For a brief period, I worked part-time as a telephone operator in San Francisco and attended college in Berkeley. And also for a brief period, I was on strike at both places. As a card-carrying member of the Communication Workers of America, I was obligated to walk out when it was time to go on strike. The rank and file had voted to go out, and I was as rank and file as it got. The moment before we walked out of the building, our union steward stood up, unplugged her headset from the console and announced that the strike was starting. This was something we hadn’t been trained in, so it was a little awkward for those of us in the middle of a call. “Sorry sir, but the operators are going on strike.Would you like to try your call again later?”
The strike lasted long enough to hurt those of us part-timers who weren’t making that much money anyway, but we all felt the pinch. The strike got settled before my turn to walk the picket line, but that was OK because we were still striking on campus. In those days– the late 1960’s– it seemed as though going on strike was a rite of spring.
My classes met off campus for the duration, which is why my Sociology of Women group met in a sorority house. The irony did not go unnoticed, but it was the only place available for us to meet.
Besides going on strike in both places, which resulted in nothing positive as far as I could tell, my two worlds collided in curious ways. At the phone company, I sat next to women my age or not much older who were married to guys in the military. Their husbands were fighting in Vietnam while these very young wives lived alone, worked, kept up the house, took care of the car, called the refrigerator repairman, shopped, cooked, and tried to stay sane. I got to be good friends with a couple of these women, and learned about the struggles they faced trying to be competent, but not too competent, so that the husbands wouldn’t get the feeling that their wives were totally self-sufficient. One woman told us what the Army told her before her brief visit with her husband for R&R: no trouble, no arguments, no nagging. Shortly after she got back, she got a letter from her husband saying he wanted a divorce. We all rallied around her at work, and he eventually came to his senses. She’d gone so far and tried so hard, but they got into a fight about changing the oil in the car or some damn thing.
Another phone company friend, from a small town in Texas, was given strict instructions from her husband: she could not go out at night, she was not to associate with any “hippies” while living in San Francisco, and she must sleep with a gun under her pillow for protection. I wished she had told me about that last one before she invited me to sleep over one night after work. She violated all his rules at once. I didn’t get much sleep that night, knowing that a sudden noise might make her jumpy and that gun was right there within easy reach.
During the war, all eligible young men received a draft number in a lottery based on their date of birth. The day the numbers came out, I rushed out on my break to look at the newspaper. I ran my finger down the column until I got to my boyfriend’s birthday in June.His number was high–356–which meant he was unlikely to be drafted. While I was happy– more than happy–to learn this news, I was careful not to make a big deal out of it around my friends at work. Their husbands were risking their lives in a war I had protested against. But were friends–so I supported them.
It was a hard line to walk.
Do you ever wonder what happened to those women at the telephone company that you came to know a little about? What became of them? How their lives turned out? I’ll bet at least one achieved something to be proud of and another stumbled into some deep abyss.
Yes. those were fine lines to walk.
Thank you — I was a bit behind you, but I remember this well.