First female machinist at the Milwaukee Road Railroad.
Current Home: California
Birth Year: 1937
Many have recommended that I read Sue Doro’s gorgeous book Blue Collar Goodbyes about shop floor life on the Milwaukee Railroad in its final days. I never did until a friend suggested I interview Sue for my Leading Ladies blog series. Now I see what I was missing. She uses prose and poetry to paint a warm and honest portrait of her life as the company’s first and only female machinist. Her earlier book, Hearts, Home and Hard Hats, touches on her previous machinist gigs (including being the first female machinist in the repair department at Allis Chalmers tractor plant). Her latest book, Sugar String, is a gripping account of her childhood with a truly monstrous father who not only abused his daughter but refused to lift a finger or allow Sue to call an ambulance as her mother choked to death in the family home. Sue’s life has had more than its share of hardness, so I wondered if when I talked to her I would find her a hard woman with a hard voice. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. Though she was laid up with a post-operative foot when we spoke, she was lively and warm and as eager to ask me questions as I was to ask her. She now lives in California with her husband Larry. She publishes “Pride and Paycheck” for women in the blue collar trades and is a member of the National Writers Union and Railroad Workers United.
You had the sort of childhood that doesn’t exactly breed self-esteem. Why do you think you had the confidence to go into machining when no other women were doing that?
In the beginning it was for the kids. I had no college education—most girls where I grew up did not go. Raising five kids on a clerical or retail salary wasn’t going to cut it. I was a homemaker, and I did it all. I fixed the roof with my son. I fixed the bicycles, whatever. So it wasn’t such a big jump to go into machining. When I found out the requirements for the MTDA [Manpower Training Development Act] and found out machine shop was an option, I really didn’t hesitate. It wasn’t about self-esteem, just survival. And from there it was a matter of sticking up for myself.
As for my self-esteem, that came when I ran away from my father. It took me three tries, but third time’s a charm. Some kids are able to and some can’t. But I had my grandmother and she was a very kind and nurturing person. I was with her for four or five summers for weeks at a time, so that helped me heal in between everything that happened at home. And I was able to make friends, spend time at their houses. They had normal houses and I could see the difference between their house and mine. Maybe some people would have hidden themselves away, too ashamed. But I always wanted out of the house. But really, I’m not sure why I turned out as stable as I did. I mean, I have my quirks and my moods, but I’m not living on the street or in an institution.
What surprised you most about going into all-male workplaces?
Actually, on my first job, all the guys were really nice. I had no problems there. It wasn’t until I was hired at Allis Chalmers that I was surprised at how bad sexual harassment could be. That was where the guy basically tried to kill me by tampering with my machine. The good thing was that I was in the UAW [United Auto Workers Union], and when you got hired there you got a copy of the union contract. Most guys just threw it in their lunch bucket. But I read it, and I saw where you could file charges against someone for conduct unbecoming of a union member. So that’s what I did. I filed charges for sexual harassment, except we didn’t use that phrase in those days.
I was surprised that the harassment could be so relentless. Day after day after day after day. It didn’t stop. And I tend to trust people. I mean, I didn’t trust my father, but I didn’t think other men were like that. But it did stop because the union made it stop. And it stopped completely. He only had a couple years until retirement and he was terrified of losing his job, so he stayed completely away from me. If the union hadn’t been willing to take care of this situation, I was prepared to file charges against them and against the employer because what good would it have been to go back to school and get this job if I had been dead?
When I was in the trades, the laws did help a bit, but each tradeswoman has to decide for herself whether to use them or speak up, because you don’t know what the repercussions might be. And it’s still the case that most women who leave the trades, it’s because of sexual harassment, not because of the work itself.
You are now working to help other women engage in blue collar fields. What is it like for you to work with almost all women after having been in an almost all-male workforce for so long?
When I came to California, I was hired as executive director of Tradeswoman Inc. That was all women, but it was tradeswomen, so they had the same qualities as the nice guys that I worked with before. Then I went to work for the Department of Labor federal contract compliance division, and that was 50/50 men and women. But it was an office. And I prefer a shop floor to an office any day!
You are a very vocal critic of capitalism. Can you talk about some of your experiences that led you to this criticism?
If you work in any kind of wage-earning job, I think after awhile you see that the people at the top don’t work that hard but are making more money. The way I grew up was that everyone worked. The men got up in the morning every day with their lunch buckets and got on the street car and went to work. But nobody owned their own house, we were all renters. On weekends sometimes we’d take a ride to the lake—Lake Michigan—and there on the shore was block after block of beautiful mansions. My mother liked to see them because she thought they were so pretty. Then we would go back to our small rented flat.
So from little on, this criticism of capitalism grew on me. As bad as my father was, he was a working man and always would talk about “bosses this” or “bosses that.” Then when I got older, I just didn’t know anyone who liked capitalism, but they didn’t call it that. It was unfairness. And I think workers—white collar and blue collar—are a fair bunch. They don’t like to see things that aren’t fair.
My politics then grew in the late 60s and early 70s in anti-war and anti-segregation movements. Milwaukee was still segregated by law in the early 70s. I went to so many demonstrations with my kids. I know there are many good police, but the ones they sent to these demonstrations were like Nazis. I mean, they would beat someone up at the drop of a hat.
I never joined a political organization, though. There were lots of them back them—left political groups. But they were so divided. One didn’t like the other because they let in gays, or this one didn’t like that one because you had to be married to get in, or whatever. My husband Larry plays guitar and I was in a group that did poetry and we would perform for any rally because I saw that all of these groups were doing something good in their own way, in spite of the bickering.
What role did the overall women’s movement play in your ability to train for, obtain, and keep the jobs you had?
The early women’s movement didn’t really get down to women working in low wage jobs. They talked like they did, but they didn’t. Maybe their meetings didn’t have child care, or maybe they held them on Sunday mornings when many blue collar women were at church, but they just didn’t seem to really target these women. I think some of them thought that since women like me would benefit from what they were doing, it was okay [that they didn’t include us]. I’m sure not all of them thought that, but they were caught up in the huge movement they were in.
When I was trying to figure out how to get my divorce, a woman told me about a women’s group that was meeting to give each other support. I went and I got a lot out of it. It really felt like sisterhood. A female lawyer came and told us how to do a pro se divorce and what to expect and that helped a lot. All of that was because of the women’s movement.
I was the first woman in the county to do a pro se divorce—that means you do everything yourself without an attorney. My ex did not want the kids so there wasn’t any custody battle, but I wanted child support. He could have shown up for the court hearing, but he wasn’t contesting it so he didn’t. My appointment was at 10:00. 10:00 came and went, then 11, 12, I had to wait all day. Finally, after everyone else got their divorces they gave me mine last of all. I think, and some other people agree, that they had me go last because they didn’t want anyone else to see that you could do it yourself. Here these other people were paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars to a lawyer.
How did you start to publish?
I always liked reading political poets. I was into Meridel Le Seuer, a Midwest lefty writer many have compared to Tillie Olsen. I started writing to her and when she was on a tour I got her to come to Milwaukee. I knew people at the university who were able to get her a room to give a talk. Her daughter had a publishing house, Midwest Villages and Voices. I had written a book I called Of Birds and Factories. They wanted me to add some poems and change the title and publish it. That became Hearts, Home and Hard Hats. Later, I self-published Blue Collar Goodbyes. Then I got a call from Paper Mache press asking if I cared if they published it. For that edition I replaced the drawings in the first printing with photographs. Bottom Dog Press distributes Sugar String.
Are you working on new books?
Yes, I have two projects. The first is called Shop Rags and it is more poetry about blue collar work. Some of it is older but not published before, and some of it is new. I’ve been told that that’s what people want. I’m happy with Sugar String, but it’s not people think of when they think of me.
My other project is a little different. I love mysteries, especially cozy mysteries. They usually have female characters and they are funny and easy to read. I have a couple stories like that and I’m going to put them together in a chapbook.