How does a woman working amongst hundreds of men remain a woman in her true essence? In a turn of thought, I began this writing headed in one direction and somehow headed a different way. I REALLY intended to criticize women in professions inherently male in their culture. But in doing so, I felt it would be unfair to the standout women I have worked with over the years who I will highlight, such as my worksite’s vice-chair, GiGi.
She is labor representation for about seven hundred union members at my place of employment.
But more important than that, a wife, and a mother to two US Marines. I’ve never heard her curse, or yell, or behave in an unladylike manner. And she gets things done.
In the future I will come back to the discussion about masculine women, but for now, somehow, my hands moved in a Ouija Board manner across my laptop. The flow bought me to a spotlight of women I have worked with through my life and strangely, the cosmos arranged that this should occur during ‘Women’s History Month’.
At one time in the union office at my place of employment hung a poster that read, “If you complimented me when I did right, I would not then rebuke you when you point out my wrong”. With that concept in mind, I extend a compliment.
Ladies, stay ladylike. I have worked a number of blue-collar professions and observed that when in masculine environs, some women absorb male characteristics and behaviors, losing their feminine nature. For the woman in a blue-collar profession, holding her feminine demeanor is a challenging balance to maintain. I speak of the ‘lady’ in the truest sense of that description, the member of the female sorority born a female and groomed to be a lady of grace and manners and class. But in her career, she has within her a calling to be part of a male innovation that mechanically or scientifically builds, supports, or sustains life, through provision of products, services, or security. And they navigate this while simultaneously respecting but staying out of the realm of masculinity.
I know a number of these women, who in their effectiveness never lost their natural feminine identity or inclination to be ladylike. They were women were an asset to the team, without being consumed by the male culture of the team. Never adopting the abrasiveness of blue-collar manner, never picking up the haughtiness of manliness, never changing their outlook to the cynicism of male blue-collar existence. And even soothing male colleagues by highlighting their value from a woman’s perspective.
I attended a trade high school whose student body was about ninety-eight percent male. Aviation High School in Queens in 1980 had about forty female students-in a class of about two thousand. I almost remember every one of those girls, but I’ll highlight one in particular: Sonora, a bright Hispanic girl the color of light coffee, a big smile, a mix of South American and African features, and very down to earth–despite being a ‘bun’ in a roomful of ‘hot dogs’. I remember her in welding class wearing the thick white coveralls that were supposed to stop hot metal from landing on you—and a few hours later at dismissal she would climb out of those overalls wearing a modest white chiffon blouse, tight jeans, and earrings.
Later in life, I became an Army Reservist, in a combat support military police unit. Again, there were a small number of female Soldiers. Three of them stood out because they were in top physical condition and were what we called “Hard Chargers”. All three would engage in the grittiest of training with high levels of motivation, and all three could have been models for Lara Croft, the Tomb Raider. And after two weeks of summer training each would transform into a dignified and attractive woman capable of collecting free drinks at the highest-class bars or lounges. Among them was my lifelong friend and colleague who at the time was Staff Sergeant Francia D., now Dr. Francia H.
She camped in the woods with us, got bitten by ticks with us. When we were deployed to Iraq she lived in a tent with us, and day after day rode into hostile territory with us.
Later I was mentored by the late Command Sergeant Major Deborah J. Wilcox. A consummate professional, CSM Wilcox guided the development of the enlisted members of the battalion without need to show she was tougher than every male in sight. She could bark when needed, but in our one-on-one leadership sessions, she coached me with her gentle southern accent.
Debra lost a fight with illness years ago and has a scholarship fund in her name: Sgt. Major Debra J. Wilcox Scholarship Fund – AnnieRuth Foundation.
My duty took me to an instructor unit, and at the top of my battalion Non-Commissioned Officer support channel was Command Sergeant Major Carol C.
Another solid leader, she was positive, feminine, but could be quite firm when needed (I watched her lock some heels). CSM Carol was committed to the Army ethic, was unmistakably feminine, she never needed to become a man to get her job done.
Still dedicated to her husband in retirement, she lives a quiet God-fearing life in Maryland, I remember how womanly she looked in mess blue uniform with ruffled blouse. Even in the rigidity of the Army, she found a way (within regulations) to stay ladylike. [on r. is COL (Ret.) Phyllis (Ragland) Alford, 9-80 Health Services Battalion].
Most proud am I of my oldest daughter. When she told me of her decision to join the Army, I recommended that she try the United States Navy or Air Force. Those branches can be rough-n-tough, but this man’s Army is exclusively dirt and mud and living in a tent. But, before I knew it she threw herself in, and though I thought it would be too grimy for her, this soft voiced kitten did it. She made it through basic training, and Signals school, and wound up in the Tenth Mountain Division, Fort Drum NY. Above right is her in bivouac performing cold weather warfare training. And she is ALL girl. And now a veteran like me.
In my current employment at New York City Transit, I share the workplace with a fair amount of female co-workers, and though vastly outnumbered by men, they somehow remain women. Some of my female co-workers change hairstyles more frequently than their well-heeled professional peers. Traci and Nikki (L and R), seem like they change ‘do’s every four days. Traci on the left is quite even tempered, and I’ve never heard her speak with a salty tongue. Nikki on the right always smiles and again, no salty speech leaves her mouth (I’ve never heard it). These two along with most of the ladies have no desire to emulate the traits of men (Nods to Danielle, Miriam, Charita, Katrina, Aida and a few more). Some keep themselves in good physical condition, and a surprising amount broadened their world perceptions by purchasing one or both of my books.
Unfortunately, there are some, who curse rather liberally, and a few are emotionally explosive. Sadly, a few more seem to have given up on femininity. But I will attribute those to the challenges of a world gone mad. And really, I began this piece of writing intending to question those women. But I became consumed with a calling to be positive, and instead I want to point the spotlight at those I feel get it right.
For a few years I worked at New York City Department of Correction, and there were a number of standout female officers; but, in the harshness of a jail, most had become men in women’s skin. The necessity for boldness and the minute-by-minute potential for violence had wiped away their feminine side, such that even when not on facility property they were still overly aggressive and at times downright nasty. Their demeanor was unattractive, and I describe most of them as unladylike. They had done what they had to psychologically to survive in their profession, but they had been transformed completely, in a way that no woman should.
Even when at social events or holiday parties, hair ‘done up’ and wearing gowns, they could be heard loudly telling jail stories and cursing. Their mannerisms and interactions were like men in a bar watching football, and some were even physically belligerent in public. Ultimately, they are what they are, but the question remains, is that what they set out to be?
Yes, I still see gender in through a binary lens.
And I will continue to articulate what I see as an unwise movement that seeks respect in disrupting the natural order, and converting beautiful women into gruff men. That movement is opposed to excelling in its role as part of the natural order, that being women, wives, mothers.
Yet, I am still amazed at the care with which most of my female co-workers present themselves to the world each morning. And most of these female counterparts are polite, and smile (Nahima, Sapphire, Tiffany), and unless pushed unfairly are gentle and caring creatures (Charita, Aida). And they throw good parties.
There are more, and I have undoubtedly made enemies by unintentionally leaving some out, I hope they don’t become . . . unladylike over it . . .