun. A small group of us formed Yakima’s first National Organization for Women chapter, meeting at the home of a woman even older than my mom to document the inequality we experienced. We listed low pay, poor access to jobs and humiliating dress requirements, like having to wear hot pants to work as a waitress. There were restaurants and bars reserved for men only; and all those cultural expectations that we would serve our husbands, bear children and become homemakers. Also, everything we read placed the women’s movement in New York City. We chafed at that version and wanted to show that sisterhood was powerful in little towns in the West too.
In the back seat of a VW bug on the way to the first meeting, the young woman sharing the seat with me whispered that her female lover had left her. Distraught, closeted, and with no community, she was looking for a friend to talk to. She saw in me something I had yet to see: I was a sister dyke. Later, I regretted that my own life experience was too sparse to understand or even to sympathize. I had yet to love and lose. I had yet to come out, even to myself.
While not well schooled in romance, by this time I was an experienced organizer, having planned and executed anti-war and women’s liberation protests at college. I’d learned how to run a campaign, how to get media attention. I’d written and performed in guerrilla theater plays and given speeches, painted protest signs and silk-screened armbands. I’d participated in consciousness-raising and I was ready to act to change my world.
We aimed our first action at a restaurant where businessmen lunched that barred women. We had read about McSorley’s bar in Manhattan, which had denied women entry for 116 years until it was forced to admit us that very summer. A journalist, Lucy Komisar, the first to test the judge’s order, was dowsed in beer by jeering men. Our plan was to just walk in, sit down and demand service. We doubted beer dousing would follow, but who really knew what the reaction would be.
Resisting authority always made me nervous but also thrilled me. Just that spring we students had staged a giant strike and shut down Washington State University over racism. Flo had joined me at student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. My mother had saved me from threatened expulsion for moving off campus by making my case in a letter to the university president. Women’s protests had led to the college aborting in loco parentis rules requiring us to wear dresses and to observe curfew. Old sexist ways were crumbling in our wake, making us feel the power of sisterhood. We were on a roll.
We had cased the restaurant and, as planned, six of us marched in and took a table right under the sign that read “MEN ONLY.” Flustered waiters ran to the manager for advice and we were asked to leave. Would they call the police to arrest us, we wondered. We weren’t doing anything illegal were we? We refused to leave but we did take up a table during the lunch hour while we were refused service. As it turned out, men didn’t give up their privileges easily, but no dousing followed our restaurant protest and after some resistance we helped the restaurant to see the light. We won! I don’t remember the names, or how many visits it took, but I do remember the determination, the camaraderie and the elation we felt when the restaurant gave up its policy and served us all lunch.
That summer our other protests involved wearing pants to work (handy tip: start with culottes) and pasting stickers that said “This Insults Women” on public signs and ads we deemed sexist (the ubiquity of these messages is hard for us to remember and for the young to imagine now).
Our NOW group chose as its summer coup de gras a rally to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote on August 26, 1970. One day, at my desk at the newspaper, I got a call from the New York Times. They were doing a story about how feminist groups across the country were celebrating Women’s Equality Day. Elated, I eagerly catalogued our victories and detailed our plans for the rally.
In preparation for our celebration, the artist in our group made signs that we posted about town, others secured a sound system and a soapbox. We planned to rally in Franklin Park, near the city center. We arrived dressed in 1920s garb, imagining throngs of women all excited to speak out about their oppression publicly, but the hoped-for crowd didn’t materialize as it had on the college campus. We gave a few short speeches, and then made the microphone available for other women to speak. No one stepped onto the soapbox except young boys experimenting with guttural sounds. Among the lessons we learned: maintain control of your mic and know your audience.
I couldn’t wait to see how my phone interview with the New York Times had come out. I rushed to the library to check out the paper and found the story–not in the women’s section. Our rally may not have been televised, but our little group of Yakima activists made the Times!
Ruth Maguire is my hero, a lifelong activist and an inspiration to us all. Along with historian Gail Sansbury, I recorded Ruth’s oral history and was delighted to learn about her interesting life. This letter, written by Ruth to her friends and family on the occasion of her 90th birthday, contains valuable lessons for future generations of activists.
I feel that becoming 90 is kind of a moment of reckoning.
In thinking about what helped shaped me, I realized that I learned a lot from my parents. That won’t surprise most of you, but it did surprise me. I’ve never credited them with having much to do with who I am, but these many years later I recognize how foolish that is. They emigrated from a shtetl in a small town in Poland in 1912 or 13. They faced misery here–very poor, with a two-year-old frequently ill, no ability to communicate in English–a terrible frightening struggle. They were about to give up and return to Poland when WWI broke out. They couldn’t return and that saved our family from the Holocaust, which erased the family they’d left behind. Their languages were Yiddish and Polish. By the time I was born in 1925, they spoke accented English and were somewhat more at peace in America. Their marriage, though it lasted 60 years, was not made in heaven, and it was not a happy or communicative home.
I was loved and I loved them, but I couldn’t wait to leave home and did so the minute I graduated high school. (It was WWII time–my friend, Pearl, and I moved into an apartment together; we worked the midnight shift building airplanes and went to UCLA in the morning). My father was a garment worker and worked in a factory all his life; he was also a proud member and active in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. My folks were hard-working people, no formal education and, therefore, very focused on our getting educated. They were very honest people, had enormous integrity; they were Socialists, not organizationally, but certainly in believing that capitalism was an exploitive, degrading system and workers had to organize to fight for humane working conditions. Of course, they were influential in shaping my and my brothers’ view of the world, although, amazingly, I’ve given them little credit until now. Perhaps because my father was difficult and tyrannical, and my mother was victimized by his patriarchal values and behavior, which narrowed her world, but without real consciousness, I chafed against our home scene from early childhood. My memories seemed to focus on that household atmosphere rather than recognizing the other values my father, in particular, instilled–that of having a personal responsibility to the world, especially to working people who deserve better than a life of drudgery and little joy.
So thank you, Mama and Papa–I know you too did the best you could with what your backgrounds and experiences enabled you to understand. I’m ashamed of how little I consciously sympathized with or understood, until grown, of their struggle to survive, their struggle to understand this new land, to acquire some English, to create a life of purpose, to become part of a community of friends. I come from good people–not easy folks–but I’ve much to value in my beginnings.
Another major influence was my many years in the Communist movement. 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. Its members were disciplined, committed, hard-working, fiercely devoted to helping organize the trade unions which opened the doors to a decent life for workers still working 60 and 70-hour weeks in the early 1900s; whose children, 8 and 10 years of age, worked in mines and mills. In the 30s the trade unions fought for the social benefits that came to us over the next number of years: public education, a 40-hour work week, Unemployment Insurance, Social Security and, perhaps most important, dignity and respect for their labor.
The Communists were the most committed, most selfless participants in the bitter struggles of those years. I was a very little girl in the 30s, so I don’t get credit for leading those struggles, but it was part of my world, and I was a Young Pioneer when I was 9 or 10. The Communist Party had a ladder to entry–a young group called the Young Pioneers from which you graduated to the Young Communist League, and from there to the Party. (Obviously, you didn’t have to go through all the stages). I remember nothing of how I joined the Pioneers (my father probably signed me up). I remember no one who was in it with me; I remember nothing of what we did. I know we proudly wore red bandanas and red armbands and we sang a song, which, unbelievably, I still remember, every word. A rather apolitical, rah-rah song, but if you’re part of a marching group, and wearing a red bandana, I guess you feel you’re making a better world even when you’re 10 years old and singing a dopey song.
Very important, I think, was that, beyond organizing and activism, the Communist Party was a school for its members. Every meeting began with an “educational”–that is, a discussion of an important current event, often followed by discussion of an assigned reading of a more analytical or theoretical turn. Forevermore, this led to awareness and consistent involvement in concerns beyond the confines of our personal insular lives. “It’s a habit,” I’ve often said to people who wonder at my ongoing activism at my advanced age. In any case, even if our constant discourse often veered towards convincing us of the “rightness” of decisions already made by “leaders”–still, to be aware of peoples’ needs and to care about them were not minor expectations to absorb. And the comradeship we shared was a cherished value in itself.
One more thing about life in the Party: bigotry against any group, especially African-Americans (always the most oppressed), was unforgivable and never excused. Criticism, even expulsion, was certain if evidence of discriminatory behavior or language surfaced. I’m glad my learning curve on racism–its bitter cruelty, its ugliness, its destructiveness–started so early in my life.
I left the Party in the 50s after the Khrushchev speech. He became leader of the CP of the Soviet Union and leader of the country following Stalin’s death. I left because we learned that what we had never believed was true–that millions were killed in the struggle for absolute state power. Millions of peasants were killed or starved who resisted collectivization of their farms; there was indeed a gulag where millions more died; and Stalin murdered almost the entire leadership who made the revolution. The orgy of death was an agony to learn about. The Soviet Union turned out not to be the model of the Socialist world we envisioned. Hundreds of us left after months of effort to reshape our own Party into a more democratic organization failed. And we saw the motes in the eyes of our own leadership, many of whom were didactic, authoritarian, controlling.
Leaving the Party was painful. The attacks upon it, which came with the flourishing Cold War which emerged so quickly after WWII, made us feel disloyal for severing ties when it was under fire. Moreover, there was comfort in having clear answers about how history evolves, having a clear vision of how society should be organized, believing that a disciplined, structured organization is required to make change happen–and, like True Believers everywhere, we had all the answers as to how to build a better world. Uncertainty takes getting used to.
But this is what I learned through that experience: Nothing changed in my core beliefs–I continue to know that war is never the road to peace, that Robin Hood was right–we must take from the rich and give to the poor, that bigotry and discrimination against any group is abominable and hurts us all. My certainty about the necessity to end war, injustice, inequality never wavers. What is no longer certain is the exact shape of that final good society we want, or the clear path to get there.
But what I’ve decided (at least I think so–doubt and questioning are my friends now) is that you organize and join with people around issues as they emerge. There are no final solutions, and battles are never finally won. Every problem solved uncovers another problem around which to struggle. Changes occur–progress is made–but there is always more to be done. And unexpected consequences happen and varied paths emerge and they lead to different possibilities. Today, we have to fight some of the old struggles over again. Did we think we’d have to fight again for the right to organize? For a living wage? For public education? To maintain social security? And there are the next level of struggles on the back of previous struggles: assuring that black lives matter, that mass incarceration ends, that voting rights are sacred, that science is respected, that corporations and the very wealthy not have the legal right (Citizens United) to buy our government and write its laws. And, now, right now, the incredible struggle–only recently on my radar screen–to control climate change and save our earth. I’ll march in demonstrations as long as my legs move forward, but this battle belongs to the young–it’s their lives, their world, and they are stepping up on campuses and on the streets to win this fight for all of us.
Also important to who I am is that I’ve always been an atheist. I presume I have my parents to thank for this too, and I do thank them. My faith is in the power of people working together to create a humane world. The responsibility lies with us, not in sending prayers somewhere. I don’t believe our current mythologies have more validity than did Zeus and all the gods and goddesses who cavorted in the clouds and muddled in human lives in previous ages. It is difficult for me to believe that a God is all-knowing and merciful when I look at the miseries and horrors of wars, hunger, refugees, deaths–and the devastation of earthquakes, floods, fire. Witness the ravages, hatreds, and murders by fundamentalists of all faiths, each of whom knows God is on their side.
That said, I’ve enormous respect for those whose faith activates them on behalf of people. I know that the Black Church was the backbone of the Civil Rights movement, and people of many faiths gave their commitment and strength to that cause–and to all good causes. I’m delighted that Pope Francis is speaking loudly and forcibly on two crucial issues of our time: man-made climate change and wealth disparity. His voice is powerful and he attributes these terrible calamities to the greed, drive for profit, and inhumanity fostered by a corrupt economic system. So does the Dalai Lama. I’m glad they’re on our side. Not on every issue, but on these crucial ones.
There’s an old Wobbly song whose chorus goes: “Oh, you ain’t done nothing if you ain’t been called a Red,” and that remains true today. Whatever decent effort Obama has made on behalf of health care, to lessen debt for students, to raise the minimum wage, etc. brings screeches of he’s a Socialist. The same attacks are made on Pope Francis. Any effort to improve the lives of the 90%–0.1% have more wealth than the bottom 90% in our country — brings cries that our sacred free enterprise system is being undermined. So, in the words of another labor song: “Don’t let red-baiting break you up.” I’ve also learned a lot from years of working in various programs to expand opportunities for the poor, minority peoples, and young people. I learned from all I worked for and worked with. I thought each program would change institutions, the city, the country, the world. They didn’t, but they did change the lives of many of those who participated in them. I have to be satisfied with that.
So, This I Believe (in no particular order):
*Ends and means are inextricably connected. No good end will ever be reached by violent, dishonest, ugly means.
*Doubt is important as an aid to thought.
*Globalization demands a globalized trade union movement so that workers are not pitted against one another and conditions can improve for workers everywhere. (I’m troubled with a goal of saving our jobs if it means workers starve elsewhere. “Workers of the World Unite” is still a great slogan).
*Power to make change lies with human beings, not with gods. (As Alexander Hamilton said to Benjamin Franklin when Franklin suggested starting meetings with a prayer: “We don’t need foreign aid”).
*Outrage — never acceptance–is the proper response when our social, political, economic, human rights are stolen or undermined.
*The glory is in the struggle–there is never a perfect victory or a perfect society–there is always more to be done.
*War must become a taboo–an evil that elicits horror, disgust, shame, and a choice impossible to imagine by individuals or nations.
*We are each other’s keeper–we are responsible for participating in collective efforts to make all lives better.
*Be passionate about whatever it is that is deeply meaningful to you.
*My immortality lies in the memories of those I’ve loved and who love me. (So I’ll probably last another generation). We’ve only this life–make it worthwhile and beautiful.
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. I’m grateful to and dearly love my family and friends. I’ve learned that if you do engage, have a passion for whatever might be your thing, you’ll spend time with some of the best people in the world.
Ruth Maguire’s oral history can be found at the San Francisco Labor Archives & Research Center.
As a child I had a spectacular memory. I routinely memorized all the books read to me. At two, I could recite The Night Before Christmas, which my parents urged me to do for adults’ entertainment. I just liked memorizing things, a concept difficult for me to imagine now, as an older adult who Can’t Remember Shit.
When did I lose my memory? In high school plays my parts were small, but my lines would desert me at critical moments. As a college student and a feminist activist who frequently gave speeches, I began to forget words as I stood onstage talking. I was told the name for that condition: nominal aphasia. Where did it come from? No one knew. When I said to my mother, “I used to be so smart. What happened?” she thought for a moment and then replied, “I just don’t know.” That was not the answer I was hoping for, but at least it was an acknowledgment that something had changed.
It wasn’t just words I was forgetting. I forgot nearly my entire childhood and had to rely on my brother for memories. I frequently forgot things I had pledged to do. I forgot the life stories of my closest friends and I routinely forgot people’s names.
Speaking publicly became increasingly difficult until I stopped speaking extempore and began reading my speeches. Writing has always been frustrating and slow. Just because a word is in my vocabulary does not mean it will come out of my brain. The feeling is like having a word on the tip of my tongue. I can almost see it, just out of reach. I spend much time looking up synonyms when I can’t think of the word I want.
My brain plays tricks on me. Just because I’ve finally remembered something does not mean I won’t lose the memory again in seconds. Certain words continue to elude me. For example, for years I could never remember the word lupine. Finally, it has come back to me. Still, for some reason I feel compelled to learn the names of things and I must memorize the names of trees, flowers and mushrooms again every season, like Sisyphus continually rolling that boulder up the hill.
At some point, maybe in my 30s, I began to think of my poor memory as a disability that I had to live with. I worked at letting go of feeling bad for forgetting. I accepted that I would never get better and I asked friends to adjust (they know never to tell me secrets as I can’t remember whom to keep the secret from). This helped, although there wasn’t a certified category I fell into—still isn’t.
Mine is an invisible disability. Over the years I’ve been able to live with it and live a pretty normal life. I do what people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s do. I fake it. I make lists. I write everything down. I apologize. Now that I’m in my 60s, I don’t feel so alone. Most of my friends are struggling with age-related memory loss, but I think to myself: This is what it’s always been like for me, my entire adult life.
Although I’ve accepted my predicament, I still want to know what happened to me and why. My wife, who worked as a speech pathologist with brain-injured clients, sees the world of human interaction through the lens of cognitive function. It’s a sort of worldview, like socialism or humanism. Her worldview has taught me to look at my own disability as a kind of brain injury. Of my memory loss my wife asks, is it a storage problem or a retrieval problem? This is one of the things she tests for as a speech therapist. She says anomia (or nominal aphasia) is not the same thing as short-term or long-term memory loss. In the case of anomia, I have a retrieval problem. The word is in my vocabulary; I just can’t retrieve it. Long-term or short-term memory loss involves a different part of the brain. So I exhibit two different kinds of memory loss.
How did my brain get injured? Physical injury is a clear possibility. I was a rambunctious child who fell off horses (and was taught always to get right back on). Really, considering how many times I climbed to the tops of things, I was amazingly fall-resistant. But there was one time when the horse I was riding ran me through an orchard and I was swept out of the saddle by a low branch. My riding buddy told me afterward that I was knocked unconscious and had seizures. My lower back was sore from hitting the cantle, but I didn’t notice any effect on my memory at the time. Then there was a minor car accident where I suffered neck lash (not the more serious whiplash, said the doctor).
Loss of childhood memories is often associated with childhood trauma, but I don’t exhibit any other signs of trauma. I think I had a pretty ordinary childhood.
Could pesticides have eaten my brain? I was born into an era when pesticides were seen as a revolutionary antidote to bug infestations. DDT was everywhere in the 1950s and home gardeners sprayed it freely without knowledge of its destructive consequences. In my hometown of Yakima, Washington, the apple capital of the world at that time, most of us worked as apple pickers in the fall. Our schools even closed during the harvest so kids could help their families get the crop in. We lived in the middle of orchards where crop dusters routinely dusted everything around us. Farmers pulled big spray tanks behind tractors that shot a fan of pesticides clear to the top of the trees. We often stood close to the tanks and let the mist blow over us. Every spring, right at the time when farmers would start spraying, our family would harvest asparagus along the ditch banks and where it grew in the uncultivated area around the trees. We loved it and we ate pounds of it.
As kids, we went barefoot everywhere, but we were cautioned not to walk barefoot in the orchards or to swim in creeks and ditches, where farmers routinely dumped the dregs of their spraying (killing aquatic life in the process). When my neighbor Carla’s horse got out of his corral and into her family’s apple orchard, he died from ingesting pesticides sprayed on the orchard. The year was about 1965. What was the chemical? Trying to sort out the historical use of pesticides is making my head hurt. Besides, as Rachel Carson explained in Silent Spring, these chemicals can combine to form new poisonous compounds that we can’t even test for or identify. Research into pesticide-related illnesses among farmworkers and crop duster pilots has shown memory loss to be only one symptom of pesticide exposure.
Not only did I grow up in a pesticide-rich environment, but also Hanford, the nuclear plant that manufactured the plutonium for the first nuclear bomb and for most of the bombs in our nuclear arsenal, was only 50 miles east of our home. There was that little incident in 1949 when I was six months old. It was like the leak at Three Mile Island except it wasn’t an accident. This leak was deliberate, and it was covered up until the 1980s. The plant has been leaking radioactive isotopes and radionuclides into the environment since 1944. Radioactive materials entered the environment through releases in the air, in Columbia River fish and through food grown nearby and milk from cows pastured nearby. Now decommissioned, the plant is still leaking. There is still a huge amount of radioactive material in the soil and plants around the reservation and we are told it’s only a matter of time before the polluted ground water finds its way to the Columbia River. Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S. and cleanup is the longest with no end in sight. In Yakima, we were exposed plenty, but the people directly downwind suffered most. Called downwinders, they organized citizens groups to find out more information after the government was shown in 1986 to have covered up releases. Most of those people died from rare cancers. Memory loss was probably just a mild side effect for downwinders exposed to radioactive materials.
I long ago accepted that I will never know what ate my brain. Maybe after I die some scientist will want to dissect it and I’d be happy to contribute to the advancement of science.
“Jesus Christ, it’s 1979. Why do they need to get married? They’ve been living together for five years. No one in the family disapproves. Why do people feel compelled to have the state sanction their relationships?” Don let me rave. Neither of us could answer these rhetorical questions. He couldn’t have been any less enthusiastic about our brother Tim’s wedding than I was. We knew that neither of us would ever have a family wedding with all the attendant fussing, well-wishing, presents and cultural sanction, not that either of us would want one.
“You don’t suppose there’s any way we can get out of going,” he said in a resigned tone.
I considered this. Our attendance seemed like a small price to pay to avoid the disapprobation that surely would result from our absence. “We can stay in the background. At least we’re not being asked to be bridesmaids.”
I could hear my brother sigh on the other end of the phone. “To be a bridesmaid,” he said, “has always been a great fantasy of mine.”
“I see what you mean. If I could be best man, I could rent a tuxedo. Fuck! What will I wear?” Don was silent, and I knew he wasn’t worrying about what I’d be wearing.
“Don, if you’re thinking about wearing a dress, just forget it right now. This is not the big city or some trendy college community. This is cowboy country. You’ll get the shit kicked out of you.”
When we said goodbye, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d convinced him, and I wondered how my outrageous brother managed to stay alive without me as his constant bodyguard. He insistently challenged assumptions about dress and gender, which was a dangerous thing at a time when the moral majority felt its grasp on the reins of cultural definitions slipping.
The truth was, just by being my natural self, people—both children and adults—were always confronting me about the nature of my gender. They would yell out of windows or from cars as I walked by, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Or I would be mistaken for a gay man. “Faggot!” they would yell, and speed off before I could correct them: “You idiot! I’m a dyke!”
I had learned that knowledge of gender is extremely important to people. They need this information before they know anything else about you. And once they get you pegged, to be surprised makes them inexplicably angry. All their assumptions are suddenly being challenged. It’s like you’ve called into question some intensely personal assumptions about who they are in the world.
I figured the problem wasn’t me, but how people expected women to look and act. To be feminine required performing unnatural acts—shaving one’s body hair, wearing sticky make-up and carefully coiffed hair, being quiet, wearing odd clothes and uncomfortable shoes, walking with short picky strides. I had practiced these ritual gestures at one time, but the feminist movement had released me. I was free and I was never going back now.
Unfortunately, my freedom from convention left me completely unprepared to dress for Tim’s wedding. I had no dress-up clothes. As a matter of principle I’d stopped wearing dresses in 1970. Since then the contents of my closet had been recycled from thrift stores. As a working electrician in those days of butch dykedom, I could just wash my flannel shirts and jeans and wear them to the bar. No one I knew ever got dressed up, and if they attended weddings, they never told me. So what does a nonconforming, revolutionary lesbian wear to a heterosexual wedding?
At the airport I searched the Nordic crowd of Seattleites for Don’s dark head. I never knew what to expect. He’d been a hippie with a thick ponytail and full beard last time I’d seen him, but personas changed from year to year. He was not at the gate and I wandered until I heard my name called from a waiting area.
Then I saw him, relaxing back into one of the lounge chairs like a queen, newly clean-shaven and wearing giant turquoise butterfly earrings, a flowing scarf wrapped around his shoulder-length hair, tied in back. “I thought it was time to relinquish my male privilege,” he smiled.
In the short 150 miles or so between Don’s home at the foot of the Olympic Peninsula to Yakima, the land cracks and dries up like the edges of those Janis Joplin posters you rehang in each new collective house. Snoqualmie Pass takes you from a rich, dripping, evergreen rain forest over the snow-capped Cascades, past ski resorts and the shorn heads of clear-cut hills in to the Kittitas Valley, flat pasture dotted with Black Angus cattle.
Up over the Manashtash Ridge, a new freeway replaced the winding two-lane road along the Yakima River. Beyond irrigation, only sagebrush–ubiquitous in the valley–flourishes. From the west side of the ridge you can see the town of Ellensburg surrounded by the patchwork of pastures, ground crops and brown earth, and above that the sharp white peaks of the Wenatchee Range. As you continue east, your nose dries up and your hair electrifies, the sky turns intense blue and if there are clouds they look like puffs of bleached cotton. Then, just before the Yakima Valley appears below, if you look to the south, you see the round, white tip of Mt. Adams peering over those dusty brown hills, incongruous.
On that March day the chill air cracked and the sagebrush cast bright shadows on patches of snow as Don drove the Subaru down into the valley past big cattle ranches and their animals with thick winter coats, then smaller farms, past apple and pear orchards just starting to bud.
Our mother, Flo, rushed out to meet us as we pulled into the gravel driveway. She was dressed in her usual polyester pantsuit in bright colors. We hugged her thin frame in turn. Then, as she stood back to look at him, she brushed my brother’s hair away from his face. “Don, I wish you would do something with your hair.” (He had diplomatically removed the scarf.)
Don frowned. “Oh, Mom.”
I thought Don’s hair was beautiful—thick and dark and curly. I’d always wished I had inherited that head of hair from our mother. I might be wearing mine in the same long style. Instead, I wore my straight brown hair short, lately in the shag style Jane Fonda popularized in the movie Klute.
“Ok, you guys, come on in,” she said, “I want you to see the new solar addition Tim put on the house.”
Flo was never much of a housekeeper, but she was a genius at making this century-old farmhouse feel like home. We had bought the run-down five-acre place when I was ten, and remodeled it ourselves. Flo had filled it with antiques she’d collected from junk stores before they were called antiques and priced to match. She always had to show us her new finds.
We visited for a while, then went out to say hello to our younger brothers Tim and Terry, whose four-wheel drive pickups were parked further up the driveway. My parents’ place, which sat down in a hollow, had several outbuildings, all painted Swedish red with white trim like the house. The big old barn had been converted to a garage. Next to it was the chicken house surrounded by its chicken-wire pen. On the other side of the garage was the three-stall horse barn on which I’d painted a stylized picture of a horse years ago. Between them was what we called the doghouse, a rectangular structure that was once a container crate. Someone had given it to my father years ago, and he set it on a slab and cut a door in it saying he’d have a place to go when he was in trouble with Flo. Over the years we’d fixed it up into a nice little apartment with electricity and running water and windows. All of us had used it at one time or another to get away from the house. I’d stayed there on summers home from college. For the past several years Tim and Diana had lived there together.
Tim answered the door, a tall, solid figure with a sparse beard and lanky brown hair. “Hey, how the fuck are you?” he said. We passed hugs around. “I’ve got some great pot this year. We’re just drying out a little.” He pointed to the toaster oven. “Smoke a joint?”
Don smiled. This was what he’d been waiting for. Yakima’s hot dry summers are perfect for growing pot. Tim and Terry grew fine pot when it didn’t get harvested prematurely in the middle of the night by one of their delinquent friends. One year they threw seeds around the farm indiscriminately and plants came up everywhere. One or two flourished in the middle of the gravel driveway.
We threw ourselves on the old foldout sofa. Terry passed out beers.
“So, what’s the plan,” I said to Diana. What family events are we signed up for?”
My girlfriends are giving me a shower tomorrow,” she said. “The wedding’s on Saturday. It will be fun, you guys. We’ll have dinner at the grange hall afterward, and Tim’s friend Duane plays in a band. We can all dance. Tim’s been taking dancing lessons.” Diana was a dancer and a ballet teacher. I don’t believe Tim had ever danced in his life or wanted to.
“What are you wearing,” I asked.
Diana waltzed over to the closet and pulled out a plain white dress that was made interesting by the triangular pieces of green hanging like stalactites from the hem. It reminded me of a costume I’d seen in a performance of Peter Pan. “I made it myself,” she beamed.
“It’s beautiful,” Don and I exclaimed in unison. We looked at Tim.
“Bought a suit,” he shrugged.
“It’s very handsome,” said Diana, replacing the dress in the closet and pulling out a blue suit. “We had trouble getting it to fit in the shoulders. He’s so wide.”
Tim sucked at the joint and then smiled sheepishly.
“Now don’t worry,” Diana said, “You’re going to look great.”
“I have to go shopping,” I said.
The next day my mother and I set out to find me a wedding outfit. Together we slogged through the department stores of my hometown, reliving painful memories of past shopping trips. I had never liked girls’ clothes, and could only be induced to wear a style my mother called “tailored.” Absolutely no frills or puckers. She’d understood. She’d never liked frilly clothes either. But she was five three and slender. I was five eight, and until my twenties, decidedly plump. More often than not, when I found the rare piece of clothing that suited me, it didn’t come in my size. This had always mystified me. I knew there were plenty of other big-boned gals like me, but the people who designed clothes hadn’t discovered us yet.
Sears was filled with nothing but polyester. Pants with no pockets and elastic waistbands. Over the years I’d developed a clothing checklist. I preferred natural fibers, and I wouldn’t wear pants if they had no back pockets. “Don’t be silly,” my mother said.
I was indignant. “I intend to wear these pants more than one time,” I reasoned. “Where will I put my wallet?”
At Montgomery Wards I insisted on starting in the men’s department. I liked the color of a greenish suit on the display and convinced the clerk to let me try it on in the men’s dressing room even though I knew what would happen. Those seventies-style men’s pants were not made for my body. In the size that fit comfortably on my thighs, the waist was inches too big. These were not the kind of pants you could cinch up with a wide belt. They were the kind with the self-belt made of the fabric to fit a man’s waist exactly. When I emerged from the dressing room my mother was not impressed. “Oh, Molly,” was all she said. I knew she was right. I felt like a used car salesman.
We arrived at the Bon Marche irritated and frustrated. The Bon Marche is the Macy’s of Yakima, WA—clothes to aspire to. My attention span for shopping had always been short. And we had never shopped at the Bon when I was a kid. It was out of our price range.
I began to sift through racks of Misses slacks while Flo checked to see whether all the suits had skirts. Suddenly there it was. A rack of pants with back pockets. I was so happy it took me a minute to discover that the pockets were only half-pockets, not really big enough for a wallet. Why they do that I’ll never understand. “Fuck, do they think putting regular-sized pockets in would cause us to grow penises?” I asked my mother.
“Why must you use that word,” she scowled. “Try them on.”
The pants did fit me better than the men’s. I actually liked how they looked, even though I was still pissed about the pockets. “I hate giving money to a clothing industry that refuses to meet my needs,” I said. But I was ready to compromise. I knew I’d never find anything better.
My mother returned with a navy polyester jacket, size 12. Women’s jackets are always too tight in the shoulders or too loose around my waist, but this one wasn’t bad. Before I could complain, she said, “I’ll buy you the jacket.”
Later she asked what shoes I’d be wearing. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I brought my Frye boots.”
Flo insisted I come to the shower, even though the boys didn’t have to. It was just as inane as I’d imagined. Diana was obliged to ooh and aah politely over every gift, no matter how useless. My mother had anticipated that I’d come to this heterosexual event empty-handed and resentful, so she’d bought a present from me. I was as surprised as Diana to discover I’d given her a set of wine glasses with their own rack. Flo never said a word about it.
The day of the wedding I was still searching for an appropriate shirt to wear with my new outfit. My father’s closet had always served me well in the past. We’re about the same size and he has short arms for a man. Whenever I’d visit, he’d send me away with several of his old shirts, which I’d wear with tails out over jeans until they began to fray right at the spots where my ample breasts stuck out the farthest. I found a tasteful light blue number with a faint check. I was looking for a tie when Don breezed into the bedroom. He was wearing bright pink pants and a purple jacket, a pink polo shirt and platform shoes. He sashayed over to the dresser, pulled back his flowing hair and began putting dangly earrings in his pierced ears.
Flo was right on his heels, and she closed the door behind her. “Don,” she wheedled, “I don’t ask you for many things, but I’m asking you not to wear those earrings.”
“Flo, stop making such a big deal out of it,” he said in that artificially low voice he uses when he’s annoyed. “I’m wearing the earrings.”
My mother looked like she might cry. I wished I could make her feel better but I was sworn to defend my brother. “I don’t understand why you must make things so hard for me,” she said. She threw up her hands and walked out.
Before the end of the evening when I felt compelled to admonish my drunken father to stop copping feels off the female guests, he had said to me that he thought I looked “sharp” in his shirt and tie.
Later, when we were dancing, I felt the only wardrobe mistake I’d made was not to wear a bra. I hadn’t thought pointy breasts would really go with my outfit, so I wore an undershirt and let the breasts seek their natural level, about halfway to my waist. But jumping around with no support was painful. Don and I were especially popular on the dance floor, in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed by the wedding guests. I never lacked a partner. All the women loved me.
Sisterhood is Powerful. That was my take-home from the 14th Women Building conference. When more than a thousand tradeswomen, supporters, advocates and union brothers convened in Los Angeles May Day weekend, it was by far the largest gathering of female construction workers in the history of our movement. Union tradeswomen of all crafts came together from all over the country and the world to share experiences, strategize, laugh and cry together.
There is nothing like being in a room full of a thousand cheering sisters, and it was a new experience for me, a tradeswoman activist of 40 years. We are a diverse group of women, a rainbow of race, class and ethnicity, all part of the sisterhood. I spoke to many individual women—young members of the California Conservation Corps who drove all the way from Fortuna in Northern California, old timers greeting old friends, students who are working to get jobs in the trades. They all said the best thing about this conference was the camaraderie.
I’ve participated in the Women Building conferences since their beginning in 2002, and many tradeswomen conferences before that. But this conference was qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from past events and I think it portends a new chapter in our Tradeswomen Movement. I think three factors point to a sea change in our movement: first, the sponsorship of the North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU); second, the development of mature leadership at local, state and national levels; and third, the advent of social media and its use by the larger community of tradeswomen.
The NABTU sponsorship was the result of work by the National Women’s Committee, especially Patti Devlin, Debra Chaplan, and Caroline Williams. We now have leaders like these on a national level connected to union presidents and internationals as well as the Task Force on Tradeswomen’s Issues, which brings policy expertise to our movement. I was thrilled by the number of women who stood up when asked who had been elected to a leadership position in their unions. And this year the vast majority of women were sent by their unions to the conference.
A new feature this year was the popular tradeswomen action clinic table. Organizers chose two primary issues that we could weigh in on: restoring federal WANTO funding for tradeswomen organizations, and resisting so-called Right-to-Work legislation in the states. The table was organized by elevator constructor LJ Dolin, Kelly Kupcak from Chicago Women in Trades, and Nicole Aro from the AFL-CIO. It was a great idea and organizers plan to expand it next year with more ties to workshops. The number of participants at the tradeswomen history workshop that I gave with historian Brigid O’Farrell showed us that women are interested in our history and in using what we have learned over the years to forge a new strategy for our movement.
When I got home and started friending folks on Facebook I could see that our community already has been successfully organized by Sisters in the Building Trades’ Melina Harris, who gets kudos for bringing so many women into the electronic media fold. I love that we can kvetch and share our stories instantly on groups like Trade Women Chat. It’s a far cry from our days publishing the quarterly Tradeswomen Magazine with writing, typesetting, layout and bulk mailing tasks taken on by volunteers.
What started as a conference for California tradeswomen (sponsored since 2002 by the California State Building and Construction Trades Council) has now become Women Building the Nation. Next year’s conference will take place in Chicago—the first of these outside of California. We’ve got the dates: April 29-May 1, 2016. It’s an opportunity to expand on existing networks of tradeswomen in the Midwest and to make our movement truly national.
Tradeswomen have long been virtually invisible on the front lines of the Feminist and Civil Rights Movements. We still are the ones who daily confront the most aggressive kind of sexism and racism in our traditionally male jobs. For decades now we have been devising strategies to counter isolation and harassment at work and to increase the numbers of women in the trades. The numbers and enthusiasm at this conference give me hope that we can build a better world for women in the trades. I’m looking forward to the 2025 conference: Women Building the Universe.